Six East Valley athletes competed in the inaugural Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Tuesday at Chase Field, and came away impressed.
"Everything worked out really good," said Saguaro running back D.J. Foster, the Tribune's Player of the Year. "I was really happy to be a part of this, especially it being the first one ever. I can say 20 years from now I was a part of the first one, and we won."
Foster joined Jaxon Hood (Hamilton), Avery Moss (Corona del Sol), Javon Williams (Chandler), Zach Hemmila (Chandler) and Rey Higuera (Perry) as the East Valley contingent. All but Higuera were on the West team, which captured a 17-14 victory.
The organizers ran the event well, and the professional atmosphere should lead to solid reviews leading into next year's game. However, it will be interesting to see if this game can make a run at the Under Armour and Army All-American games, both of which are more prestigious.
"It was a good start," Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. "(The other two) have got a few years on them, but (the Semper Fi game) is going to get better and better as it goes. There's no question about it."
There were some wrinkles that need to be ironed out.
The kids were kept busy during the week leading up to the game, but probably too busy. They marched in the Fiesta Bowl parade and were shuttled to various other activities.
The second half of the game was played with a running clock because it was taking too long for the allotted TV time slot.
"We felt some growing pains this week, but I fully believe this can be the biggest and best All-American game in the country," former Saguaro coach John Sanders said.
The true test will come when the top local players choose their All-American bowl game destinations. This year, Chaparral's Connor Brewer and Davonte Neal, and Corona del Sol's Andrus Peat accepted invitations to the Under Armour game, which was played on Thursday night on ESPN. The Army game will be played on Saturday on NBC.
Foster, the other player among the top four recruits in Arizona, wasn't invited to either one, which is why he played in the Semper Fidelis game.
"Army didn't take me," Foster said. "Army sent me a letter back saying, ‘We're full', or something. I don't know what happened with Under Armour. I never really heard back from them. Coach Sanders thought this would be a good opportunity for me and it would be a fun experience for him to coach."
Marcos de Niza's Priest Willis and Peoria Centennial's Marcus Farria have both been extended invitations to next year's Semper Fidelis game. If either of them choose this game over invitations to Under Armour or Army, it will be significant, because at that point the bowl game could be considered to be on near-equal footing.
But Under Armour and Army have been around longer and have built-in advantages. Army is the most well known, while Under Armour's location (Orlando) is top-notch.
"Under Armour has a huge advantage being at Disney World," Belles said.
It remains to be seen if the Semper Fi bowl can reach the same level as the other two bowls, but even if it doesn't, the players aren't complaining. The game garnered publicity, and Hamilton defensive tackle Jaxon Hood practiced so well that he may get a recruiting rankings bump for his performance.
"It was great," Hood said. "It's fun playing with a bunch of good kids. Everyone's got the common interest of being serious about football and it's a great time."