SALT LAKE CITY — It's national signing day and never has signing a contract held so much allure.
Across the country top high school student-athletes are making their college choices official by signing their names on national letters of intent. It is a moment years in the making, and for most, it's the realization of a lifelong dream — to play college sports.
This day is also highly anticipated by college football fans as they watch the names of hotly recruited athletes appear on official college websites starting at 6 a.m.
Many local high schools choose to mark the moment with small celebrations as some of their best athletes announce where they'll extend their football careers and earn educations with their skills.
"This is really what we want for you," said East head coach Brandon Matich as eight of his players signed scholarship paperwork at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. "We want to win state titles and all of that, but what we really want is to see you go on to college. This is what's important."
East sent two receivers to Utah State — Zach Swenson and John Fakahafua.
"I’m just a country boy at heart," said Swenson, who was decked out in Aggie blue. Both he and Fakahafua said the change of head coach from Gary Andersen to Matt Wells didn't bother them at all.
"I'm excited about it," Swenson said.
Fakahafua won't appear on the college website because he has to make up a math class that didn't meet the NCAA's clearinghouse requirement. It's a class from his freshman year, which he'll take online in the next few months before enrolling at Utah State.
Fakahafua said it was visiting USU that persuaded him to become an Aggie.
"It was a really great visit," he said. "It's a great program, and it's only going to go up." He said one of the highlights was chatting with USU quarterback Chuckie Keaton.
"He gave me some pointers," Fakahafua said with a grin.
BYU landed two East High Leopards: linebacker Patrick Palau, who will serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling at BYU, and Merrill "Meti" Taliauli, who graduated early so he can enroll at the Y. and participate in spring ball.
"I was planning to go on a mission first, but coach (Bronco) Mendenhall called and asked me to play a year," said Taliauli. "He said it would help them and benefit me, as well. So I'll head out on my mission next January." The nose guard said he's more worried about taking college classes than battling BYU's defensive line.
"I'm nervous," he said laughing. "I heard it's hard."
It's his lifelong dream to be a Cougar, and now it's a reality.
"I thought I'd have a couple of years to kick back and relax," he said. "But it's coming up fast now."
Linebacker Palau said he was "very excited" to finally make his commitment to BYU official.
"I'm still adapting to the reality," he said. "It's kind of unreal. ... I'm still getting used to the mojo of it being a reality."
Meanwhile, left tackle B.J. Tapa signed with William Penn.
"I'm really nervous," he said as his parents looked on Wednesday.
PJ Nu'usa chose SUU, and grinned as Matich read a text from T-bird coaches saying Nu'usa helped "make their signing class." Offensive and defensive lineman Sesi Salt and fullback and defensive end Sione Leaaetoa both signed with Snow College.
Bingham High held a signing ceremony at 8:30 a.m. During that ceremony, Lowell Lotulelei signed with Utah; Keegan Hicks signed with BYU; Joe Malanga and Hayden Weichers signed with Utah State; Durrant Miles signed with Boise State; Drake Miller signed with Hawaii; Tonga Manu signed with Snow and Joe Kaufusi signed with Eastern Arizona.
Sending players to the next level has become a common practice at Bingham and is something coach Dave Peck takes great pride in. Shortly after taking the head coaching spot at Bingham, Peck was determined to do everything possible to prepare each player for the rigors of college football — both on the field and in the classroom, and those efforts have born a lot of fruit.
"I love coaching, and even though a lot of the stuff is hard and frustrating, on days like today it's all worth it — more than worth it," Peck said on National Letter of Intent day. "The relationships you build with each of these players, the hard work and dedication they've shown — you grow so close to all of them to the point where you feel like they're your own children. To see that hard work and dedication get rewarded is really what it's all about and is my greatest joy as a football coach."
For the eight signees, they're grateful to have been a part of Peck's program and credit Bingham coaches for preparing them for the next level.
"Coach Peck has helped me a lot and I love him to death," Malanga said. "He's one of the best coaches in the nation along with the other coaches. They've helped me a lot and helped me become the man I am today."
Front and center among the Bingham signees was defensive tackle Lotulelei, who will attempt to follow in his brother Star's footsteps while at Utah.
"(Utah) has one of the best defensive lines in the country and really prepares its players for the NFL," Lowell said. "Not only that, but they really stress academics and help their players graduate. It's been real exciting to see (Star's) success there."
The seniors at Cottonwood High enjoyed a moment of celebration after a difficult and disappointing season. The Colts' big recruit, quarterback Cooper Bateman, was honored by teammates but has already graduated and is attending classes at Alabama.
Receiver Inoke Lotulelei signed with BYU but will serve a mission before enrolling.
"I grew up in a BYU household," he said smiling for pictures with his mom. "It got a little iffy for a while, but I'm really happy to be there. It took a while for them to offer me and I got a little offended. But it humbled me, and I'm really glad to be going to BYU and I've had a lot of support."
Lotulelei will submit his paperwork at the end of the month and said he talked with coaches Mendenhall and Anae last week about his options when he gets home.
"I'm super excited, but it does seem a little weird now," he said holding his signed paperwork.
Twins Desmond and Dorien Banks enjoyed their time playing high school football together, but they signed with different colleges Wednesday. Desmond Banks signed with Idaho, while Dorien Banks signed with Southern Utah University.
"Everything is changing at Idaho, and there are some really great things happening here," said Desmond, a cornerback. "I can also potentially graduate with my master's, and that was really attractive."
His brother said visiting SUU's campus in Cedar City helped him choose the T-birds.
