Northwestern High School football players Josh Yannotti and Denetri Hemphill were surrounded by family and friends and had huge smiles on their faces while sitting at the conference table outside coach Jimmy Wallace's office.
Everyone showed up well before school started Thursday morning and came to support a pair of players who have meant so much to the Trojans' program.
The smiles were not just because Yannotti and Hemphill were about to sign letters of intent that will pay for college the next four years. That was a given. They were in good spirits because their strong friendship will continue at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C.
"We liked the school, liked the facilities, liked the coaches when we visited, and we like it more because we are going together,'' said Yannotti, son of Brian and Stephanie Yannotti. "Our team started slow this year but turned it around, and we went to the state championship. It felt good being a part of that.
"It also gave us an opportunity to be seen on the field and work our way into doors to college opportunities. Some high schools kids never get that kind of chance, but we have tradition at Northwestern, and we have players who can make it at the next level.''
Lenoir-Rhyne was founded in 1891 and is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It has approximately 1,600 students, and its sports teams, the Bears, play in NCAA Division II and are members of the South Atlantic Conference in football.
The school takes pride in its student-athletes and most get academic and athletic aid. Hemphill (3.6 grade point average) and Yannotti (3.4 GPA) fit the mold and got both.
"What I liked was the coaches told me that if freshmen work hard, the opportunity to play is available,'' said Hemphill, son of Dennis and Deborah Hemphill. "I know about hard work, and this is one of the rewards it can bring.
"As far as football goes, two cornerbacks graduated, and I'm one of three coming in. I look forward to competing for playing time.''
Yannotti is slated for the offensive line, likely at center.
Both said they owe gratitude to their experience with the Trojans getting them to college. Each left a bit of advice for players returning next year.
"Listen to your coaches and do as they say,'' Hemphill said. "They have been where you are, but you are nowhere near where they have been. They know what's best for you and the team.''
"Grades should come first,'' Yannotti said. "If you have good grades and have athletic talent, doors are going to open to you.''