Woodland football quartet heading to Shorter

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Most of the time when Woodland seniors sign their national letters of intent, the ceremony takes place in a classroom of the high school building.

That wasn't big enough for the event held Friday afternoon, as four Wildcats football players pledged their academic and athletic careers to Shorter University.

Besides the logistical nightmare that would have come with holding four consecutive signings in the same room designed to teach roughly 30 students, it seemed fitting to have the ceremony inside the school's Performing Arts Center.

While the event wasn't high on pomp and circumstance, the spectacle of having a quartet of Woodland gridiron standouts ink financial aid packages with the same university proved more than deserving of the big stage.

Having watched Jaylen Ballard, Justice Carter, Dylan Forman and Jalen Hudson achieve something only a select few high school athletes get the chance to do, Woodland head coach Tony Plott acknowledged it's one of the best days the program has seen since he arrived.

“That’s why we do this, to help these guys grow as men," he said. "This is an opportunity for them to continue their education, to continue playing. All that is going to help develop them and mold them into the men they’re going to be. All we did was start it. Over the next four years, it will really start taking shape. Just to be a part of that is a joy.”

The festivities would have been just as special had each of the four players been heading to different schools around the country. However, the fact that all will be attending the same university, especially one just down the road in Rome, made it feel more like a celebration than the going away party vibe the alternative often provides.

It wasn't a foregone conclusion that the recruiting process would bring about this neat and tidy resolution. While members of the group often visited schools together throughout the period since Woodland's season ended, Ballard said the idea of playing at the same college didn't always seem viable until Shorter.

“We landed on doing this at first," he said, "but then at the end, we kind of started to veer off. But we came back together after talking to all the coaches at Shorter.”

Forman said as great as it was playing together at Woodland, it would be "10 times more fun" to play college ball on the same team.

“The coaches, it felt like we’d known them forever,” he said. “It felt right. The campus felt right. The coaches made you feel like you were already part of the family, as soon as you got there. It’s right down the road, so family and friends can still come support. We all get to go together, so I think it’s going to be a fun time.”

Hudson also felt like the bond the group shared would only be strengthened by playing the next four years for the Hawks.

“To be able to continue that bond that we already had in high school, to continue that in college is an amazing thing,” he said. “It was a big part of the reason we chose Shorter.”

Plott's Saturday plans should become simplified with the foursome playing their home games less than an hour away. Even besides the easier drive to watch the Wildcats alumni play, Plott believes his players found the perfect future home.

“I think they started this whole recruiting process together anyway, so they went to visit a lot of the same schools,” Plott said. “When the opportunity came for them all to attend Shorter, I think they jumped on it. It’s great deals for them, great [financial] packages.

“It’s great football, getting to play in the Gulf South Conference with the national champions Valdosta State. It’s a great opportunity for these guys. There’s a lot of great things happening at Shorter right now. Coach [Zach] Morrison and his coaching staff have a vision. … I think it’s going to be a great place for them.”

Even though Friday's ceremony technically was for the players signing their letters of intent, it really seemed like a chance for the entire senior class to be celebrated and recognized. The group has earned plenty of plaudits for helping to begin the process of turning around the Woodland football program.

When the now-seniors were sophomores, the Wildcats suffered through an 0-10 season with no game decided by fewer than 13 points. As juniors, the class helped break a long losing skid and win three games. This past season, Woodland got off to a 4-0 start before the grind of a super tough Region 7-AAAAA schedule saw them finish below .500.

“I think it made us stronger together,” Hudson said of improving through the years. “Definitely going through the tough times and being able to win some, it made us very close.”

Regardless of how the year ended, nobody can deny that the players made a positive impact on the future of the program.

“I feel like we left it better than we found it,” Carter said.

While clearly helping the team, the four players have also enjoyed plenty of individual successes in their Woodland careers.

Carter rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a fullback this past season, joining Hudson on The Daily Tribune News all-county team. (Ironically, Hudson made the team as an offensive lineman but will switch to the defensive front for Shorter.)

Forman landed on the DTN preseason all-county team at tight end, but a knee injury shortened his senior campaign. Ballard, meanwhile, just missed out at an honorable-mention nod for his work at cornerback ahead of a move to safety with the Hawks. Although, he did garner all-county recognition in basketball following his junior season.

Ballard actually didn't join the football team until prior to his 11th-grade year. The addition of him and some other kids who had played other sports managed to give Woodland the extra boost needed to turn the corner.

“Even before [I joined], they were talking about this whole senior class,” Ballard said. “I think me and other guys coming out for football really helped bring the program together. We were all really close outside of football, but we had just never played together. I think us being close and all coming out together really pushed us over the edge to get us, not where we wanted to be, but in a better position.”

Carter, who admitted to feeling "a little bit of everything" after the signing, said he's looking forward to what the Wildcats are able to accomplish in 2019 and beyond.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “I believe they’re going to be something special. Hopefully, they do even better than us.”

As for Carter and Co., they will look to begin assisting Shorter in a similar rebuilding project. The Hawks will be coming off an 0-11 season with their closest loss a 37-24 setback.

If there's anybody who can come in and help change the culture, it would be these Wildcats who have gone through plenty of trials and tribulations to emerge as better players and better people.

“I think one of the things they showed the kids was being committed to something and being able to overcome adversity,” Plott said of the example the signees set for his younger players. “They’ve done that over the last four years. They’ve been committed to our program; they’ve made sacrifices; and they’ve overcome adversity. They have left this place a lot better than they found it.

“It says a lot about their character. You’re talking about four guys there who are high-character kids. They’re going to be great husbands; they’re going to be great fathers. I expect they’ll be leaders in whatever community they settle in. They’ll be people we will always be proud of.”