For college athlete recruits around the country, Wednesday's National Signing Day — the first day of the full signing period — often signifies a great milestone in a hard-working high school career.

It was all of that and more for Corvallis' Garrett Brown Wednesday when he signed his National Letter of Intent (NLI) in front of friends and family to play for the University of Mary football team. In signing Wednesday, he joined thousands around the country — including Hamilton's Tyler Barnes — who put pen to paper announcing their decision to play sports at the next level.

"I had a lot of decisions to make and they were some really stressful decisions, but when I decided to go the University of Mary, all that stress wicked away, I knew I made the right decision," said Brown, a four-year starter for the Blue Devils football team and all-state lineman. "I’ve had some great support over the years. Every one that’s here has been with me from the beginning. They’re all coming out to support one last time before I head off to college."

Signing day can also serve as a bit of relief from the recruiting trail. Brown had been contacted by a handful of schools throughout his senior season, and the ebbs and flows of college recruitment can be a bit taxing, particularly for a family going through it for the first time.

"It’s like a blind rollercoaster. It’s like getting on rollercoaster and not knowing where you’re going," Garrett's mom, Andrea Shay, said of the recruiting process. "...There’s been coaching changes at different colleges, there’s been some places where we thought there was a line and then there wasn’t.

"...If you look at a roller coaster, you can kind of see the pattern of it, and you can sort of know at some point you’re going to get off, but this is more like magic mountain where you’re in a black hole and don’t know where it ends."

For Brown it ended in a perfect fit at the Bismarck, North Dakota college. Brown and his family were impressed by the direction of the football program, led by coach Craig Bagnell, originally from Polson and one of the youngest football coaches in the NCAA. Brown also couldn't pass up the opportunity to study political science North Dakota's state capital.

"... He really needs sports and really always wanted to be an athlete in college, but the fact that he’s thinking about what else he can do in society, how he can change the world, what can he do to give back? ... When he’s looking at where can he have both of those, just the level of maturity it took to weigh that out, his mom’s proud of him," Andrea said.

As far as football goes, it's easy to see why U-Mary came calling for Brown. The Shrine Game selection was listed at 6-foot-3, 270 pounds during the season, he broke the Corvallis school record for bench press with a 345-pound lift, and he's on the Academic All-State list.

Brown, a two-year captain for Corvallis, helped power his offensive line and option-running team to a 6-5 overall record and the school's first-ever Class A football playoff win last fall.

"I think the University of Mary is getting one of the better linemen in the state, honestly," Corvallis football coach Clayton Curley said. "Especially with his work ethic in the weight room and a kid that has a lot of experience.

"They’re getting a guy that gets a ton of experience on the football field and I think he’s going to be just well off with his leadership."

All of that adds up to an exciting future for Brown and the Marauders, members of the Division-II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).

Fittingly, there's another Bitterroot football player who will be suiting up in the same conference, but for a rival team, after also signing his NLI Wednesday.

Hamilton's Barnes signs with Minot State

Six miles up the road from Brown's signing day, Hamilton's Tyler Barnes also made the ceremonial move of signing to play football at the next level surrounded by his family.

As it turns out, the standout receiver for the Broncs — the Blue Devils' bitter rivals — coincidentally signed with Minot State, a rival school of U-Mary in the NSIC.

Chalk it up to the state of North Dakota landing another talented Montana athlete.

Barnes, an all-conference wide receiver in the Southwest A, had 46 catches and 546 yards receiving for the high-octane and Class A-best Hamilton offense. He was second on the team in total receptions and had four receiving touchdowns, according to maxpreps.com.

But his peripherals were off the charts for the Broncs, who went to the Class A state title game in back-to-back seasons with Barnes on the outside. The Hamilton senior simply looks like a football player.

"With his size, ability to block and he’s got great hands. He’s perfect for someone in the college ranks," Hamilton coach Bryce Carver said after Barnes signed. "He’s kind of that bigger bodied guy that if we needed a ball that needed to be caught it was going to him because we knew he’d catch it. He’d run really good routes and just catch the ball, and does all the little things.

"He’s a great teammate, a good kid off the field, he’s a good student. That’s all stuff that will help him excel at the next level."

Both Brown and Barnes join NSIC schools looking to rebuild. Each squad went 1-10 overall last season. But things are looking up, especially after signing two of the Bitterroot's best.

Early signees and signees to be

While National Signing Day is the first day of the full signing period and is associated with a fitting amount of pomp and circumstance, it's not the be-all-end-all for prospective college athletes.

The NCAA now has an early signing period and several student athletes from the Bitterroot Valley had already inked their NLI's ahead of Wednesday's event. As of now, 406mtsports.com has Stevensville's Angel Richards, Florence's Spencer Jones and Danielle Zahn and Hamilton's Hunter Omlid all officially going on to next-level athletic endeavors.

Richards signed to play volleyball and basketball at Dakota College at Bottineau. 

Jones, an all-state football player, shrine game selection and outstanding wrestler for the Falcons, is heading to Rocky Mountain College. Zahn, an all-state point guard for the Florence girls basketball team, signed with Montana State University-Billings.

Omlid will suit up for the Boise State baseball team.

"Signing Day" can also be any day now for many others in the Bitterroot. Coach Carver in Hamilton and Florence athletic director Scott Marsh said several other players are in talks or verbal commitments with a handful of college programs.

The same goes for Darby and Corvallis, too, and the rest of the Bitterroot schools, as colleges look to continue to fill out their recruiting classes.

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