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Recruiting in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas often brings to mind the old tree-in-the-forest question - if there are FBS-level players from an area that no one sees perform, do they exist?
Coming off of the field and celebrating a 47-17 victory over Brownsville (Texas) Veterans on Friday night, Port Isabel (Texas) High defensive end Jacques Guillot knew that outside of the Valley, few, if any, noticed that his Class 3A team positioned itself as the top team in the area, regardless of school size.
He knows that while college coaches will trek tip-to-tail of his home state, none were in attendance to watch him or his teammates perform. None were there to offer him a scholarship he feels he has the talent to earn.
Guillot is part of a small group of players from the southernmost area in the United States that can take their skills to the next level. He is also the most vocally frustrated that he may not get a chance to do it. It is a trend that he hopes the elevation of the Tarpon football program will help alleviate.
"I get it," Guillot said. "I mean, really if you're a college coach you can stay in Dallas or Houston or Austin and see a ton of kids. There isn't much of a reason for anyone to go south of San Antonio, but there are talented guys down here and we play good football.
"The best way for us to get attention is to hit summer camps or have our teams go deep into the playoffs so we can get up to San Antonio and get onto their radar. We have to do a lot extra to get noticed and get those offers. It isn't fair, but that is the way it is."
It has been 52 years since a team from the Rio Grande Valley won a Texas high school football state title, a drought Port Isabel is looking to end this year. The Tarpons surprised by going four games deep last year, and the returning players want to finish with six straight wins to close the season.
Guillot is a 6-foot-1, 254 pound defensive end for the team. He has an offer from Marist College in New York and has been to camps at Rice, TCU and UTSA. Each of the FBS-level programs said they would stay in touch and monitor his season.
His teammates are hoping to see the same level of exposure.
Linebacker Estevan Montelongo has the requisite size at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds to play college football. He has camped at Texas State, Rice and UTSA but does not have any offers. Mark Benevides is a massive 6-foot-3, 330-pounds defensive tackle who hasn't been on the camp circuit but is hoping his highlight tape will make the rounds and will help move him to the next level.
The three at Port Isabel are joined by another trio of players from The Valley that may get an opportunity to play college football.
Brandon Garza is a dual-threat quarterback from Harlingen who is garnering many headlines in the area, David Anzaldua is a two-star offensive tackle from Edinburg (Texas) North with offers from SMU, UTSA and UTEP and Brandon Colon is a two-star wide receiver from Los Fresnos (Texas) High who holds offers from Cornell, Dartmouth, Navy and UTSA.
The aforementioned players tried to showcase their ability during the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour this summer.
Colon transferred to Los Fresnos from Sherman (Texas) High, a move made his recruitment more difficult and his preseason stops more important.
"It is an extra four hours or so for a coach to come down here, so I had to go to them," he said. "I think doing the Rivals camp was big for my exposure, too. Having my highlights out there has helped."
It is the willingness of the players to leave the area that may ultimately help them get out.
Brownsville (Texas) Pace coach William Deen said that the perception of kids from the area holds back current prospects and that there needs to be a new class of kids that leave and don't come back. Deen spent time coaching at Odessa (Texas) High as well as being an assistant at Division III colleges and he said that there is a bad reputation of players from the area.
"The guys that have gotten a chance to get out would wash out all too often and it has hurt us down here," Deen said. "When things get tough they would come home and not see things through.
"Being in Brownsville or other places in the Valley makes it hard enough to get recruited, but when kids keep coming back, then it is going to push the coaches away, too."
Port Isabel coach Monty Stumbaugh agreed, saying that he can only remember one of his kids who left the area actually finishing out at college. He said that while the past isn't good that his current group of players shouldn't be penalized.
"Those kids we have out there right now want to play at the next level," Stumbaugh said. "They are the ones cutting their highlights and getting it out there. Lord knows if they were waiting on me to get that stuff out on the internet, they would be graduated from college before I figured out how to do it. They are taking it upon themselves to go to camps and staying in touch with coaches. It is their dream and they know that recruiting down here isn't the same as the rest of Texas.
"There is a perception that our kids don't meet the measurables for major college football. There is a stigma that they don't care about grades, and that they aren't tough enough mentally, but I know that this group has all of that."
Guillot has felt the sting of those negative stigmas and said that the preconceived notions that are applied to him are simply untrue.
"I have good grades and I am hard worker," he said. "I know what I can do and I hope that there is a school that will let me prove it to them. I know that the group of us are all hard workers."
Both Guillot and Benavides go from school to practice to work. Guillot is part of the water sports operation at Parrot Eyes, the restaurant his parents own on South Padre Island. Benavides and his mother Kim work at Gabriella's, the top-rated Italian restaurant on the island.
Unlike Guillot and Montelongo, Benavides said that he would prefer to stay closer to home and hopes nearby Texas State would begin to increase its interest in him.
Stumbaugh believes that if a school - FBS, FCS or otherwise - would offer multiple players from the region, the success would be increased.
"It is a different culture down here and I think that if guys went to a place that they knew each other, it would help keep them there," he said. "Jacques is a different breed because he is so focused and determined to get out that I think he will stick it out no matter where he is.
"But generally speaking, guys in the Valley are going to be Hispanic and there will be cultural barriers because most football teams are primarily white or African-American, so if guys down here had a friend to rely on they wouldn't be so ready to come back home."
Like Guillot, Colon is focused on being part of the turnaround. His offers to play at Dartmouth and Cornell are more interesting that UTSA. He is also hearing from Connecticut, Columbia, TCU, Houston, and Texas State. An offer from a larger program could keep him in Texas, but distance will not be an issue.
He has a 3.8 grade point average and at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he is prepared to buck the trend in the Valley.
"I am working too hard not to take advantage of this," he said. "My mom is up (in the North), so I can go up there and be okay or I can stay here and play football, too.
"I hope to have my choice. That would be a good problem to have."
For players and coaches alike, seeing more colleges calling on their athletes would be a welcomed change.
"We have seen Coach Polo (Gutierrez) come down from UTSA and the Texas State guys are here a lot because they are in San Marcos, but it isn't many," Guillot said. "I think that if we are getting out to their camps and winning on the field, it will show them that we can play and are worth recruiting.
"Hopefully they will start coming down this way to see football players and not just go on vacation, because we are all working hard to get our opportunities."
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