Each of the five Stillwater High seniors that signed Wednesday to play football at the college level had the same message for a the group of younger students sitting in Pioneer Fieldhouse to watch them achieve their dreams.

“Instead of being in the stands, you’re at the table signing your name and it’s amazing,” Winston Watkins said after signing his National Letter of Intent with Southwestern Oklahoma State University. “… I hope that they see the potential in themselves as I see in them. Because I was in those stands once and wanted to work hard for this, and I want them to work harder than I did for this and want them to surpass me and being able to congratulate them on what they accomplish.”

The seniors who signed Wednesday – which also included Hazer Xanders with Western Illinois, Artie Smith with Langston University and Brandon Hardesty and Sam Smith with the University of Central Oklahoma – are possibly the start of a shift in the youth football culture at Stillwater.

According to Stillwater High football coach and athletic director Tucker Barnard, this group of seniors were the first class to take part when the school district began seventh-grade football. That has turned into the largest class of football recruits out of Stillwater in Barnard’s tenure.

“To me, this signing day has a whole new feel,” Barnard said. “We’ve had a guy or two, but to have five guys and all going to quality schools is a big deal.”

Stillwater has graduated a sprinkling of football players over the past few years who have gone on to the next level, ranging from junior college to Division I. This group of five will all be going to four-year colleges with Xanders becoming the first Pioneer to make it to Division I since wide receiver Jordan Brown signed with Tulsa in 2016.

“I feel like part of me just wants that type of adventure, being away from home and kind of being out on my own,” said Xanders, who will join the FCS program at Western Illinois which had its first losing since 2014 this past season. “It seems like it will be a fun time.”

Xanders, who had also received an offer from Missouri State, will be the only Pioneer of the class leaving Oklahoma to play college football. The remaining signees will get the chance to play at colleges throughout the state – a promising sign for the Pioneer football program.

“I think part of it is success,” Bararnd said. “We had a lot more coaches that followed us around to our games and watched us – there were a few in-state coaches that were practically at all of our games. I think it’s a little bit of a recognition of the success we’re having and the talent of the guys we’ve got here.”

Getting the chance to play close to home was a big draw for those four who signed in-state.

Artie Smith will be play 20 miles away from Stillwater High School as a member of the Langston University football program in the NAIA. The Lions were 9-2 last season, losing in the first round of the postseason to Kansas Wesleyan – which made the semifinals of the NAIA Football Championship.

“This is amazing, it’s something I’ve always dreamed about since I was little,” Smith said. “… Now, my mom can come watch, everybody can come watch me play especially on a Saturday night. I also like that it gives me an opportunity to better myself, and I really want that education, I really want that degree.”

Having to travel a little further from home will be Hardesty and Sam Smith, as they will attend UCO – a Division II program in Edmond.

The opportunity of the two offensive linemen getting to go to college together was also a big draw, beyond being less than an hour away from home.

“It’s going to be really cool,” Hardesty said. “I was always kind of worried going in that I wouldn’t really have anybody or not know anybody, but to have Sam there to where I can always go and talk to somebody if I need to, or just to have somebody there is going to be really nice.”

Signing to go to college has a little more meaning for Sam Smith. While he is looking forward to playing with his high school teammate and being close enough to “come home to do laundry,” the prospecting of going to college is what had him most excited.

“This is special to me, because I’m the first one to do it in my family,” Smith said. “So it’s pretty cool.”

Watkins will have a little further for family to come watch him play football in Division II. He will be living in Weatherford – a little over two hours from Stillwater – to join a SWOSU program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2015.

“It’s still kind of like we’re play at home, because we’ll be able to go and watch each other’s games, and we might even play each other in a bowl game or two,” Watkins said. “I know my family is going to be there for every home game because it’s in state. It’s pretty awesome.”

Sports Editor Oklahoma State University athletics