Today, in countless ceremonies across the state, Minnesota high school athletes will step onto a stage, grin for the onslaught of cameras and sign their name to a national letter of intent, committing their futures to a single college.For many of these blossoming prospects, however, signing day is the culmination of a long process, during which they've experienced the good: mailboxes full of recruiting letters, eating steaks with coaches, getting a taste of red-carpet treatment. And the bad: watching coaching changes, making tough decisions and stressing for months over not making the cut for school X.Some loved the over-the-top ordeal and some hated it, but all of them came back with stories. Here are a few of them:Anthony Hayes, St. Thomas Academy football • College choice: StanfordHayes sat in his family's kitchen in Brooklyn Park, eyeing a round table overflowing with paper -- letters, offers and campus booklets -- the evidence of interest in him from college football programs that kept the family's mailbox overflowing for months, said his mother, Julie Scharber.The St. Thomas Academy defensive tackle had scholarship offers from eight schools, officially visiting two and unofficially touring several more. But by January, a few weeks before signing day, he wore his decision on his grinning face and on top of it, donning a crimson, flat-billed hat with a logo of the state of California and a star marking the location of Stanford University."I'm 100 percent on Stanford," he said, elaborating for maybe the fifth time that afternoon about the school's perfect blend of academic prestige and football excellence.Just hours earlier, the 6-3, 293-pounder had returned from his official visit to Stanford. Hayes had been committed since late spring -- only a week after the school sent him the official offer -- but unlike with many schools, he had been waiting for months to find out if he would also be accepted academically.On the second night of the Stanford visit, fresh out of a meeting with the dean of admissions, Hayes was out to dinner with a slew of football personnel, munching on bread as he waited for his porterhouse steak. New Cardinal coach David Shaw walked over and asked him, matter-of-factly, what he had in common with everyone at the table -- a select group of football recruits."We all want to go to Stanford," Hayes said.Then Shaw grinned. "No," he said. "You've all been accepted to Stanford."For Hayes, it was a moment that could only be summarized by one word: "Yessss!" While he been courted by schools across the country, he had long ago set his sights on Stanford -- a school with a rigorous application process that includes grade requirements of A's and B's only, as well as almost a half-dozen essays.He was unable to guarantee entry, and somewhat shaken by former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to become head coach of the NFL 49ers. In the meantime, he visited Navy ("I liked it more than I thought I would," he said) and scheduled a visit with Army at West Point.But at Stanford, he experienced everything from the best steakhouses in town to a team laser tag game (offense vs. defense; offense unfortunately won) to the sprawling, intellectual atmosphere of Silicon Valley."Everyone there, it's not just like 'I'm smart,' it's like 'I'm smart and I invented something,' or 'I'm a world-renowned biker.' There is something special about everyone," Hayes said.He left satisfied with the coaching direction of the program and canceled the West Point trip, knowing he was a Cardinal all the way."I really liked Stanford, and so there was no point in me going anywhere else," he said. "If you tell somebody you went to Stanford, they're just like 'Wow.' I'm really excited."Anne Ferguson, Eastview track and field • College choice: University of MinnesotaBy the time the Gophers men's hockey team scored its second goal, the song was starting to sound familiar to Ferguson."Minnesota, hats off to thee; to thy colors true we shall ever be."So, slowly, the Eastview senior -- who was on her official visit to Minnesota as a track and field recruit -- started to join in on "The Rouser." Suddenly, she realized she could see herself doing that quite often."At first I kind of felt like an impostor, but then towards the end I felt like, 'All right, I could go here,'" said Ferguson, who admitted with a chuckle that she still didn't really know all the words but had no problem spelling out M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A.At the rate the Gophers staff was moving, it shouldn't take her long to learn the rest. The day after the hockey game, Ferguson and a handful of other recruits were taken to a track meet and then a football game. But while the distance runner loved all of those experiences, the part she liked the most -- and that stuck with her even after official visits to Nevada and Iowa State -- was that Minnesota left some things unscripted.
"My favorite part was the first night after the hockey game and we went back to the [host] apartment area," she said. "Nothing was planned, we just kind of sat around and looked at YouTube videos and just talked -- we were just hanging out, it wasn't structured -- and I thought I could see myself doing that."
Peter Westerhaus, Holy Family football • College choice: University of MinnesotaWesterhaus is well aware of unpredictable Minnesota winters, so when his official visit to the U was slightly stymied by "Snowmageddon" -- the 17-inch dumping the Twin Cities received in mid-December -- it was "no big deal," said the senior from Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria.
And it's not like it altered the food plans too much. After dining at Fogo de Chao in downtown Minneapolis the previous night, the coaches and recruits were forced to cancel dinner plans and part of the campus tour and huddle at the football office area.
"It was snowing pretty bad, so we just had dinner there," Westerhaus said. "They catered prime rib. We ate well the whole trip: meat and meat and meat. It was wonderful."
The 6-3, 215-pound linebacker/tight end didn't go on his official visit until he'd already verbally committed, but "logged some miles on the car" doing unofficials at Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Iowa State. He might have done more official visits, he said, but he was eager to get the process started, and he started visiting schools before he would be eligible for official visits. Nonetheless, Westerhaus -- who wasn't swayed by coaches who tried to get him to de-commit after the Gophers fired Tim Brewster; in fact, he said he really likes Jerry Kill -- found the process was another satisfying step in a path that has brought him to his dream.
"Recruiting, it's a lot, but it's fun, I've wanted to play D-I football since I was a little kid, and here I am getting the opportunity to meet some coaches and going to big-time programs and see different things and learn," he said. "Like my dad says, it's Business 101 and it doesn't get any better than that."
Rachel Trudeau, White Bear Lake soccer • College choice: North Dakota StateFor Trudeau, a story about a goofy practical joke showed a lot. The North Dakota State soccer coaches had gone out to eat and the players had found a room key and hid inside, planning to jump out and scream when they returned. But coach Pete Cuadrado and crew were clued in to the prank when they noticed a light on, so they summoned the bus driver to walk in, pretend it was his room and fake-yell at the girls.
Stories like these, told over dinners and tours, were ones that made Trudeau -- a midfielder/defender who had considered at least four other schools -- believe NDSU was "the perfect place."
"I liked some of the other places, but there was just something about each one that wasn't quite right," she said. "It was just the kind of back-and-forth like that, that they had [at NDSU]. It seems like they really care about each other; it's not just soccer and that's it. [Cuadrado] really cares about how they are as people, too."