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National Signing Day: A busy day for athletes

With more than 100 area athletes signing national letters-of-intent today, the Tribune is attending many of them to give you a sampling of the atmosphere at these events:

Plant High, 7 p.m.

TAMPA -- Once again, Plant High had one of the area’s top classes to sign national letters of intent on Wednesday, though three of the Panther signees were already attending their respective universities.

Linebacker Andrew Beck is enrolled at the University of Texas, wide receiver/defensive back Austin Hudson is at Wisconsin and offensive lineman Ray Raulerson is at the Universiity of Tennessee.

The athletes who did sign at Plant on Wednesday, included Colby Brown (Eastern Illinois), Richard Bush (Princeton), Alex “Buda” Jackson (Georgia Military College), Bernard Rogers (Toledo) and Mazzi Wilkins (South Florida).

Plant, which went finished last season in the Class 8A state semifinals at 11-2-1 , has had one of the biggest signing classes every year since 2006 when it won the first of its four state football titles.

Three Plant girls soccer players also signed letters of intent: Nastasia Asgedom signed with Virginia Tech, Kendall Harmon with Stetson and Abby Sanchez with Eckerd College.

-- Scott Purks

Cambridge Christian, 4 p.m.:

Madison Cox’s signing Wednesday afternoon wasn’t just about her playing soccer at the University of Tampa, but also to be a part of the Spartans’ track and field team. The senior signed with the University of Tampa in Cambridge Christian’s cafeteria with family, friends and former coaches on hand.

“It feels good to sign after all this time trying to decide what college I was going to pick,” Cox said. “I’m finally signed with UT and I’m really happy that I’ll be going there for the next four school years. All my friends, family, former coaches came out today and it really meant a lot to me.”

Cox mentioned one of the biggest reasons she chose UT was to stay close to home. Cox had a strong senior campaign, scoring 23 goals off 51 shots. She had seven assists and had 53 points overall through 15 games in leading the Lancers to a 10-4-3 record.

— Andy Villamarzo

Tampa Prep, 3:45 p.m.:

Tampa Prep senior Abby Bravo said a bad recruiting visit after her junior season almost caused her to give up on the idea of playing soccer at the college level. The Terrapins defender said she wasn’t sure she wanted to take that next step after the visit after seeing the pressure the program put on its players. However, once her senior season at Tampa Prep approached, the senior decided to take another shot at the recruiting process and found a home at Florida Southern.

“I went on an official visit to a Division I program and I thought it was really too intense and it wasn’t what I wanted,” Bravo said. “But once the high school season started back up I realized how much I missed it.”

— Jarrett Guthrie

Sickles, 3:15 p.m.:

Sickles made history. At least, its football team did.

The Gryphons, after reaching the program’s first region final, sent four football players to Division I programs and even a fifth football player, too.

“That’s a first for us,” coach Brian Turner said.

Sickles saw Josh Black and Zach Hudson, Turner’s nephew, stay local and sign with USF, while Chet LeVay and Devin Santana stayed in state and signed with FIU and FAU, respectively. Louis Mercado also signed with Bethel College.

Additionally, girls soccer player Jada Humpheries (Polk State) and Brianna Hamson (Stetson) and volleyball player Lauryn Nelson (Eckerd College) also signed.

Black was a late addition to USF 2014 recruiting class, as Black said he talked with coach Willie Taggart late last week and opted to stay in town.

“They really convinced USF was the place for me,” Black said.

As for LeVay and Santana, two former teammates can become rivals, as the Panthers and Owls play each other annually.

“(Sanata) is a great athlete and I’m really looking forward to playing him,” LeVay said. “It’s going to be great to see him once a year.”

LeVay added he chose FIU because of the way they use tight ends in the offense, from blocking, to catching, even lining up in the back field.

“That’s what really sold me: how tight ends mattered in the offense,” LeVay added. “As a tight end, it was just perfect for me.”

