FOXBOROUGH -- Coach John Sousa was a running back short when his South All-Star squad started practicing for Friday night's 32nd annual Shriners All-Star Classic some two weeks ago, courtesy of a no-show.
His best option was a defensive lineman. And as it turns out, that was a pretty viable decision.
Catholic Memorial's Keshaudas Spence was on the roster for his bullish style as a defensive tackle, not the scarce carries he took on offense. But the 5-foot-11, 230-pounder came up big for the South squad, carrying 13 times for 82 yards and the winning score early in the fourth quarter to take home offensive MVP honors.
The South beat the North 13-6 to make it six straight in the series, which was held for the first time at Gillette Stadium.
"Spence was big tonight. They couldn't tackle him," Sousa said. "We converted him to a fullback, and he said to me, 'Coach, whatever you want me to do.' That's the type of attitude these kids had."
Whitman-Hanson's Kyle Daigneault set up the winning drive in the fourth when he blocked a North field goal attempt, bursting through the right side and slapping it with both hands. Millis' John Duffy scooped up the loose ball and marched it 30 yards out to midfield.
From there, Spence picked up the bulk of the yardage, dodging and bulling for 25 of the 50 yards on the drive, including his plunge around the right pylon from four yards out with 10 minutes to go in the game. The point after kick was blocked.
"Coach always tells me to run up the middle, but I'm an elusive guy -- I know I might not look like it," Spence said with a smile. "But I always like to bounce outside. The hole was clogged up, so I figured I'd bounce it outside, chew up a little guy and bust it in."
Was it reminiscent of his days running behind CM alum and current North Carolina tackle Brennan Williams?
"Oh my God, he's not gonna believe this when I tell him," Spence laughed.
The South defense, led by defensive MVP Kevin Soule of Medfield, was able to stall the North offense at midfield on the ensuing possession, punctuated with a sweeping Miguel Ortiz stop of Gloucester's Connor Ressel on fourth down.
Sousa went home happy from Gillette on Friday after coming ever so close in his swan song as head coach at East Boston last December. His Jets lost to Whittier, 14-12, in the Division 3 Super Bowl, finishing his career at Eastie 120-45 over 15 seasons, with two Super Bowl victories.
Sousa said Friday night was "an absolute blast. I had the time of my life with these kids."
His son John, 24, was on the sideline in an Eastie shirt (he's an assistant with the Jets) and amplified those sentiments.
"He's in his glory right now. He's glowing tonight, I love to see him like this," the younger Sousa said after the game. "He's very passionate about what he does. His whole entire life, he's dedicated himself to nothing but the students of East Boston High. It's all about the kids for him. This is where he shines, this is his whole life."
The South's first strike came in the final minutes of the second quarter, with Natick's Scott McCummings (4 of 8, 46 yards, three carries, 41 yards) finding teammate Robbie Jackson with a 17-yard fade in double coverage at the near left pylon.
Just like they'd drawn it up so many times during the high school season.
"Coach called it fade to Robbie," McCummings said. "We changed the play around just to get him open."
On the opposite sideline, Derek Papagianopolous left his final football game with some hardware.
The BB&N standout was named offensive MVP for the North side after scoring its lone touchdown on a 12-yard run in the second quarter.
With eight carries for 37 yards, Papagianopolous closed out his football career. The Knights' all-time leading rusher will wrestle at the University of Virginia.
But the All-American grappler put a positive spin on his final go-round.
"It's kind of sad," Papagianopolous said. "I didn't want to end it on a loss, but the real winners are the Shriners. They raise so much money for a great cause. I met a lot of great guys. It was a really great time."
Part of the fun for Papagianopolous was being in the same backfield with Gloucester's Conor Ressel, who rushed for 75 yards on 18 carries.
After all, playing in the same Wing-T offense that North coach Paul Ingram employs in the Fishermen's offense provides plenty of opportunities to run the ball with gusto. And with a pair of talented, bruising backs like Papagianopolous and Ressel in the backfield, there were plenty of hits being doled out on South defenders.
"[Ressel] is a hard, physical runner," said Ingram, who guided Gloucester to its second Super Bowl championship in the last three years in 2009. "But he has a lot of other skills, too. There are some times that you have kids that have a lot of skills and they're not real tough, but he's the whole package. He's bruising and he makes big plays."
Meanwhile, Ressel was sad to say goodbye to a coach who meant so much to him.
"He's a great coach and he supported me throughout my high school career," Ressel said of Ingram. "I would've liked to end it with a win because I know he's just as competitive as I am. But it was a real great experience for me to play for him. He really opened up football to me. He's one of the only reasons why I play."