SAN ANTONIO - Five Marylanders - four players and one coach -- had the experience of a lifetime at the 10th annual U.S. Army All American Bowl in San Antonio, Tx., the nation's most prestigious All-American high school football game.
This all-star showcase pits East Coast against West Coast in a star-studded affair that brings together 90 of the top football players in the country.
Close to 40,000 fans and Army brass packed the Alamodome last Saturday; they watched the West defeat the East, 30-14.
But the game itself was a mere formality a la the Pro Bowl. To the players, just being there and proudly representing their school and state justified the whole experience.
Perhaps no state was prouder than Maryland. They didn't have the most players in the game, but the four that suited up in the gold and black East team jerseys are the most Maryland has ever sent since the game's creation.
"With so many kids in this year's 2010 game, it's clear that Maryland football has improved when it comes to developing talent," said top Rivals national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. "Maryland is starting to compete with states like Pennsylvania and Virginia as far as producing the top players in the nation."
Indeed, Maryland has become a recruiting hotbed with over 40 players receiving scholarships from the Division I or I-AA college levels. But only four of them were selected to the Army All-American Bowl.
Defensive end J.R. Ferguson of Hargrave Military in Chatham, Va. (who resides in Frederick, Md.), linebacker-running back Nick Forbes of Gov. Thomas Johnson, fullback Zach Zwinak of Linganore, and lineman Arie Kouandjio of DeMatha were the four Marylanders who participated. What's more, three of the above - Zwinak, Ferguson and Forbes - all played for schools in Frederick County.
"It was an honor to be selected to the game," Forbes said. "The highlight for me was when a United States Army General led us in our pre-game pep talk and said, 'Look down at your jersey, you are U.S. Army All Americans.'
"All of the pride set in and finally it hit me and I thought to myself, Wow I'm an All American."
Joining the players was coach Rick Conner of Linganore High School, who was chosen as an assistant on the East Squad. Conner led his Lancers to a 3A state championship and an undefeated season.
"This was a tremendous experience for all of these young men, and I was happy to represent the state of Maryland as one of the coaches in such a prestigious game," Conner said.
Ferguson (6-4, 275), a five-star recruit who originally played at St. John's Catholic Prep in Frederick, didn't terrorize the quarterback like in high school. But he played a significant number of snaps against the top-rated player in 2010, lineman Seantrel Henderson (6-8, 300).
"I think I did pretty well against him," Ferguson said. "I had a great experience at the game and really enjoyed competing against the best."
Ferguson is recognized as one of the best defensive line prospects in the country and elected to play his senior season at Hargrave, a prep school that consists of 37 scholarship players and competes against lower-tier college programs, other prep schools and Division I college jayvee teams. He finished his senior season with 67 solo tackles and 12 sacks.
Unlike other top Army All-American prospects who made their college announcements live on the NBC telecast, Ferguson eschewed the opportunity. That's because he's still undecided on which school he will attend.
"I will make my decision on national signing day in February," Ferguson said.
He has over 40 scholarship offers and it seems LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, UCLA, Cal, and NC State are all in the running.
"Ferguson will hit the ground running at whichever school he chooses from his experience at the military academy," Hargrave coach Robert Prunty said.
Four-star linebacker Forbes (6-1, 225), a California recruit who finished his season with 114 tackles and three interceptions and rushed for 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns, played linebacker for the East squad.
"I had a great week down here in San Antonio," Forbes said. " It was really fun competing against the best."
Zwinak (6-2, 230), a four-star recruit who is heading to Penn State, finished his senior season with 2,012 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns. He was named Maryland's Gatorade Player of the Year.
"Zach has a special combination of size and speed and is a tremendous athlete," Conner said.
"It was amazing being around all of the nation's top players," Zwinak said. " I have a lot of future teammates on the team like Mike Hull, Paul Jones, Khairi Fortt, and Silas Redd. It was really fun hanging out with all of those guys."
Last season, Kouandjio (6-6, 310), a four-star recruit, anchored DeMatha's offensive line. He played a key role in paving the way for explosive Iowa-bound running back Marcus Coker and helping the offense gain over 5,000 yards of total offense.
His domination earned him an invitation to the Army All-American bowl.
"I had a great time competing against the nation's best," said Kouandjio. "I played all three offensive line positions this week."
Like Ferguson, Kouandjio (6-6, 310) is still undecided on which college he will attend. He has no clear-cut favorite and doesn't plan on making a decision until singing day.