— Mike Camunas

Tampa catholic, 2:30 p.m.:

When Tampa Catholic offensive lineman Corey Martinez was 8-years-old, he started wearing Florida State University hats, shirts and jerseys and since that time he’s never wavered from his love for the Seminoles.

Wednesday afternoon, he wore a brand new FSU hat and one of the biggest smiles he’s ever had on his face.

“It feels great to make it official,” Martinez said after signing his letter of intent with the Seminoles. “It’s exciting to not only be going to a great school, but also because (the Seminoles are the reigning national champions).”

Martinez was the only player to sign at TC.

Crusader athlete TJ Harrell signed his letter of intent with Michigan State University in Arlington, Texas where he is practicing for this week’s International Bowl, a feature game for high school stars. Harrell had his choices narrowed down to MSU, Texas and Louisville before choosing the Spartans.

Tre Watson signed his letter of intent with Illinois at an off-campus site.

— Scott Purks

Strawberry Crest, 2:15 p.m.:

Ben Welsh is used to overcoming the odds. In the third grade, Welsh had a severe case of MRSA that carried the possibility of death and almost forced doctors to amputate his leg. Welsh was told in his sophomore year by head coach Eric Beattie there was a good chance he would not make varsity.

The odds were no match for Welsh on Wednesday as he signed his letter of intent to play for Oglethorpe University, a Division III school in Atlanta.

“When I was nine years old, the chance of never playing baseball again was a real possibility. Having gone through (the MRSA), it makes everyday you play that much better,” Welsh said.

Welsh was joined in his scholarship signing by Charger football players Cody Nulph and Alex Carswell. Nulph was a three-year starter on the offensive line and will be attending Stetson. Carswell was a two-year starter on the defense and will be attending Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

— Ben Henderson

Freedom, 1:30 p.m.:

Typically, it’s the school that recruits the player. For freedom swimmer Marc Berson, it was the other way around.

Berson reached out to the coaches at Bowdoin College, a nationally renowned liberal arts and science College in Brunswick, Maine, that competes at the Division III level.

“I contacted them and they responded,” he said.

Berson took a visit to the campus and immediately knew it was where he wanted to attend college.

Berson won nine district championship titles and was named Western Conference champion in two individual events. Berson holds five school records and plans to compete in either the 200-meter fly or 200 IM.

Berson is ranked No. 1 in his graduating class with a grade-point average over 8.0. He plans to study international relations.

He was joined Wednesday by classmates Hanna Seybold (Robert Morris, soccer), Dillon Browne (Air Force Academy, football), Jason Canada (Florida Atlantic University, football), Dana Jones (Wilmington University, soccer), Andrew Anderson (Northeastern Junior College, baseball) and Dejohntae Grant (Warner University, football)

— Nick Williams

Chamberlain, 1:30 p.m.:

It was the first national signing day as a head coach for Chamberlain’s Cam Jones, and he said it was, “Very rewarding.”

“It completes the whole process for your first year,” Jones said. “I’ve learned that a whole lot of work and preparation goes on behind the scenes for a head coach. Today makes it that much more rewarding. I feel so confident that these young men will go on and have successful lives.”

Jones’s first class of signees included linebacker Anthony Davis (Toledo), and lineman Dajshon Oliver and James Aaron Martin (Warner University).

For Davis, it was the end of a long series of considerations through the season.

“I visited Toledo (a couple of weeks ago) and I liked the fact it was a family environment,” Davis said. “Toledo stayed loyal to me (through last season) and when I went up there I knew it was right for me.”

— Scott Purks

Land O’ Lakes, 1 p.m.:

It was a packed house as Land O’ Lakes had a record-number 13 signees for National Signing Day.

In all, football players Shaheed Salmon, (Samford), Darius Wells (Benedict College), Deionté Strozier (Benedict College) and Liam Heaney (Black Hills State), swimmer Jocelyn Williams (FAU), track star Hallie Grimes (UNF), cross country stars Travis Nichols (UNF), Tyler Stahl (UNF) and Jake Poore (Tampa), softball standouts Sierra Holt (Warner University) and Nicole Urban (Warner University) and girls soccer players Catherine Gray (Concordia College) and Brooke Silvest (Eckerd College) signed in the school’s culinary dining room.

