A group of 19 South Carolina Gamecocks huddled around each other, jostling for position.
All were from football hotbed Florida and all were boastful about their state's gridiron prowess.
A smaller group looked on from across the field, arms folded and wry smiles in place. Florida may be great, but these seven's slice of heaven can go up against anybody's.
"What we always say is they're spread out amongst the state," cornerback Marty Markett dismissed. "We're all in that same little area.
Never miss a local story.
"We always say, 'Y'all want to learn to play football, come on up and learn how to play.'"
York County. Home of seven Gamecocks, and they're proud of it.
York County has been an athletic powerhouse for years and with the surge of interest in football recruiting, the area has seen an upswing of activity. The highway from the northernmost spot of South Carolina to Columbia is clearly mapped.
USC has seven former area stars on the 2010 roster, and most are expected to make heavy impacts. Markett joined the team as a former York Comprehensive star who is from Rock Hill, just like his former York teammate and Rock Hill native, fifth-year senior Spencer Lanning.
Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman, each from South Pointe, are in their second years while Rock Hill High's Tori Gurley is in his third.
C.C. Whitlock, who was born in Rock Hill but made his name as a star at Chester, begins his third season. Fort Mill's Jared Shaw is re-starting his career.
It's quite a talented group, many of which bolstered York County's name last year due to a group effort in a win over archrival Clemson. With a couple of new players added to the chart and an eye on four could-be Gamecocks who are currently in Rock Hill, the current group wants to keep the success going.
Every group needs a leader, but Lanning doesn't classify himself as that. Although the oldest and the most experienced, Lanning says the leadership of the York County cabal is more of a combination.
"I'm not sure that there's a leader of the Rock Hill crowd," he mused, before listing the athletic qualities of each. "I think everybody respects each other for what they are."
The group is spread among the Gamecocks' team -- Lanning handles the punting and place-kicking duties, while Gurley is one of the team's wide receivers. The rest are competing for time as defensive backs.
He may not be as decorated as some of the others, but Lanning's role on the team is vital. He was the only player in the SEC to punt and place-kick in 2009 and enters his final year with the reputation as one of the hardest workers on the squad.
As the first of the current class to make it big at USC, Lanning serves as a special-teams linchpin and a success story. From a walk-on not recruited by his favorite school (Clemson), to redshirting, to sparse appearances, to starting at two positions, to kicking two field goals to help beat Clemson in 2009, Lanning is often caught shaking his head these days.
It all started in York County.
"York County, as far as football, you think about when I was there," he said. "Coach Steve Boyd, coach (Jimmy) Wallace, coach (Jim) Ringer, all these guys, they didn't know it, but they were breeding some of the Gamecocks' finest. Those guys that we had in York County are unbelievable."
Rock Hill High fans sigh at the memories. They knew of the kid coming up through Pee-Wee and GRA-Y. They knew he was zoned to be a Bearcat until South Pointe was created and the kid went there.
"I grew up looking up to Tori," Gilmore said. "I used to watch him at Rock Hill High when I was in middle school. I wanted to be just like him."
Gurley is a fine athlete, but Gilmore may be in a class by himself. The South Carolina Mr. Football prize and the breathless recruiting that followed him two years ago were clearly worth it. Gilmore ripped the go-ahead touchdown from an N.C. State receiver's hands in his first game, earned Freshman All-American honors as a cornerback and in his only chance at playing quarterback, turned momentum against Clemson.
"I think it elevated us pretty well," Gilmore said of the Clemson game's affect on York County Gamecocks. "We did all right in that game. We're all looking forward to doing it again."
Rooming with Holloman, his old high-school buddy, Gilmore has already emerged as a leader of the secondary and second-in-command of the entire defense. He isn't very vocal, but leads by example; the others notice how hard he works and try to emulate him.
As for the Florida guys, let 'em talk.
"They say we don't play anybody in South Carolina," Gilmore said. "I always tell them that my high-school team as a senior (a 15-0 state champion) could beat all of them."
He was playing football, but not where he wanted to, and his weekends were spent going to USC games anyway. It just made sense to try to be on the sidelines in uniform at the games.
"I talked to my old coach, coach (Greg) Taylor, who was coaching Stephon and DeVonte," Shaw said. "He got me some connections and I tried out and I've been happy ever since."
Shaw went to Newberry College from Fort Mill but wasn't on the travel roster. He made it a one-way trip to Columbia in 2009, sitting out the season per NCAA transfer rules.
As a backup defensive back, Shaw knows what his role for the Gamecocks will be. He knows it's a longshot he'll even get to dress for a game, much less play.
But the chance is payment enough.
"I know my role on the team is probably going to be a special-teamer," Shaw said. "But I fit in with these guys real well."
As a jack-of-all-trades with the Yellow Jackets, Shaw played great competition throughout his high school career. Not only did he play (and beat) the teams of all of the other York County reps during his prep career, but he beat some other great statewide teams as well.
"The Florida guys always brag about Florida, other guys brag about where they're from," Shaw dismissed. "We always have our backup that our region is the best in South Carolina."
Yes, he lived the majority of his life one county below York. But Whitlock was born in Rock Hill and became a star by beating many of York County's finest.
"When we go back home on breaks, we try to meet up," the cornerback explained. "We call each other and we all try to go chill at high-school games, stuff like that. I wear my (Chester and USC) letter jackets."
Whitlock was flirting with the tag of a can't-miss prospect who missed due to several personal issues during his first year, but has steadily improved into the athlete everyone knew he could be. His five starts in 12 games and marvelous spring made him the backup at one corner spot.
It's no surprise. Whitlock has always been a fighter, learning the hard way that success has to be earned.
