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High school football players celebrate signing day after navigating pandemic: ‘It’s a blessing to go to the next level’

St. Frances football coach Messay Hailemariam, standing at center, poses with his players after the signed national letters of intent to play on Division I teams. Attending the ceremony at the chapel Wednesday evening were (seated, from left) Terrence Butler Jr., Clinton Burton Jr., Aaron Willis and Jamon Dumas-Johnson. Standing with the coach, from left, are Noah Williams, Chad Brown, Zion Shockley and Joe Bearns III.
St. Frances football coach Messay Hailemariam, standing at center, poses with his players after the signed national letters of intent to play on Division I teams. Attending the ceremony at the chapel Wednesday evening were (seated, from left) Terrence Butler Jr., Clinton Burton Jr., Aaron Willis and Jamon Dumas-Johnson. Standing with the coach, from left, are Noah Williams, Chad Brown, Zion Shockley and Joe Bearns III. (Amy Davis)

On a snowy Wednesday in the Baltimore metropolitan area, over 40 high school football players signed their national letters of intent to attend Division I schools.

For a pair of Concordia Prep players, it was the realization of years of hard work.

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Defensive end Chiebuka Aduaka and Deonte’ Ferguson both signed with Merrimack, a Northeast Conference school in North Andover, Massachusetts. Aduaka finished his senior year with a two-game season, while Ferguson played a full season at East Coast Prep in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Ferguson had a long journey, overcoming a lacerated kidney to complete his senior year in 2019. While his Division I dream didn’t immediately come true, he was overcome with joy when he got the opportunity to commit to Merrimack. Now, his former teammate at Concordia Prep will join him.

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“For ’Buka and me, it’s good,” Ferguson said. “I got to play with him, I’ve got the experience and got to play with him. So, there, we’ll be ready to go.”

When Aduaka first came to Concordia Prep, football was on his mind. He transferred from Edgewood and immediately made an impact. Since then, he’s become a leader on and off of the field.

Aduaka’s coach, Joe Battaglia, initially recruited him to the Naval Academy when he was a Navy assistant coach. It was the same for Ferguson, who was also on Battaglia’s list before he took the job at Concordia Prep. Battaglia convinced Aduaka to take the best scholarship offer that he could get, and Merrimack felt right.

“It means a lot because I’ve come a long way,” Aduaka said. “If you ask me if I was going to play college football in my freshman year, I would’ve told that it’s silly because of the way that I carried myself. As I matured through the process, I bettered myself and I got here today.”

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They aren’t the only Baltimore area players to head to Merrimack. Joining them will be Calvert Hall linebacker Mike Johnson and defensive back Tre Jordan, as well as Franklin linebacker DJ Frazier and St. Mary’s defensive back Tommie McCoy III.

Meanwhile, eight St. Frances football players took part in the team’s signing day event, with three others still planning to sign with Division I schools. Three players — Joe Bearns III, Terrance Butler Jr. and ZionAngelo Shockley — will attend Maryland. Three others — Aaron Willis (Tennessee), Jamon Dumas-Johnson (Georgia) and Clinton Burton Jr. (Boston College) — are headed to Power Five programs.

“Ever since I was younger, I wanted to go to Maryland — my dream school,” Shockley said. “So, when I got the offer, I already knew where I wanted to go.”

Torrance Williams is staying in-state to attend Morgan State and fellow offensive lineman Noah Williams is going to Delaware.

“It feels good [to stay home],” Torrance Williams said of joining coach Tyrone Wheatley’s Bears. “I feel like coach Wheatley is building something strong and the fact that it’s here in Baltimore makes it more special.”

For many players, the coroanvirus pandemic has made this an odd year to make college decisions.

Meade seniors Calvin Harrison and TJ Speight watched normal recruiting proceedings drop off when the pandemic struck – but they wouldn’t let themselves do the same.

The two Mustangs woke up early, lifted together in Speight’s garage and headed to the field as often as they could so Speight could run routes and Harrison could get his defensive back work in.

”It made us stronger,” Harrison said, “Especially with the winter coming up, we can’t get to the field [as much]. We got our muscles and body right to be prepared for college.”