Salmon, who led the Gators defense with 117 tackles and 8.5 sacks, changed his mind twice, first committing to Central Arkansas and then Jacksonville before finally getting an offer from Samford.

“One was too far and the other had had some problems, but I got the Samford offer a few nights ago and they had one guy who had just given a soft offer,” Salmon said. “I’m excited to go there and join (Pasco signee) Malik (Johns). We’ve know each other for a while and he didn’t use to like me, but I guess he’s going to have to now (laughs).”

Heaney joins fellow Pasco County standout players, such as Eddie Burgos, at Black Hill State in Spearfish, S.D., where the coach, Joe Reiners, is the brother of Anclote assistant John Reiners.

“That was one of the big things I liked, knowing guys there and all the players are really nice and great, too,” said Heaney, who led the Gators with 690 receiving yards and six touchdown catches at tight end. “Joe (Reiners) is a great coach and their facilities are really great. It was just a great fit for me.”

The Gators top two cross country runners, Stahl and Nichols, will continue to be teammates, as both of the county’s top runners are headed to North Florida, where they’ll continue to be best friends and become roommates.

“We’re always together,” Nichols said. “We’ve know each other since middle school, been running together that long, so we’re excited to keep doing it.”

“I had an offer and committed a few days before (Travis), but it would be weird to run next year with him after running together for so long,” Stahl said. “

— Mike Camunas

Hillsborough, 11 a.m.:

A venue change was needed for the signing of three Hillsborough High athletes as football players Frank Carter III and Christian Flores, and baseball player Diamond Johnson – seated with pens in hand, were moved from a small office to a bigger room outside the school’s auditorium to accommodate family and friends.

However, change was something familiar for Carter as the senior found himself in a rush in the last few months after a coaching change at the University of Massachusetts meant his offer was pulled late in the process after he committed in July. Carter said he was relieved moments after signing his name on his letter-of-intent to Jackson State, knowing he has a home for the next few years.

“I was relieved to finally make this decision,” Carter said. “Coach (Earl) Garcia believed in me from the very beginning. I’d never played football before my freshman year, and after that first year he came to me and said ‘I want you to start for me next year,’ and that really meant a lot that he thought of me like that.”

Flores, a versatile, 212-pound athlete who played on both the offensive and defensive line, committed to NAIA program Webber International, while the speedy outfielder, Johnson signed with St. Petersburg College.

Flores had 58 tackles and 4 ½ sacks in his senior season for the 7-3 Terriers and earned praise from Garcia for his willingness to do whatever his coaches needed him to do, including playing on the line against players who were sometimes 100 pounds heavier than him.

Johnson will again serve as the Terriers leadoff hitter after scoring 25 runs and adding 21 stolen bases in his junior season. The Terriers open the baseball season at home against Gaither next Friday.

— Jarrett Guthrie

Pasco, 11 a.m.:

A coaching change didn’t phase R.J. Scaife.

That’s because his recruiter became the new head coach at Western Kentucky and that was just an added bonus for the 6-foot-6, 260-pound offensive lineman to stick with the Hilltoppers.

“Coach (Jeff) Brohm was the one who recruited me and came to my house, so I was very happy when he became the head coach,” Scaife said. “And everything was very family-orientated, which is what I’m used to here at Pasco, so it’s been just a perfect for me.”

Scaife was part of the 7-4 Pirates and led the offensive line that helped fellow senior and Samford signee Malik Johns rack up 1,473 total offensive yards and 21 offensive touchdowns.

Johns announced his decision to sign with Samford, which is in Birmingham, Ala., on Christmas Day and opted to sign with the Bulldogs because they would allow him to play baseball, as well.

Joining Scaife and Johns for Pasco was fellow football player Ajee Carr, who signed with Huntingdon College, and track star Alahon Marbra, who signed with Nebraska-Kearney.

