Hudson fullback Nate Toole was Pasco County's rushing leader with more than 1,000 yards and the Florida Dairy Farmers District 8, Class 3A player of the year.
After two decades in the county, Mitchell's Scott Schmitz says he hasn't coached a defensive lineman better than Casey Smith or a player smarter than guard/linebacker Troy Adams.
Yet, less than a month before national signing day on Feb.2, not one of the three players has made a campus visit, let alone a commitment.
After a season in which four teams (Land O'Lakes, Mitchell, Pasco, Wesley Chapel) made the playoffs, a fifth (Hudson) was eliminated during a district shootout, Mitchell set a school record for wins, and Wesley Chapel extended its regular-season win streak to 15 games, county seniors are getting shut out by major college recruiters.
"Pasco County has never been regarded as one of the football powerhouses in the state of Florida," Land O'Lakes coach John Benedetto said. "It's been a struggle for us coaches to try and bring it up to a higher level. I think as we get bigger and the schools are getting bigger and we get more athletes, I think eventually we'll get to that point. But right now, it's a struggle for us."
Does the county get overlooked? At times, perhaps.
While someone such as Toole might deserve better, most county coaches agree their players usually end up at the appropriate level for their size, speed or academic situation.
"I don't think we've had a Division I player overlooked in this county," Schmitz said. "I think maybe we've had some Division II and maybe some I-AA players overlooked. Overall, I think the recruiters and the recruiting does a pretty good job there."
To be sure, the county has had its share of blue-chippers.
Last year alone, Land O'Lakes quarterback Drew Weatherford (Florida State) and Pasco receiver Johnny Peyton (South Florida) signed with Division I schools. Peyton followed in the footsteps of former Pirates Troy Hambrick (I-AA Savannah State) and Darren Hambrick (South Carolina), who went on to play in the NFL. Ex-Zephyrhills lineman Ryan Pickett played at Ohio State before being drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
"There's always two to three kids that could play for the big three coming out of that area," said national recruiting expert Jamie Newberg of scout.com.
But perhaps not this year. Though he called Peyton "phenomenal," Newberg said none of the current crop of seniors has caught his attention.
But it's not because schools aren't paying attention.
"I don't think any part of Florida gets overlooked," Newberg said, "because everybody goes down to that state and gets kids."
Of the county's seniors, Wesley Chapel's Danny Tolley appears to be generating the most buzz. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound lineman has received interest from several Division I schools, including South Carolina, Florida and USF.
Three other county players could be headed to military academies.
Mitchell fullback Spencer Brown, the county's leading scorer with 17 touchdowns, has a visit scheduled to Navy on Friday. Wesley Chapel lineman Khalil Madani is visiting Navy this weekend and is considering all three academies, as is Land O'Lakes linebacker Scott Mays, the Florida Dairy Farmers District 8, Class 4A player of the year.
"There are other schools he's looked into," Benedetto said, "but that's been a love of his for awhile."
After that, it is slim pickings for Division I schools.
Just because players excelled at the high school level doesn't mean they will do the same in college, coaches say. Lack of size, speed or grades usually are the biggest things holding them back.
River Ridge's Sam Bell scored on runs, passes and kickoff returns and even threw for a touchdown this past season. But at 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, he is considerably smaller than most schools would like.
Adams, for all of his football savvy, lacks the speed needed to play at the highest levels. Smith, at 6-0, 220, is undersized for a defensive lineman.
"If Casey was 6-3, 260 pounds, there wouldn't be a Division I school in the southeast that wouldn't want him," Schmitz said. "But because of his size, there's just a big difference there."
Running back/defensive back James "J.J." Campbell of Mitchell and defensive lineman Joe Burgess of Zephyrhills are unlikely to qualify academically and might have to look at Division III schools or junior colleges.
Toole is an entirely different matter.
At 6-2, 215, he has the size and strength to bull his way between the tackles and the the speed to run from defensive backs. Few players are more devoted to the game.
But because he plays a position where players often appear interchangeable (In Pasco County alone, Toole, Brown and Mays brought similar characteristics to their teams), he's found it difficult to separate himself.
"Nate eats, sleeps, that's all he lives for is football," Hudson coach Mark Nash said. "He's willing to do whatever it takes academically to have the opportunity to play football, and he does. He's an overachiever in the classroom and an overachiever on the football field. It's a shame that they're missing the boat."
Toole is on the recruiting boards of Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Carson-Newman. But so are four or five others at his position. While those schools wait to see whether their top choice becomes academically eligible or chooses their school, Toole is left dangling.
Once the dominoes start to fall on signing day, Nash is confident Toole will find a place to play.
"After signing day, the smaller-level Division I schools and I-AA and D-II schools are like sharks in the water looking for everybody left over," Nash said. "That hasn't happened (yet). There's a big frenzy of smaller schools that happens after the signing date. Right now, we're trying to get Nate's name out there so he's in the water when the sharks start swimming."
