Three Panther Creek football players are headed to the service academies

CorrespondentFebruary 7, 2014 

— Panther Creek High teammates Justin Byers, Terrence Laster and J.T. Wise envision a day when they will line up on the same field in the Army-Navy Game.

Byers, an outside linebacker, has committed to Army, while Laster, an outside linebacker, and Wise, a defensive tackle, are committed to Navy.

Each will sign a national letter-of-intent on Wednesday, along with college football prospects from across the country.

“I think it’s amazing that three guys from the same high school defense will play against each other in the Army-Navy Game,” Byers said. “We’ve never played against each other before. We’ll want each other to do well in the game, but we’ll want our team to win. I think it will add to our lasting friendship.”

The service academics have a growing recruiting pool, according to Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and former Army coach Rich Ellerson (he was fired after the season, probably in part for a 0-5 record against Navy).

Calhoun said the recruiting pool remains small because the service academics need students who have strong academics and a willingness to serve their country, but that more students are interested in the academies since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the economic downturn of 2008.

Panther Creek is representative of the trend. Catamounts offensive lineman Mike Sutton committed to Air Force last year.

Wake Forest Heritage offensive tackle Trey Ratliff is committed to Army, although Connecticut is making a late recruiting push.

Byers, who is headed to West Point, had a hand in Laster and Wise going to the Naval Academy.

He talked about the career opportunities in the service after football. Service academy graduates are committed to five years of active duty.

“I told coach (Buddy) Green, the Navy coach recruiting Terrence and J.T., if it wasn’t for Justin, I don’t know if (Laster and Wise) would have considered the academy,” said Panther Creek coach Sean Crocker. “Justin has been focused on doing what he needed to do to get into West Point since sixth grade. They saw Justin’s passion, and then the next thing you knew Navy recruited them.”

Crocker says he wouldn’t be surprised if Wise ends up in special forces.

“I’m going to get a free education, and I’m going to play college football, but those are perks,” Wise said. “I’ve always wanted to serve my country. I want to be a Marine officer.”

Both of Laster’s parents are Duke graduates – his father was a three-year football letterman from 1985 to 1987, his mother is Dr. Carol Gibbs – and they spoke to him about the changing job market.

“My mom says there will always be jobs for doctors, but we talked about other careers and job security,” Laster said. “I’ll get a great education and play football, but I’ll also be able to tell my children and grandchildren that I gave back to my country.”

Stanford coach David Shaw said he reminds his players what it means when you play a service academy.

“I mentioned to my team we are playing against young men willing to do things down the road the rest of us are not willing to do,” Shaw said. “These are people who deserve our utmost respect. Our freedom is in their hands.”

Wise, a defensive tackle, hopes the Navy coaches will let him play a little fullback against Army because he wants to block Byers.

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