Pasco County's talented, athletic football players, for some college football coaches, are a treasure trove others overlook, or, even worse, just flat-out don't want.
“For me, (Pasco County is) definitely a hidden treasure,” said John Reiners, coach of Black Hills State University, a Division II program in Spearfish, S.D., that after the 2012 season added four Pasco County players to its roster. “I wish I could keep it hidden because I'll be back for more players.”
College football programs, at any level, from junior college to Division I, are always in demand for new players, and the supply in Pasco is there, flush with talent in many shapes and sizes.
However, many coaches don't realize it.
“A lot of times, they're afraid to be the first to step off the boat, so they stay in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties,” said Pasco football coach Tom McHugh, who, easily, stocks the most Division-I talent to offer college coaches. “Once a coach pulls the trigger on a kid, then others show up, but when they can go to Plant, Armwood, Middleton, TBT and offer one guy they're looking for, why would they come to Dade City and offer the same guy?
“Even USF, which is just 25 miles away, will barely come out. And it's not just our guys, but players at Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel aren't even getting sniffed, and we have guys breaking records and they're smart with great GPAs, so it is what it is, but its also a shame that some of these kids aren't being noticed.”
There are theories why coaches don't make it to Pasco County to scout the 14 high schools with FHSAA football teams. Ricky Sailor, founder and executive director of Unsigned Preps, a recruiting service for high school athletes, has a good one besides many of the coaches never hearing of school's such as Sunlake, Fivay or Anclote (though that is another reason).
“The airport's not nearby,” Sailor said flatly. “Coaches can make the swing from Hillsborough to Pinellas and skip Pasco, and those counties produce more recruits. Schools in Pasco have guys that are talented, but those same kids can be found in Hillsborough, so the coaches figure, why make the trip away from the airport?”
Sailor admits the upsurge of recruiting camps and fairs have helped players tucked away in Pasco, even in Hernando County, as well. But now, smaller colleges, such as Stetson, which just restarted is football program, or Jacksonville University or Webber International or Valdosta State, are starting to take advantage of the talent supply left on Pasco's shelves.
“Imagine if Saint Leo had a football program,” Anclote coach Matt Wicks said. “They might win multiple championships with mostly kids from Pasco County. Thing is, it's hard, a lot of times, for a Florida kid to move to Montana or South Dakota or where it snows. But they have their chances out there to get good education and play college football and even for a smaller championship.
“In Pasco, there are not many blue-chip kids. Even if you're a starter in high school, you may not play college football, but there could be a program out there for you. Some coaches have to do the leg work and have D-II and D-III connections, which is where I try to send my kids, if they have the opportunity.
“Who wouldn't want to play at Nebraska or someplace like that? But they have to have a reality check, know the expectations are high and be realistic.”
Reiners has a pipeline, thanks to his brother, Joe, being an assistant at Anclote. That's part of the reason John Reiners pulled in the Sharks' Terrell Martin and Kyle King, but by just exploring the rest of the county, and the word of mouth from coaches like his brother, found other gems, such as Sunlake's Eddie Burgos and Pasco's Jajuan Henry.
“I think if you're just honest with a kid, you'll pull in at least one,” Reiners said. “Kids just want an opportunity to play and, a lot of times, they don't care where, but just a chance to play college ball and be treated right.”
Fivay, a school just entering its third year of varsity football, has seen its players reap the benefits of smaller college coaches finding the bargains offered Pasco County. In fact, this past year, coach Chris Taylor sent a flock of Falcons — Andrew Meyer, Tyler Degen and Michael Faulkner — to Campbellsville University, an NAIA program in Kentucky.
However, for smaller programs, such as Black Hills or Campbellsville, it has to be one-stop shopping due to budget restraints. Obviously, these programs are not going to have unlimited funds such as Florida or Ohio State or other upper echelon programs, and even then, Division II programs and lower don't usually offer full scholarships.
“Most players can find a place to play,” Taylor said, “but one of the big things is always money. Sending kids out of state, they need financial aid or grants, and some of these schools only give a total of $30-40,000 and some NAIA programs need athletic money. So these schools are looking more at test scores and GPAs, and that's the real fit for them.”
And though it's happening slowly, those players once hidden in Pasco County, are now becoming the great finds.
“A lot of talent is overlooked in Pasco County,” Sailor said. “Is there Division I talent in Pasco? Of course, we've seen it, but that's more of being few and far in between because there's less schools in Pasco. The players are there and I think more and more coaches are finally starting to see that enough to go to Pasco County.”