— Mike Camunas

Gaither, 10:30 a.m.:

Gaither football coach Jason Stokes fielded nervous texts Tuesday night about signing day from his players wondering if he could help tie their tie or loan a belt, but all went well as four Cowboys signed up to play football.

Amani Oruwariye, originally committed to coach James Franklin at Vanderbilt, followed Franklin to Penn State while three of his teammates signed to play at Warner University in Lake Wales. A fifth Cowboy, Alex McGough, enrolled early and is in classes at FIU.

“It’s a big weight off my shoulders that I can just focus on academics and training,” Oruwariye said. “All the support I’ve had from my community, my friends and family has been unbelievable.”

— Michael Manganello

Armwood, 10 a.m.:

For the entire 2013 season, Kyle Gibson knew where he was going to play college football. Then about two weeks ago, he had to search.

Gbson, a four-star prospect, committed to Vanderbilt during the summer, but when head coach James Franklin left Vanderbilt for the head coaching job at Penn State, Gibson reopened his recruitment. He decided on Central Florida, which upset No. 5 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

“UCF, I felt like it was the best place for me, even after everything happened,” said Gibson, whose first offer came from the Knights. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m thankful it all happened.”

Gibson was one of four members of Armwood’s 2013 Class 6A state runner-up team to sign, joined by Thomas Bartley (Alabama State), Hyriam Frederick (Alabama State) and Craig Carrington (Stetson).

— Nick Williams

Tampa Bay Tech, 9:30 a.m.:

Tuesday afternoon, Tampa Bay Tech running back Deon Thompson said he was sitting in his computer lab class, still questioning his future football plans when his phone rang. The Titans senior, who rushed for 836 yards last season and scored 14 touchdowns, said until the call – from the South Florida coaching staff – he was weighing his options about playing at the junior college level.

“It almost came down to nothing and I wasn’t sure today was going to happen for me,” Thompson said. “They called me during eighth period yesterday (Tuesday) and said, ‘I hope you’re ready.’”

Thompson was one of five Titans football players who made college commitments in the school’s library Wednesday, with athlete Tajee Fullwood also committing to USF, attending the USA Football International Bowl in Arlington, Texas.

Linebacker Fred Russ signed at Florida International, while three players – cornerback Justin Cobb, wide receiver and corner Donzell Polite and linebacker Micah Tucker committed to Division II University of Charleston in West Virginia.

Russ, who led the 6-4 Titans with 109 tackles last season and added 5 ½ sacks, said the day was “the perfect ending” to his football career at TBT.

“My experience here at Tech has been great, since day one here every person treated me like a brother,” Russ said. “I have a passion so big for the game that I feel like I have to express it everywhere I go.”

— Jarrett Guthrie

Jefferson, 9:30 a.m.:

There was plenty of tears and hugging and even some dancing at Jefferson High’s signing ceremony because five players who have grown together in the Dragons football program the past four years — Deiondre Porter, Juwuan Brown, Chavez Pownell, Ventell Bryant and Derrick Ingram — signed national letters-of-intent.

Porter, who was honored last week with the Guy Toph award for Hillsborough County’s top football player, led the way by signing with the University of Florida where he might play any number of positions, including quarterback, wide receiver and possibly defensive back. Last year as Jefferson’s quarterback, Porter passed for 3,199 yards and 33 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,499 yards and 20 TDs. He also guided the Dragons to a 10-2 record and the Class 6A region semifinals. In his final high school game against Armwood, Porter threw a season-best 456 yards with five touchdowns and added 54 rushing yards and a touchdown.

“All this is made that much more special because I’m signing with my (Jefferson teammates),” Porter said. “This is a great day for all of us.”

Beside Porter, linebacker Brown signed with South Florida, defensive back Pownell with Wyoming, and wide receivers Ingram and Bryant with Temple.

“This is emotional because these guys started with me when I became head coach three years ago,” Jefferson coach Jeremy Earle said. “I’ve watched them all grow into the fine young men that they are.”