Nash thinks county schools might suffer from their proximity to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Because they only have so much money to spend, recruiters tend to stick to areas such as Tampa or Miami where they can see several top players from different schools all at once.
Other coaches point to the county's poor postseason record. Aside from Pasco's state championship in 1992 and Land O'Lakes' recent playoff success, county schools often have been eliminated during the first round.
But once a school such as Pasco proves that it can produce college prospects year in and year out, it becomes a popular stopping point. Though the Pirates had few seniors this year, linebacker Harold Pryor and defensive lineman Jerry Carter are expected to land at a Division I-AA or II school.
"Here in Dade City, we get (recruiters) from all over the country," Pasco coach Dale Caparaso said. "We have a tremendously deep history of guys playing at Florida, Florida State, Miami, in the NFL, so we've got a pretty good reputation in Dade City. We play some pretty good football here and have some pretty good talents. As far as my job, that's the easy part."
Land O'Lakes hasn't had trouble attracting recruiters, either. Even before Weatherford, receiver Logan Payne (Minnesota), lineman Joey Tuttle (Georgia Southern) and kicker Justin Geisler (USF) earned scholarships. Being in the playoffs the past eight seasons hasn't hurt, but Benedetto said playing strong schools outside of the county has helped spread the word as well.
"We've played in Ocala, played up in Lake City, we played Merritt Island and Auburndale and Lake Gibson in the playoffs," Benedetto said. "So, now you're exposing your kids to other areas in the state of Florida and people see that, so the more exposure you get, the better opportunities come up for them."
Though recruiters from major conference schools largely stayed away this season, they'll return to the county next year. Caparaso said he has 95 letters on his desk inquiring about junior receiver/defensive back Darrell Davis and at least that many for junior receiver/defensive back Dominic Brown.
At Land O'Lakes, junior tight end Caz Piurowski is drawing similar interest. The 6-foot-7 tight end, whose father, Paul, played at Florida State, already has received offers from Duke, Louisville and South Carolina.
Two years from now, those same recruiters could be back vying for the services of quarterback Joe Weatherford, Drew's younger brother, or receiver Develin Robinson, who averaged 23 yards per reception as a sophomore.
Where they end up is anyone's guess.
But wherever it is, it likely will be where they belong, coaches say.
Just ask Schmitz, who continues to seek opportunities for his players despite putting together the best season in school history, one in which Mitchell defeated Hudson, Pasco and Wesley Chapel, won the Sunshine Athletic Conference and advanced to the playoffs a third consecutive season.
"I thought we had a number of good players," Schmitz said. "But that doesn't mean they're college football players."
WHO'S LOOKING WHERE?
Schools under consideration by some Pasco County seniors:
Name Pos. School Considering
Troy Adams OL/LB Mitchell D-II, D-III schools
Sam Bell Ath. R. Ridge Jacksonville
Spencer Brown FB Mitchell Navy, Lafayette
Nigel Bryant RB W. Chapel I-AA, D-II schools
J.J. Campbell RB/DB Mitchell D-III, JUCO schools
Jerry Carter DL Pasco Morehouse, Morehead, The Citadel,
Thomas Ludington OL Hudson Jacksonville
Khalil Madani OL/DL W. Chapel Air Force, Navy, Army
Scott Mays LB LOL Army, Navy, Air Force
Harold Pryor LB Pasco Morehouse, Morehead, The Citadel,
Casey Smith DL Mitchell Nebraska-Kearney
Tommy Snow WR/DB Hudson Highland (Cal.) CC, West
Danny Tolley OL/DL W. Chapel South Carolina, Florida, USF
Nate Toole FB Hudson FAU, FIU, Carson-Newman
Compiled by Frank Pastor.
HOW TO GET NOTICED
Five steps to insure college recruiters don't miss your school, according to county coaches:
1. ESTABLISH A TRADITION: Recruiters travel through Dade City every year because they have been rewarded in the past with the likes of Darren Hambrick, Troy Hambrick or Johnny Peyton.
2. WIN PLAYOFF GAMES: Players who might be unknown outside the county can make names for themselves with breakout performances in bigger games in front of larger audiences.
3. HIT THE ROAD: Land O'Lakes plays in places such as Lake City or Ocala each year to test itself against top teams and increase its players' exposure.
4. PLAY PIGGY-BACK: River Ridge coach Mike DeGennaro has had colleges ask about his players after spotting them on film while scouting top prospects such as Drew Weatherford. DeGennaro returns the favor by referring recruiters back to other county schools who have players that fit their needs.
5. BREED BLUE-CHIPPERS: Let's face it, no college will pass up a 6-foot-6 receiver with good hands and 4.3 speed.
_ Compiled by Frank Pastor.