Zach Welch and Brendan Wharton had seen each other many times before. Sometimes it was up close and personal, sometimes it was from across the field or sometimes it was on a little league baseball field, but never in the manner they had when they bumped into each other in December in West Long Branch, N.J., visiting Monmouth University.
The main difference between this meeting and all the others was that Wharton wasn't so inclined to put Welch, Middletown's former running back, on his back, as had been his duty as an Urbana High School linebacker/defensive end. A few other contrasts were their attire (street clothes instead of football pads and a helmet), status (the seniors were considered prospective college athletes instead of high school stars) and the occasion.
This time, they were looking to play together on the same team. Both were on their official visit as recruits for the Monmouth football program and were joined by Darren Ambush, Urbana's returner/cornerback/running back/slot receiver in the fall.
“It was pretty cool because we've been going at each other for the past four years,” Wharton said of meeting Welch, a two-time Gazette Player of the Year.
Verbal commitments soon followed the official visits and, on Feb. 6, during national signing day, the trio from Frederick County officially signed with Monmouth to form the biggest class from Frederick County in program history, according to Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan.
“I think that, as we've built relationships with the coaches, that there's a trust there,” Callahan said. “We want guys coming into our program that are used to winning championships.”
If it was championship experience that Callahan was looking for, he came to the right spot. Welch was the motor to the Middletown machine that went 27-1 with a pair of state championships in the past two seasons while Wharton and Ambush are products of an Urbana program that has won five state championships and played in two more title games since 1998.
“Everyone was very well-coached,” said Monmouth offensive coordinator Scott Van Zile, who recruited each of the three. “It's very evident in that part of the state. They're very respectful kids, very tough, very well coached.”
In the four to five years that Van Zile has taken over the recruiting in the Frederick and Montgomery County area, he has created something of a burgeoning pipeline between Monmouth and the local talent. During the 2012 season, the Hawks' lineup was filled with nine players from Montgomery and Frederick and one other from Prince George's County.
The name recognition that is slowly being built up “is big because they know it and they see it in the paper,” Middletown coach Kevin Lynott said. “A big factor is that name recognition and more athletes can attach players they know with a university.”
Both Wharton and Ambush mentioned that they knew former Linganore players Tyler Thompson and Keith Kluetz were already at Monmouth while Wharton also pointed out several of those who hail from Montgomery, come from Damascus High School.
“They've had success,” Wharton said. “They know Maryland. They've been blown away by Seneca Valley and Damascus.”
Van Zile partners with two others on the Maryland recruiting beat and together they signed 11 recruits from Maryland, nearly triple the amount from any other state. New Jersey, Monmouth's home state, was second with four recruits and was followed by New York (two), Pennsylvania (two) and Virginia (one).
To put that in perspective, Frederick County, an area with a population of 236,745, sent more recruits than states with populations of 19,378,102 (New York), 12,702,379 (Pennsylvania), and 8,001,024 (Virginia).
“I think that [name recognition] really helps,” Callahan said. “I think we've established a foothold down there.”
One of the keys, according to Lynott, in keeping such a strong relationship is not just the amount of athletes signing with Monmouth, but the success they have there and possibly even at the next level. Since 2006, the Hawks have produced four National Football League talents in Miles Austin (Dallas Cowboys), John Nalbone (drafted by the Miami Dolphins), Chris Hogan (Buffalo Bills), and Jose Gumbs (Kansas City Chiefs).
“They'll get a leg up if it translates into success,” Lynott said. “I think the jury is still out, but they definitely have a stronghold in Frederick County and Maryland.”
Football aside, one of Wharton and Ambush's primary concerns was academics. Both were recruited by a number of Ivy League schools including Cornell and Dartmouth and both went on their official visits bearing non-football futures in mind.
“What it all came down to was academics,” said Wharton, who plans to major in business administration. “It blew me away. It was a great first impression.”
As far as academics go, that may have been a first impression. Football-wise, it appears Monmouth is making a lasting one.