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Gators star lineman commits to USF

The post-season awards piled up for Mark Sopcik, who concluded his Land O'Lakes career as "the best offensive lineman in school history," according to coach John Benedetto.

Ho-hum, that's nice.

Sopcik may find playing football at the next level a bit more thrilling. The 6-foot-4, 270-pound senior plans to sign with South Florida on Wednesday.

"It's a done deal," said Sopcik, who also considered offers from Eastern Kentucky and Holy Cross.

Sopcik is a low-key lineman who rarely displays emotion, so it is understandable that he was not overly enthusiastic about being named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association District 8 Class 4A Player of the Year, the Gators' most valuable player and a Times All-North Suncoast first-team selection.

For Sopcik, winning supersedes individual recognition.

"I wanted to win a playoff game," said Sopcik, a left guard on the first unbeaten team (10-0 in the regular season) in school history.

Though the Gators reached the playoffs in his junior and senior seasons, they lost to Belleview on both occasions, 48-16 in November and 33-0 in 1998.

Sopcik, whom Benedetto has referred to as "our team leader," is the second Land O'Lakes lineman to accept a scholarship to USF. Jason Gray inked a partial deal with the Bulls in 1997 but never played.

Another former Land O'Lakes lineman, Eric Nelsestuen, attempted to walk-on at USF in 1998 but left the school soon after tryouts.

Getting an opportunity to compete for a varsity spot as a freshman, playing for a school that will be in a transition season before moving up to Division I-A in 2001 and taking the field at Raymond James Stadium swayed Sopcik's decision.

"They're going to be playing some tough (Division) I-A teams, and I'll be on TV," Sopcik said. "Raymond James, that'll be a good feeling playing in there."

If he plays at USF, Sopcik would become the second Gator player to make a Division I roster. Don Meredith, a Gator lineman who graduated in 1990, played two seasons at North Carolina.

An honor roll student throughout high school, Sopcik plans to major in business.

Sopcik plans to return to Land O'Lakes to watch the Gators on Friday nights. He also will continue lifting weights daily at the school gym with Godfrey Pestana, who last season rushed for a school-record 1,595 yards and 19 touchdowns.

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