— Scott Purks

Robinson, 9:30 a.m.:

Robinson defensive back Robert Priester has discovered a whole new world. He’s headed to the University of Wyoming.

“It’s a little different than Tampa with all those mountains, the temperature, the whole surroundings,” Priester said. “It’s a long way from home, but it’s beautiful.”

Priester also considered Utah State, but Wyoming caught his attention.

“Not a lot of guys would do this and leave their comfort zone,” Robinson coach Shawn Taylor said. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m going there for academics and football. I’ll learn to ski.’ I wouldn’t mind going out there myself, do a little skiing, see Yellowstone, watch Robert play. I think he’s in for the experience of a lifetime.”

— Joey Johnston

Wharton, 9 a.m.:

LUTZ – For the first time since they were 8-years-old, Christian Knight and Blake Wilson will be playing on different soccer teams next year.

On Steinbrenner’s National Signing Day, Knight signed to play goaltender at the University of Tampa, and Wilson will play middie at Georgia Southern.

Both have seen a lot of change at Steinbrenner. They entered the soccer program as freshmen during the school’s second year of existence and both stood out immediately, helping the Warriors to a district title as freshmen. Two years later, they were part of the Steinbrenner team that lost in the state championship game. This year, Steinbrenner fell in the regional semifinals, so there was still some unfinished business.

“We did everything we could here except win states,’’ Wilson said. “It’s too bad but this is just how it all turned out.’’

“That hurt,’’ Knight said. “We’re sorry we didn’t get states before it was all over.’’

Other Steinbrenner signees included Madison Coghan, who signed with St. Andrews University to play lacrosse, and soccer teammates Miranda Gonzalez (University of Tampa), and Danielle Eule (East Carolina).

— Jeff Berlinicke

Wharton, 9 a.m.:

For Wharton’s Jordan Lue, seeing UCF win a BCS bowl was just icing on the cake.

The Wildcats boys soccer player is becoming a Knight after signing his letter-of-intent, joining his fellow Wharton signees — Samuel Chaffin, Florida Gulf Coast (tennis); Antonio Joseph, Bethune Cookman and Daniel Ibsen, Wheaton (both football) — and Lue realizes the men’s soccer team at UCF will benefit from its big football win.

“It’s going to get a lot of people to UCF, kids that are good at all sports and football definitely feeds other sports so it’s good for the whole athletic program,” Lue said, donning a golden tie, UCF hat and scarf.

Lue said his decision to go to UCF was over others like Denver and South Carolina and opted to stay in Florida because of the location, and, of course, the weather.

“I’ve been here about 18 years now and when I went other places, it felt weird being out of Florida,” Lue said. “Two hours away isn’t too far, but not too close and UCF just felt right for me.”

— Mike Camunas

Alonso, 8:30 a.m.:

Five Alonso Ravens put pen to paper in front of about 100 teammates and classmates, including four football players.

Ish Witter (Missouri), Gary Brown (Georgia Tech), Marcus Mosely (Utah State) and Brandon Robinson (Warner University) all signed, in addition to Jaylene Pryor, who signed to play softball at Tallahassee Community College.

“It’s a huge relief to sign,” Witter said. “It’s a great feeling. I remember watching some of my friends last year and the year before signing and I just kept thinking about the day I would sign. I never thought I would get that chance. It’s great.”

— Michael Manganello

Carrollwood Day, 8:10 a.m.:

Sometimes the recruiting saga takes an unexpected turn.

That was certainly the case for Carrollwood Day soccer player Alex Schweitzer who said while attending a tournament in Washington, D.C. with her club team, Tampa Bay United, last March she had a dismal performance in a match in front of a number of college coaches. Calling the match, “one of the worst games ever,” Schweitzer returned to action later in the tournament looking to get back into a better rhythm. In the third match, Schweitzer returned to form and garnered the attention of coaches from Virginia Tech – a school she hadn’t even considered.

