Ayanna Edwards doesn’t shake hands. She’s a hugger, and the Sacramento High School senior basketball star embraced seemingly every soul within reach Wednesday afternoon.
She finally broke free from the clutches of family and friends inside the Dave Hotell Pavilion to join four teammates to sign national letters of intent to play college basketball on scholarship. Then Edwards took a moment and exhaled.
“All of the hard work we’ve put in, it’s paid off,” said Edwards, a 6-foot-4 center headed to Arizona State. “It’s so worth it now: a good student at one of the toughest academic schools in the city, literally getting worked to death in practice, go home, study, wake up and do it again. But I’m not complaining. This is great stuff to complain about.”
The Dragons made history in becoming the first area team – boys or girls – to have each starter sign with a Division I program at the same time. Edwards was joined by Chaya Durr (UC Santa Barbara), Zonyia Cormier (Cal Poly), Simone Sheppard (UNLV) and Najah Queenland (Pacific). Their coach, Michele Massari, choked up in detailing each player’s academic and athletic adventures. Entering her sixth season with the Dragons, Massari has had 15 players sign with Division I schools.
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“It’s really amazing, and the way these girls take school as serious as basketball is testament to their character,” Massari said. “It’s something for all of us to be proud about.”
The Dragons highlighted a record haul for the early fall signing period with 97 area students signing letters to play college basketball, softball, golf, baseball, crew, lacrosse, swimming, water polo, equestrian and volleyball. Football signing day is in February.
Board room meeting - Fourteen student-athletes signed their letters inside a packed Elk Grove Unified School District board room.
The oldest school in the district, Elk Grove, had outfielder Derek Hill sign with Oregon in baseball, and the newest high school, Cosumnes Oaks, had Julia Morales sign with Oakland University (Rochester, Mich.) in softball. EGUSD interim athletic director Todd Reiswig pointed out that scholarship athletes are a unique group. He said national studies reveal that only 0.8 percent of high school students earn a scholarship in swimming, 0.7 softball, 0.6 in basketball and baseball and 0.4 in soccer.
“Everything is under 2 percent,” Reiswig said to the athletes. “What an amazing achievement for each of you.”
Reiswig then challenged each to return to their high schools in the next five years, bearing a college diploma as motivation, regardless of athletic success.
Dalayna Sampton of Florin basketball signed with Hawaii. The center said she is just as proud of her 3.8 GPA as she is for her rebounding prowess.
“I'm very happy and proud,” she said. “It shows that you have to be a real student first, and I love that challenge.”
Malik Pope, a high-profile 6-8 national basketball recruit for Laguna Creek, signed with San Diego State. He will miss this season with a broken leg, but he was still all grins.
“This feels great to be here, and I feel fortunate to be able to have a scholarship,” he said.
Said Hill: “It's an honor to sit with these people. We have an opportunity to strive to be what we want to be.”
Green Machine - Seated in front of a large banner that reads “Green Machine,” six Granite Bay athletes signed, including two from the state’s top-ranked volleyball team in Taylor Nelson (Cal Poly) and Maddy Deters (Concordia in Irvine). Mitch Hart signed with USC baseball, Connor Briare with Loyola Marymount baseball and Devin Lehman and Vinny Esposito with Sacramento State baseball.
“So excited,” Deters said. “You dream of this.”
Group signings - St. Francis nearly ran out of chairs as 18 athletes signed, including seven in volleyball with Noa Nightingale and Megan Sullivan bound for UC Santa Barbara. Five Troubadours signed in crew, including Jacqueline Holben and Nina Obaldia with Cal.
In El Dorado Hills, six Oak Ridge athletes signed, including softball players Lindsey Zito with Humboldt State and Caitlyn Olan with CSU San Bernardino. Josh Wellman, a football star for 9-1 Trojans, signed to play lacrosse at Penn State.
Hornets haul - Sac State baseball coach Reggie Christiansen said he was “thrilled” to collect signatures from eight local prospects as he continues to build his program with homegrown talent. Sac State is coming off successive 30-win seasons. Some of his recruits were being pursued by nationally ranked Pacific-12 Conference and Big West Conference programs.
In addition to Lehman and Esposito from Granite Bay, the Hornets signed Brandon Hunley (Christian Brothers), Austin Root (Oak Ridge), Sam Long (Del Campo), Ryan Smith (Rocklin) and small-school stars Anthony Castaneda of Woodland Christian and Jeremiah Moore of Valley Christian in Roseville. The group later celebrated at The Old Spaghetti Factory.
“I’m really excited, and it’s a great group of kids, unbelievable,” said Christiansen, who pointed out that his roster next year will have 21 of 35 players from regional schools. Christiansen said high school players network, and they like to stick together, even if rivals.
“A lot of these guys have played against each other or with each other since they were 9, 10, 11 years old, and they have relationships,” Christiansen said. “And this group has a cumulative 3.69 GPA, so no question, it’s the best class I’ve been a part of. Your best players are the best students, too.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.