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Wednesday May 25th, 2016 1:02PM

Signing Day: Area standouts hit the big time

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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GAINESVILLE -- "This feels professional," A.J. Johnson chuckled after sitting down for his umpteenth interview of the afternoon at the FCA Hall County Signing Day ceremony on Wednesday.

The cameras, radio stations and throng of local media certainly lent National Signing Day a big-time feel at the local level, as 30 area athletes gathered at the Longstreet Cafe in Gainesville -- including Gainesville's Johnson, who signed today to play football for the University of Tennessee.

Wednesday's ceremony honored standouts from throughout northeast Georgia that will go on to play various sports at the collegiate level and was just a small part of what has become one of the biggest days in sports on any level.

College football fans especially have developed a fervent following of National Signing Day, with boosters gathering in athletic departments, restaurants and various online message boards to watch the lifeblood of their programs make their commitments binding via signed Letters of Intent.

Thanks to an abundant talent level in northeast Georgia, many of those Letters of Intent are now celebrated annually at Longstreet Cafe.

"This just shows what our area brings to the table now," said White County senior Ashely Lowery, who will play football next season for the University of Kentucky. "We work hard here, and there's a lot of talented players."

Indeed, 21 football players joined Wednesday's celebration, including signees headed to destinations such as Georgia, Georgia Tech, Central Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Air Force and UAB. And beyond the walls of Longstreet several more standouts around northeast Georgia inked their gridiron future including programs such as Buford, Apalachee, North Gwinnett and Dawson County.

"This is a big day; there's a lot of stress that's been lifted off my shoulders," said Flowery Branch offensive lineman Chris Rhodes, who signed to play for Valdosta State on Wednesday. "I'm so blessed... to know where I'm going to spend the next four years is exciting."

Excitement and reassurance were the two watch-words of the day, as students began to finally relax from the stress of making such a monumental decision.

"It's such a relief; just knowing that a team wanted me," said West Hall quarterback Shunquez Stephens, who will play at Alabama State after almost opting not to pursue college football (see our story here). "I can't wait to get over there and start training as hard as I can."

For many, today's achievement stretched beyond individual glory.

"This really shows that we're building a program," said Lakeview's Nick Drury -- only the second player from the Lions young program to sign a Letter of Intent, following in the footsteps of his older brother Tom.

"It shows if you come to Lakeview you'll have the opportunity to play at a higher level," added Drury who will play safety or outside linebacker at Davidson. "This really gets Lakeview's name out there."

Wednesday's celebration proved emotional even for those who had already sealed the futures -- many of those athletes outside of football had already inked Letters of Intent, as most sports feature early signing periods.

"I'm excited; I can't wait; I'm ready to get up there and play," said Gainesville's Will Maddox, who will play baseball at Tennessee. "This is a dream come true."

North Hall's Hamilton Harper, who will play baseball at Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss., put it in perspective.

"We've all worked since we were 8-10 years old for this," Harper said. "For it to come together for us means so much. It's really great to come here and know you're part of a select few. Just being around all these guys you get an understanding of how hard they worked to get here, and it makes you appreciate it."

A number of female athletes were also honored on Wednesday, including Gainesville's Hong Tran (soccer), White County's Kaitlyn Hooper (soccer) and Flowery Branch's Ericka Rucker (track).

"This is amazing," said Tran, who will play goalkeeper at Valdosta State. "I'm looking forward to playing at the next level."

Most athletes are so looking forward to the opportunities ahead that the thoughts of leaving home for the first time aren't a concern.

"It might be a little awkward, but it's only a one-hour plane trip from here," said Flowery Branch offensive lineman Brandon Keller, who will play at Division III College of Mount Saint Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Of course Keller will have high school linemate Deron Lear, who will also play at Mount Saint Joseph, to keep him company. Meanwhile, three Hall County soccer standouts are headed to Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C. East Hall's Nicholas Andrade, Flowery Branch's Michael Smith and West Hall's Chandler Ligas -- all teammates on their club team -- will head north to play for Michael's father Jason Smith, who took over the program at Pfeiffer last season.

"Being up there with those two guys will definitely make it more comfortable," said Smith, a midfielder who knows it won't be east playing for his dad. "He pushes me harder than everyone else."

Each and every athlete honored on Wednesday can expect a tougher time of things at the next level -- both on the field and in the classroom. But that prospect couldn't daunt or dampen any of the palpable excitement filling the dining room at Longstreet.

"I never imagined this day would come," said East Hall defensive end Chaz Cheeks, who will play at Georgia Tech next season. "This is larger than life."

Signees are listed by school. These are the signees that Access North Georgia was made aware of by Wednesday evening; if you signed a Letter of Intent today, please let us know by emailing sports editor Morgan Lee: morgan.lee@jacobsmedia.net

Area Football Signees:
Nate Holten, OL, TBA
Alex Camp, FB, TBA

Dawson County
Zach Johnson, OL, Troy University
Ethan Brown, DB, TBA
Levi Wilson, WR/DB, TBA

Alex Ross, QB, Coastal Carolina
Seon Jones, RB, Georgia Southern
Eric Barr, RB/DB, Tennessee Tech
Dominique Swope, RB, Georgia Southern

East Hall
Chaz Cheeks, DE, Georgia Tech
Sterling Bailey, DE, University of Georgia

Flowery Branch
Austin Brown, QB, UAB
Chris Rhodes, OL, Valdosta State
Brandon Keller, OL, College of Mount Saint Joseph
Deron Lear, OL, College of Mount Saint Joseph
Will Monday, P, Duke University

A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee
Kendrick Milsap, DB, Tennessee
Thomas Niles, DL, Central Florida
Tim Rucker, DL, Mars Hill
Mantavius Rucker, LB, Valdosta State
Kevin Hall, LB, Faulkner University
Rashad Lawrence, DB, Chattahoochee Tech
Mike Norman, DB, Mars Hill
Markece Robertson, RB, Faulkner University
Tyrone Hendrix, OL, Mars Hill

Nick Drury, RB/LB, Davidson

Mill Creek
Tyler Cierski, FB, Maryland

North Gwinnett
CJ Uzomah, WR, Auburn
Garrett Clark, OL, Southern Miss
Manrey Saint-Amour, OL, Georgia Southern

North Hall
D.J. Miolen, TE/DE, Air Force Academy

West Hall
Shunquez Stephens, QB, Alabama State

White County
Ashely Lowery, RB/DB, University of Kentucky

Signees for other sports:
Peyton Robertson, Basketball, Young Harris
Rachel Kelly, Basketball, Young Harris

East Hall
Nicholas Andrade, Soccer, Pfeifer University

Flowery Branch
Michael Smith, Soccer, Pfeifer University
Erika Rucker, Track, South Carolina
Maurice Riden, Track and Cross Country, Mars Hill

Hong Tran High, Soccer, Valdosta State
Will Maddox, Baseball, Tennessee

Logan Pethel, Baseball, Darton College
Josh Foster, Golf, Truett-McConnell

Taylor Simpson, Baseball, Furman

North Hall
Whit Bowen, Baseball, Brevard College
Hamilton Harper, Baseball, Belhaven University

West Hall
Chandler Ligas, Soccer, Pfeifer University

White County
Luke Crumley, Baseball, Georgia
David Sosebee, Baseball, Georgia
Kaitlyn Hooper, Soccer, Asbury University, Ky.
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