The two met again to sign their names to their new schools, surrounded by immediate family as well as faces they were happy to finally see again: coach Mike Francis and athletic director Jamie Cook. Harrison is bound for Stony Brook on Long Island, New York, while Speight is headed to New Jersey to play for reigning Big South Conference champion Monmouth, where the wide receiver expects to get bigger and stronger.

Speight hoped that his college dreams wouldn’t fade as recruiting did because of pandemic restrictions on school visits. He credited his coaches for continuing to support him by getting his name and his film out to as many schools as possible.

”It’s a blessing to go to the next level, especially playing Division I football,” Speight said. “This pandemic is messing everything up, for real, but everything happens for a reason.”

Harrison spent plenty of time playing cornerback, but plans to narrow his focus to defensive back at Stony Brook.

”I feel like they’re going to develop me as a better [defensive back],” Harrison said. “As I look at their players in the past, they send a lot of their defensive backs to the NFL or NFL training camps. That’s where they’re strong at.”

Oregon, one of the nation’s top programs, brought in several players from the Baltimore area, including four-star wide receiver Dont’e Thornton (Mount Saint Joseph) and safety Daymon David (Franklin). David committed in September and Thornton followed in October. The two are prepared to enroll in the spring semester and are joining the Ducks’ sixth-ranked recruiting class, per 247Sports.

Baltimore-area 2021 football signees

Here’s a look at the Baltimore-area high school football players who plan to sign national letters of intent during the Dec. 16-18 early signing period for football:

Chiebuka Aduaka, Concordia Prep, Merrimack

Billy Atkins, Mount Saint Joseph, James Madison

Joe Bearns III, St. Frances, Maryland

Kylen Austin, St. Paul’s, Liberty

Antoine Booth (Baltimore), DeMatha, Michigan State

Malcolm Brown, Reservoir, Morgan State

Clinton Burton Jr., St. Frances, Boston College

Terrance Butler Jr., St. Frances, Maryland

Mattheus Carroll, Gilman, Virgnia Tech

Tyrese Chambers, Poly, Florida International

Daymon David, Franklin, Oregon

Jamon Dumas-Johnson, St. Frances, Georgia

Jumar Hines, Dulaney, Morgan State

Jabari Echols, Mount Saint Joseph, Maine

John England, Hammond, Monmouth

KaTron Evans, St. Frances, Tennessee

Deonte’ Ferguson, Concordia Prep, Merrimack

DJ Frazier, Franklin, Merrimack

Calvin Harrison, Meade, Stony Brook

Adrian Hawkins (Baltimore), DeMatha, Monmouth

Roman Hemby, John Carroll, Maryland

Amir Jenkins, Calvert Hall, Sacred Heart

Mike Johnson, Calvert Hall, Merrimack

DaShawn Jones, Mount Saint Joseph, Wake Forest

Tre Jordan, Calvert Hall, Merrimack

TJ Lewis, McDonogh, Monmouth

Kyrik Mason (Columbia), St. John’s, Monmouth

Jordan Moore, Loyola Blakefield, Duke

Raiheem Olalekan, New Town, Massachusetts

Greg Penn (Baltimore), DeMatha, LSU

Jamir Roberts (Pasadena), McDonogh, Massachusetts

Landon Tengwall, Good Counsel, Penn State

Dont’e Thornton, Mount Saint Joseph, Oregon

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Xavier Shell, Mervo, Morgan State

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ZionAngelo Shockley, St. Frances, Maryland

Jalen Smith, McDonogh, Columbia

Scott Smith III, St. Paul’s, Towson

TJ Speight, Meade, Monmouth

Dante Trader Jr., McDonogh, Maryland

Jayon Venerable, Arch. Spalding, Maryland

Zakee Wheatley, Arch. Spalding, Penn State

Tyler Wilkins, Mount Saint Joseph, Morgan State

Torrance Williams, St. Frances, Morgan State

Noah Williams, St. Frances, Delaware

Here are the players who have committed to play football at military institutions and Ivy League schools, which do not offer athletic scholarships:

Rayuan Lane, Gilman, Naval Academy

Jalen Smith, McDonogh, Columbia

Austin Tutas, Arch. Spalding, Yale

Don’t see an athlete? Email sports@baltsun.com with the name, school and college choice.

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