"I had to give all my props out to (former Chester coach Victor) Foyd," Whitlock reverently said. "He told us, 'By the time you're seniors, you will have played in the state championship game.'
"My freshman year, we started out 2-9. The next season, we went 7-5. My junior year we went 6-4. Then my senior year, we played for the championship."
Whitlock had a brief stay at wide receiver, just one of the many positions he played as a Cyclone, before moving to defense full-time. He recorded his first career interception at Alabama last year and logged 16 total tackles, also breaking up two other passes.
The future seems bright, with Whitlock fully in control of his life. All he has to do is keep shutting up the out-of-state natives about how great they are with the same speed with which he has become a vital USC player.
"We tell those guys, you can't sleep on this state," Whitlock said. "We put out players to the NFL."
York County had heard of him, but Richland County was still in the dark.
Until he intercepted three passes in spring practice and let the entire state know that he had arrived.
"I wanted to get out here, work hard, see what I can do," Markett said. "I just love football too much."
Not many would give up a full-ride scholarship for the unheralded life of a walk-on. But not many are Marty Markett.
Following the path of his close friend and roommate, Bryce Sherman, Markett gave up a track and field scholarship at USC to play football. Then he picked off three passes during two spring scrimmages and earned the outstanding walk-on defensive award, earning him a spot on the depth chart.
Sure, he's behind one of his fellow Rock Hill-area friends (Whitlock), but Markett is happy he is where he is.
"This is what I really wanted to do," Markett said. "I talked to coach (Steve) Spurrier, tried out for the team and made it."
Markett was on the sidelines, nursing a broken arm, when the Gamecocks topped Clemson. He sat and watched as Lanning, Gurley, Holloman and Gilmore helped turn the tide.
He was wishing he could be there, and promising when he got his chance he'd do the same.
"You'll hear us out on the field, when one of us makes a play," he said. "Somebody will scream out 'York!' or 'Rock Hill!' or something."
Holloman's stay in Rock Hill was technically less than a year. A Charlotte native, he transferred to South Pointe for his final season of high-school ball for family reasons.
"Me and Stephon played basketball and he had been trying to get me to come to Rock Hill," he explained. "And I wanted to graduate early."
He is welcomed as a Rock Hill native anyway. While helping the Stallions achieve their perfect season, Holloman switched college commitments from Clemson to USC. He played as a freshman, although mostly as a backup; this year, he is the projected starter at strong safety.
His interception against the Tigers in a 7-7 ballgame became a lengthy return that set up USC's go-ahead touchdown. If he wasn't already inked in as a starter for 2010, that performance cinched it. And he was shouting "Rock Hill!" afterward, not "Charlotte!"
"Can't let those Florida guys talk too much," Holloman said. "The people of Rock Hill, they were always following and keeping up with football, showing up at the games ... it was wonderful."
After a roundabout path that took him from Rock Hill to Alabama to New Hampshire to Columbia, Gurley can finally relax. He's where he wants to be, happy and most importantly, is productive.
After a redshirt season, Gurley burst into the discussion as one of USC's top two receivers in 2009. Although he only caught two touchdowns -- one against Clemson -- he had three more scores called back for penalties.
No matter. Gurley always has a smile on his face and credits his success to what he learned as a child.
"Like with the Oakdale Green Dragons and at Saluda Trail Middle, those coaches instilled winning in us," Gurley said. "With us coming up through the ranks in middle-school ball and eventually getting to high school, everybody had that winning mentality. It just translated over to here."
Gurley, then known as Tori Childers, was a two-sport star at Rock Hill, leading the Bearcats to Class AAAA state championships in football and basketball. Those memories, and the new ones he's making at USC, are why he plays.
"We worked extremely hard, those teams I played on," he said. "I really worked hard individually to leave a mark on Rock Hill."
The New Class?
The recruiting radar has once again zeroed in on Rock Hill.
The Gamecocks' coaching staff talks whenever they can about Rock Hill's tradition as a Gamecock stronghold to four current area stars -- Northwestern's Roderick Byers and Gerald Dixon; and Dixon's half-brother, also named Gerald Dixon, at South Pointe, where he plays defensive end opposite the nation's top recruit, Jadeveon Clowney.
Each of the seven York County Gamecocks would like to make that number 11.
"I think they could come down and really fit in, help us elevate as a team," Gilmore said. "They've got to make their own decision, though."
Gurley was confident it would happen.
"I think they'll come to Carolina and play," he said. "They see how much fun we're having and the way we talk to them, we're very genuine about our school."
The talk from the Florida guys died as the seven from York County posed for their pictures. Hard to one-up a group where the great majority of it is starting.
But that didn't stop the talk from within.
"I played against C.C.," Lanning said. "He played quarterback for them my senior year. He got out there and ran around for his life, just about beat us."
"I never got to beat (Gurley)," Whitlock rebutted. "But later on as I grew into a system, we ended up beating Rock Hill."
The seven were talking about the games when they clashed against each other. Gilmore and Holloman seemed to trump everybody's arguments about who was the best by offering to show their shiny state championship rings.
"I played against them all in high school, and my junior year, we beat those teams," Markett said. "That's what I say to them. We won."
But Gurley usually ends the discussion.
"Well, I have two championship rings and that's something I take pride in," he said. "Steamrolled all of 'em."
The seven are anxious to show what they can do once USC's season begins on Sept. 2.
Gilmore, Holloman, Lanning and Gurley are definite starters, while Whitlock is a key backup; Shaw and Markett should at least play on special teams.
There will be some Florida natives on the field as well, so the competition will begin again. Each of the seven remembers the last time they were on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium and what they made happen.
Time to do it again. For York County.
"I think it's really just like the Clemson game," Lanning said. "We all had a huge part. York County is probably the only county that we can say we contribute as a whole to a team, to a greater goal."