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PREP ATHLETES TO PUT PENS TO SCHOLARSHIP DOCUMENTS.

Byline: GERRY GITTELSON Community Sports

Forget about the first day of practice, opening night or even championship weekend at Home Depot Center last December. For a precious few elite high school football players, today is the most important day of the season.

It's national signing day, which means high school seniors officially accept Division I college scholarship offers, many fulfilling one of their biggest dreams.

Seven locals are scheduled to make their scholarships official this morning, five from Hart High and two from Canyon. For Hart, quarterback Sean Norton and receiver Kevin Ciccone are going to Fresno State, linebacker Dan Howell is going to Washington, linebacker Brian Elledge is going to San Jose State and offensive lineman Kevin Bell is going to Montana. For Canyon, quarterback Nate Longshore is going to California and linebacker Andrew Schantz is going to San Diego State.

``In some ways I'm relaxed, and in some ways I'm kind of anxious about the whole thing,'' Howell said. ``But (today) is definitely a blessing.''

One thing is for sure: Nobody should call this group the Lucky Seven. Undoubtedly, all have natural football talent. But they've also put in the hard work, developed over the seasons and, perhaps most important, kept up their studies and met Division I academic requirements.

In fact, several have overcome significant adversity in their quest for full scholarships:

--Norton has earned his Fresno State deal despite being decidedly undersized at 5-foot-11 (listed at 6 feet). He also has recovered from several injuries, including a concussion, knee surgery and a torn rib ligament.

--Schantz has excelled despite three serious injuries, including a slow- healing broken foot that sidelined him for half his junior season.

--Longshore never played football until high school, developing from a raw, inconsistent sophomore into one of the nation's top quarterback prospects.

--Elledge and Ciccone sweated it out until the last moment before finally scoring offers over the past month. Elledge had scheduled official recruiting visits to Colorado State and Fresno State, but the visits were canceled at the last minute because the universities received commitments from other linebackers. Ciccone had nothing coming his way until Fresno State coach Pat Hill realized what a promising player he was even though Ciccone is just 5-11.

--Howell never got much chance to prove himself because he was constantly switching positions - from linebacker to defensive end to cornerback back to defensive end and finally back to linebacker - coupled with few opportunities at running back until this season because he was buried in the depth chart.

But the tribulations and anxiety are over for the seven today. By signing their scholarships - technically, financial aid documents -- they're scoring their biggest touchdowns ever.

``Obviously, there's been some big pressure about getting a scholarship and all that finally gets relieved because we're finally signing with a college,'' Elledge said. ``I think every single one of us deserves it, too, because we've all worked so hard.''

Today is also a proud moment for their parents. But perhaps it's also bittersweet, as the realization begins to set in that their children will be leaving home.

``I'm really excited and thrilled for my son, partly because we know how unusual it is for a 5-11 quarterback to go to a DI school,'' said Norton's father, Scott. ``It's fortunate that we found the right school ... but I'm sure I'm going to miss him a lot. Sean has always been kind of a homebody, and I don't think his mother and I have ever missed one of his games.''

Elledge had to wait longer than anyone, a perplexing development considering he's a 6-foot-3 honor student who twice has broken Hart's all-time single-season tackle record.

``I'm really excited and very happy for him. I think everything finally turned out for the best,'' said Elledge's mother, Jeni. ``San Jose is only about 4 1/2 hours away - but now Brian is going to have to learn to do his own laundry.''

Howell will travel a lot farther. He said he's very much embracing the opportunity to be out on his own.

``Going to Washington means I'm one step closer to independence,'' Howell said. ``It's time. I'm getting ready to roll up out of here.''

In high school, football is the most celebrated sport, so signees get the most attention. But some local seniors from other sports also will sign today, and their achievements are just as special.

At Canyon, girls' soccer players Christine Chapman, Kearsten Leggett, McKenzie Hill and Jenna Shay are scheduled to sign today, as is swimmer Eric Cunningham. Hart girls' soccer players Melissa Deckers and Amanda Reyes are signing today. And at Valencia, girls' soccer standout Katherine Kirst will sign with USC.

So this is a special and wonderful day for athletes, their parents, coaches and members of the school communities.

Live it up, folks. It doesn't get better than this.

NATIONAL SIGNING DAY

Today is the first day athletes can officially accept scholarships to play NCAA Division I sports. Here's a look at local athletes scheduled to sign today:

Name - School - Sport - College

Kevin Bell - Hart - Football - Montana

Christine Chapman - Canyon - Soccer - Southeastern Louisiana

Kevin Ciccone - Hart - Football - Fresno State

Eric Cunningham - Canyon - Swimming - Brigham Young

Melissa Deckers - Hart - Soccer - San Diego State

Brian Elledge - Hart - Football - San Jose State

McKenzie Hill - Canyon - Soccer - Pepperdine

Dan Howell - Hart - Football - Washington

Katherine Kirst - Valencia - Soccer - USC

Kearsten Leggett - Canyon - Soccer - Albany

Nate Longshore - Canyon - Football - California

Sean Norton - Hart - Football - Fresno State

Amanda Reyes - Hart - Soccer - Fresno State

Andrew Schantz - Canyon - Football - San Diego State

Jenna Shay - Canyon - Soccer - Pepperdine

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NATIONAL SIGNING DAY (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 4, 2004
Words:937
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