This past fall the Union County football team made a run all the way to the Class 1R state semifinals before falling at Northview (Bratt), 21-11, just one game shy of a state championship game appearance.
On Friday, three members of that team, Daylyn Diston, Markus Strong, and Auntrell Ross, were honored with a signing ceremony inside the Union County High School library.
Although all three players had previously signed, it was an opportunity to recognize the trio for their accomplishments and celebrate their new opportunity.
When Union County football coach Andrew Thomas took the podium, he addressed those in attendance first.
“I’m very proud and I know the coaching staff is very proud of these guys and what they’ve done for this community and our football program and I know their families are proud,” Thomas said.
Then he turned to his players.
“This was the easy part, really,” Thomas said. “You’ve gotten to this point. It’s going to get tougher. You’re going to the next step and the next stage. Workouts are going to be tougher, practice is going to be tougher, the schedule is going to be tougher. I just challenge you guys to remember the things that you’ve been brought up in.”
Two of the three have signed with D-I schools.
Diston (6’, 175), a two-way player for the Tigers, signed with East Carolina University.
He didn’t start on varsity until he was a junior and was a JV player as a sophomore.
“He trusted the process,” Thomas said. “He matured a little bit later. He got his opportunity as a junior and he made the most of it.”
As a junior, Diston returned two interceptions for touchdowns against Hilliard (51 and 85 yards) in a 52-14 regional semifinal for the Tigers (13-1). On offense, he averaged 10.5 yards per carry with five touchdowns on the ground.
This past year as a senior, Diston made the Bosshardt Realty All Area defensive team, along with Strong, after the free safety recorded three interceptions and had five passes defended, along with one forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a sack.
He finished his prep career with 19 career touchdowns (three interception returns, 10 receiving, six rushing).
Diston went on a visit to Temple University and forged a relationship with Temple cornerbacks coach Jules Montinar.
While Diston felt Temple was not the place for him, a unique turn of events brought the two together.
Just last month, ECU hired Montinar, who called Diston and offered him a spot with the Pirates.
“It just felt like home the moment I stepped on campus, purple and gold school, like Union County, so I definitely wanted to play there for the next four years,” Diston said.
Strong (6’4, 285), who doesn’t turn 18 until August, signed with the University of Oklahoma.
“It was home for me,” Strong said. “Their coaching staff, the people around it, the community, it was just something I felt great about and a great experience for me. I loved it and I made the decision that’s where I wanted to go.”
Strong missed his junior season because of a torn ACL and meniscus, but as a senior he helped lead the Tigers (8-3) to a state semifinal appearance with 21.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-leading 10.5 sacks. He also added 55 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
“A story of perseverance,” Thomas said. “Last year he didn’t play a down of football. He stayed with it. He kept working. He didn’t give up on his dream. He proved that an injury can’t necessarily stop your dreams.”
He chose the Sooners over Maryland and Georgia Tech, among others.
“When you think of college football programs history, you probably have to link Oklahoma in the top five all-time,” Thomas said. “Great opportunity in front of Markus.”
The Rivals and 247Sports 3-star recruit had to work extremely hard to come back from the injury. His position coach at Union County, Austin Dukes, said that Strong would go to practice for two to three hours and then he would go to rehab and therapy for another two hours.
“It wasn’t an easy process for me,” Strong said. “There was a lot of tears behind it and a lot of hard work but that’s what it takes if you want to do something for your dreams, so that’s what I did.”
Ross, who tied Diston for the team lead in interceptions with three this past fall, signed with Keiser University.
The speedy defender, who runs a 4.4, finished with 34 tackles, including 25 solo, along with nine passes defended.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid,” said Ross, who transferred back to Lake Butler after playing for Hawthorne as a junior. “The day has finally come. I’m enjoying it and I’m just soaking it all in.”
He will play football and run track for the NAIA school in West Palm Beach.
“Auntrell is a dynamic athlete,” Thomas said. “I feel like his ceiling is extremely high and he hasn’t even gotten near it yet.”