"I like the environment and the fact that I can play football," said the linebacker smiling. "I'm going into engineering."
Elijah Tupai said he felt comfortable at the University of Hawaii.
"I felt like it was my kind of school," he said. "I felt like I was there already."
Haile Falemaka signed with Utah and proudly posed for pictures in his Ute gear.
"It's close to family, and I get to stay with a lot of my friends," said the right tackle. "I felt really welcome on campus."
He will gray shirt so "I can gain weight."
Siale Fakailoatonga signed with Utah after wavering in his commitment to the Utes a couple of times.
"It's been really confusing," said the tight end. "I was afraid I committed too early, and I didn't want to make the wrong choice."
Niva Kinikini signed with Cornell, while TJ Amone signed with Snow College.
"It's a great school, and I love their program, love their coaches," said Amone, a defensive tackle. "It's the first time I'd been on the campus, and I loved it. It's a great environment where you can focus on football and education."
Cottonwood head coach Greg Crowshaw said he was thrilled for all of the players moving on, especially because this group of seniors has had four coaches in four years while enduring tragedy (the death of two coaches) and controversy.
"For them as individuals, after what they've gone through, it is very fitting that they all ended up as well as they have," he said. "I couldn't be prouder or happier for all of them."
At Woods Cross High, principal John Haning celebrated seven students who have earned scholarships in five sports, calling it a great statement about the effort of the school’s student-athletes.
Sean Barton signed to play football for Stanford on Wednesday afternoon at a ceremony for families.
"I chose Stanford for the academics and playing top-level BCS football at the same time," said the linebacker/receiver, who will serve a mission before enrolling at Stanford. He received phone calls from college coaches as late as yesterday hoping to persuade him to change his mind.
"I'm pretty comfortable," said Barton of Stanford. "I've been there seven times." Maufua Vailolo Jr. signed with Southern Utah University and said he loved how he felt on the T-birds campus.
"I chose it for academics, and I love the program," said Vailolo, a linebacker who was decked out in T-bird gear. "They made me feel really welcome."
Filipo Mokofisi also signed his scholarship paperwork. He will play at Utah next fall.
"It's a special moment for Woods Cross because we haven't had a (Division I) sign since like 1989," he said. "And I get to sign with two of my teammates. I'm really happy about that."
He said he grew up a Ute fan.
"Utah blood just runs in me," he said laughing. He admitted he's a "little bit" nervous about playing college football.
"It will be a good challenge," he said. "(The Pac-12) gets me really excited."
Chloe Hirst signed with Idaho State to play volleyball, while Aliyah Miller signed to play soccer at Gonzaga; Derek Lord signed to run track for BYU; and Sydney Townsend signed to compete for SUU's gymnastics team.
"I love the small town community," said Hirst, who was an all-state volleyball player. "It's such a college town, and they get great fan support."
Townsend said she chose SUU because "it's an incredible school with a great medical program, and I want to be a vet. I'm proud to be a Thunderbird."
Other signings ...
-- Alta's Harrison Handley, who will sign to play tight end for Utah, and Brighton lineman Uaea Mesina, who graduated early and is already enrolled at Utah.
-- Kearns' James Felila, RB 5A Rushing leader, and Lehi Afatasi, DL, have signed with SUU; and Isaac Yarber and Hetu Mataele, DE/OLB, signed with Snow College.
-- Logan's Chasen Andersen has signed with BYU; Jake Thompson, Jacoby Wildman and Caden Andersen signed with Utah State; Hagan Andersen will be a preferred walk-on at USU; Luke Falk signed with Cornell University and Jesse Braddy will play for Dixie State.
-- Herriman's Francis Bernard, 5-11, 210 RB signed with BYU and Tueni Lupeamanu, 6-3, 240 QB/LB signed with Idaho.
-- Jordan's Tyshon Mosley (Utah State), Zach Larsen (Southern Utah), BJ Cavender (Dixie State) and Tyler Swan (Snow College) signed their letters of intent Wednesday night at a team get-together.
-- Syracuse's Mason Woodward signed with SUU, while teammates Cardon Malan and Brock Anderson committed to Dixie State University.
-- LCA's Colin Greenhill signed a letter of intent to play for SUU.
-- Juan Diego's Dakota Cox, tight end/linebacker, signed with New Mexico, while his teammates Zach Shekel (OL/DL) and Justin Caywood (WR/DB) signed with Colorado Mesa. Soaring Eagle lineman Cameron Rokich signed with Montana.
-- West's Tyler Ferrell signed with Missouri S&T.
-- Mtn. Crest running back and quarterback Eddy Hall signed with Weber State. His teammate Moroni Laulu-Pututau signed with BYU.
-- Tre'von Johnson, Hunter High, signed with Weber State.
-- Lone Peak's Austin McChesney signed with Weber State.
-- Dixie running back and 3A MVP Blake Barney signed with Weber State, and Granger lineman Feleti Mulitalo signed with Weber State.
-- Pleasant Grove's Dallin Hatch and Skyler Munson both signed with Weber State University.
-- Fremont defensive back Jordan Preator, 6-0, 180, signed with BYU.
-- Skyline’s Garrett England, Defensive Back, 6-4, 190, signed with BYU.
-- Lone Peak WR Talon Shumway, 6-3, 200, signed with BYU.
-- Timpview’s Dax Raymond (WR) signed with USU.
-- Bingham’s Brandon Taukeiaho signed with USU.
-- Pine View lineman Cody Boyer signed with USU.
-- Layton’s Tyler Fox (CB) signed with USU.
-- Gunnison’s Braden Harris (LB) signed with USU.
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