“I had e-mailed a bunch of coaches to come see me play and played one of the worst games ever,” Schweitzer said. “And when I played the next match, Virginia Tech was there and I played probably the best game of my career and it felt like perfect timing.”

After a trip to Blacksburg, Va. and a visit with the coaches and players, Schweitzer said it was an easy decision.

“And once I went on my visit I knew I’d found the perfect fit.”

Schweitzer, who anchored the district champion Patriots defense, also added 41 career goals on top of being selected as a captain the last four seasons. Wednesday, nearly the entire school attended the signing as Schweitzer committed on the auditorium’s stage in front of more than 800 people.

On top of her skills on the pitch, she is also the president of the Spanish Honor Society and the school’s Student Athletic Board, a member of the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, the Flamenco Club and carries a 4.4 grade point average.

— Jarrett Guthrie

Anclote, 8:15 a.m.:

Arguably Anclote’s best football player in school history, Willie Barrett, had several schools looking at him throughout his junior and senior seasons as a fullback/running back at the college level. The 5 foot 8, 215-pound bulldozer signed Marist College (oughkeepsie, N.Y.), with a host of friends sitting behind him in the Sharks’ gymnasium.

“(Marist) gave me an opportunity to play ball at the next level,” Barrett said. “I’m just happy and excited to get up there and get to work. Today coming in here and signing on that line just took a lot of relief. My friends have been around me since seventh and eighth grade and they’ve supported me through everything I do.”

Anclote coach Matt Wicks opened the ceremony with some words of gratitude for Barrett being apart of the program and being a hard worker during his time as a Shark. That was followed by a few words from Barrett, before he signed. The senior tailback had a stellar season leading the Sharks to their second postseason berth, as Barrett rushed for 1,062 yards and scored nine TDs. Barrett also played linebacker and made 92 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks.

— Andy Villamarzo

Plant City, 8 a.m.:

Fourteen athletes signed national letters of intent at Plant City High School.

One athlete, however, was the largest of them all. Offensive lineman Montel McBride was missing at the ceremony because he is in Texas for the USA vs. Team Canada game at AT&T Stadium. McBride has signed with Alabama.

Each student took the time to thank those who helped them secure a scholarship. One student in particular kept the crowd smiling with his personality. Sporting a green hat and pants to match, Rayquan Johnson, who will play football at Florida A&M, started his speech by “thanking his fans.” He also jokingly referred to himself as a “10-star quarterback” when he entered high school, knowing the full rating a player can receive is 5 stats.

— Nick Williams

Jesuit, 7:40 a.m.

Nick Catchur, the state champion pole vaulter, said there’s an obvious requirement for anyone who performs his specialty.

“You can’t be afraid of heights,” Catchur said.

Catchur appears to have selected the perfect program — and pole-vaulting program — for that upwardly mobile approach. He signed with the Air Force Academy, which has produced three All-Americans since 2010.

“When I started doing this as a freshman, I had no idea it could take me places like this,” said Catchur, who cleared a school-record 15 feet last season. “It was just something for fun. It’s a little different than playing football and people are always asking me about it. I enjoy it and now it has helped me move on to the next part of my life.”

Also signing at Jesuit were soccer players Anthony Bellini (Lipscomb), and Eric Mubang (Boston University) and football player Drew Paulsen (Lehigh)

— Joey Johnston

And the winner is:

Vincent Jackson and T.J. Harrell, the last remaining high profile football players who were uncommitted from Tampa, made their decisions. Both are in Texas for the Team USA versus Team Canada International Bowl at AT&T Stadium.

Jackson, a three-star linebacker from Jesuit, signed with South Florida, tweeting “Blessed to say that I will stay home and commit to the University of South Florida #DoSomething #813.”

Harrell, a four-star prospect from Tampa Catholic, signed with Michigan State over Louisville and Georgia and tweeted “Proud And blessed to say I am officially a Michigan state Spartan dawg #GoGreen #GoWhite”

— Nick Williams

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National Signing Day: A busy day for athletes