December 16, 2011

South of the border

The Tazon de Estrellas features a team of Division III all-stars.
Tazon de Estrellas photo

A group of 53 D-III college seniors currently enjoying the sunny climate of Mexico’s Free and Sovereign State Puebla thought their exit from the playoffs or last game of the regular season was the final time they would strap on the pads and helmet.

Then, as the realization that competitive football was suddenly and abruptly in their past, an invitation arrived to play in one more game south of the border.

On Saturday, standouts from 28 schools will fire up that competitive spirit once again to compete in the Tazón de Estrellas (Bowl of the Stars) in Puebla as members of Team Stars & Stripes. Some might well follow in the footsteps of the game’s alumni from its time as the Aztec Bowl and emulate the likes of London Fletcher, Fred Jackson and Jason Trusnik in heading to the NFL. But for the majority, this will be an enjoyable and memorable way to bring down the curtain on their football career.

Team Stars & Stripes is an eclectic touring all-star concept developed by Patrick Steenberge, President of Global Football, who played his college ball at Notre Dame in the early seventies. The team has lent its name to high school all-star groups heading overseas to Japan, France, Germany and Belgium and for the past three years to the American roster that travels to Mexico for the Tazón de Estrellas. Steenberge orchestrated the former Aztec Bowl in Mexico for 11 years and revived the game in 2009.

“Each year I get to travel with teams to different countries, but this is the very best annual trip and game,” said Steenberge, who organized the first-ever game of college football on African soil earlier this year, taking the number of countries on which he has produced events to 19.

“The U.S. coaches know how to make sure the players enjoy this wonderful end to their football careers with an opportunity to relax off the field, while also focusing on the game against a very competitive and determined Mexican team.”

When the Americans have finished visiting the active Popocatepetl ‘Popo’ volcano and sightseeing in Puebla, they will face that determined Mexican team drawn from the CONADEIP conference of private universities that includes the powerhouse Monterrey Tec program. The schools broke away from the Mexican equivalent of the NCAA two years ago and now claim the highest standard of football on offer in Mexico.

While Team Stars & Stripes is again led by 2011 College Hall of Fame inductee Bill Manlove, the CONADEIP All-Stars, whose head coach rotates annually, are also coached by an American. University of the Americas Puebla (UDLAP) head coach Eric Fisher has compiled a 23-8 record with the Aztecs and was named 2010 coach of the year as his team lifted the CONADEIP championship.

“I truly expect the game to be very competitive,” said Fisher. “There is a lot of talent here in Mexico and we are playing at a very high level. The game should be intense, cleanly played and really tight. This is a great opportunity for our kids in Mexico to show that we can compete at the D-III level and that we play high quality football.”

To put his team’s ability in perspective, a CONADEIP All-Stars team, featuring 16 players on the current roster, lost 17-7 to Drake University in the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl game played in Africa in May, having held the lead until the fourth quarter.

Manlove draws on players from 28 schools: Amherst (2), Augustana (4), California Lutheran (1), Capital (1) Castleton State (1), Central (6), Centre (1), Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (2), Cornell (1), Dickinson (1), Fitchburg State (1), Grinnell (2), Grove City (1), Hanover (2), John Carroll (2), Loras (2), Ohio Northern (2), Rockford (1), Rose-Hulman (1), Simpson (5), St. Vincent (4), Susquehanna (1), Thomas More (2), Trinity, Texas (1), UW-Stevens Point (2), Wartburg (2), Willamette (1) and Wooster (1).

Quarterbacks David Lee of Augustana, Aaron Smetanka from Saint Vincent and Dan Stiefel of Wartburg will share snaps under center and are surrounded by an array of all-conference award winners as teammates.

But all-star teams bring challenges when it comes to personnel.

Regis Scafe, the team’s defensive backs coach, from John Carroll, is a veteran of the Tazón de Estrellas and when practices began this week with only one true corner at his disposal out of nine defensive backs, he had to adjust.

“We have asked a few guys to move to corner and they have done a great job of converting,” explained Scafe. “They are all good athletes that get to the ball well and look pretty physical. We are trying to see what they can do and so far the corners have been able to handle all of the coverages we’ve thrown at them. So we are optimistic that they will be strong on Saturday.”

The American D-III all-stars have been on the UDLAP campus since Monday, practicing twice a day in preparation for their final showdown at the intimidating and appropriately named 5,000-seat El Tempo del Dolor (The Temple of Pain) in Puebla. Kickoff is at 1.30 p.m. Central on Saturday, Dec. 17, and the contest will be shown on a live webcast on www.GlobalFootball.com.

“It is a great opportunity and is something you will always remember,” said Fred Jackson, whose stellar 2011 NFL season with the Buffalo Bills was cut short by injury. “The number one thing I remember was how crazy the crowd was and it being a bunch of college guys down in Mexico. There is always going to be great camaraderie with that.”

Jackson won MVP honors during his foray into Mexico in 2002 as he tore off a 60-yard touchdown run in a 15-9 victory over the Mexicans. Last year Team Stars and Stripes triumphed 48-7 in Toluca, having suffered a 24-12 loss to the Tec Monterrey All-Stars in the first Tazón de Estrellas in 2009.

So for the 2011 edition, the Americans will aim to extend their winning streak, and perhaps for some, like Jackson, Fletcher and Trusnik before them, this might not be the last time they see action on the gridiron.

Follow the game at www.facebook.com/tazondeestrellas and at Twitter @GlobalSportsGuy.

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