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LOVE OF THE GAME TAKES CENTRAL GRAD UP NORTH

By this time next week, Jessie Hartman will have achieved a number of firsts.

First plane ride. First trip to Pennsylvania.

And, of course, first college football practice.

"I was born and raised in Brooksville," said the former Central linebacker, who leaves tomorrow for his freshman year at Thiel College. "I've never seen snow."

Hartman is in luck: Thiel's Greenville, Pa., campus, just outside of Pittsburgh, averages more than 40 inches of the white stuff each year.

But he doesn't seem to mind.

A starter at Central for the past three years, he helped anchor a defense that allowed just 98 points in the last eight games of the regular season. Though undersized for a linebacker, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Hartman packs some punch. He qualified for the state weightlifting tournament this year, finishing seventh at 199 pounds, and was the heart and soul of the Bears defense during football season.

During a 48-17 victory over Lecanto, he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown 40 yards and later scored on a two-point conversion.

"He played linebacker for us both sophomore and senior year, and was defensive end junior year, so he's got some versatility," Central coach Cliff Lohrey said. "His best two attributes are by far his work ethic, he won't be outworked by anybody, and the fact that he probably has Division I strength."

Thiel is an Division III school that participates in the Presidents' Athletic Conference, which consists of similarly-sized colleges from Western Pennsylvania. The Tomcats, who finished 5-5 last year, were picked third in the PAC preseason poll.

"I think Jessie just wanted to play football," Lohrey said. "He's not one of those guys, like some kids, where it's got to be Division I, or they don't want to leave the state. Jessie just wanted to play."

Hartman, who will join former Nature Coast players Jason Joens and Mike Dorsey at Thiel, leaves Wednesday. It will mark his first trip in an airplane. He has never spent more than a week outside the state. He'll bring a couple of bags of clothes and buy everything else once he arrives.

"I don't know what to expect," Hartman said.

In that regard, he probably isn't alone.

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.

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