By MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor
In a little more than a year of living and working here, Quincy University football coach Tom Pajic caught on to a secret past coaches seemed to ignore.
"Football is good here," Pajic said.
He means high school football, which is why Pajic and his coaching staff concentrated their recruiting efforts in close proximity to the Gem City campus. Of the 29 players who signed national letters of intent Wednesday with the Hawks, 15 were from Illinois, 13 from Missouri and one from Iowa.
That's a stark contrast to the previous recruiting classes that were dotted with players from Florida and other distant locales. It also reaffirms one of Pajic's stated goals when he was hired.
He promised the Hawks he would recruit their own backyard.
"That's where you live. That's who you are. That's where you are from," Pajic said.
It's where Pajic's pursuit of talent began.
Within the recruiting radius the QU coaching staff identified, there are more than 1,000 high schools. That includes just four states, venturing no more than 300 miles in any direction. The level of talent inside the recruiting circle impressed the QU staff.
"Everybody has a place. Everybody has a role," Pajic said. "There are blue-chip stars. There are the role players. There are the guys you say, ‘Maybe he can.'"
And there are players beyond the recruiting circle that could be a good fit, too.
Knowing that, Pajic and his staff aren't going to limit their search to these borders.
"We're still trying to get creative. Where else can we get to? Where else is our niche?" Pajic said. "It really comes down to what our profile is. We have a profile academically. OK, who fits into that profile? We have a fit -- blue-collar families, Catholic school families. Where are all of these families coming from? What are they looking for?"
For some, it's the chance to win championships.
For others, it's the chance to be part of a tradition.
Here, it's the opportunity to leave your mark.
"We don't have a tradition everybody yearns for," Pajic said. "What we do have is, you could be that guy that sets that tradition of excellence for us. You can be that guy who takes that road less traveled. Twenty years from now, to say, ‘I wasn't just a part of it. I started that.'"
Selling that to players, parents and high school coaches hasn't been difficult.
Pajic said he and his staff criss-crossed states building relationships. Often, it meant changing cars along the highway or at places like toll booths and Dunkin' Donuts, but it was done so they could get to every meeting or practice or game to prove their commitment to the players.
It opened doors in the Chicago Catholic League, where the Hawks signed players from Chicago St. Rita and Joliet Catholic. It got the Hawks in with the Central State Eight Conference coaches, leading to signing players from Rochester and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
And area schools bought in, too. The Hawks landed two players who played pivotal roles in Central-Southeastern's run to the Class 2A semifinals. They found a gem at Quincy High School and landed a transfer who played at Pittsfield.
"I feel good about where we are because I feel good about what the perception of us is," Pajic said. "That's the most important thing. At the end of the day, they now say, ‘What about Quincy?' When the head coach says that, they are entrusting the kids that they've coached for four years and have been their best players and become a great family with you.
"They are trusting you with that young man. That's important."
The QU coaching staff trusts it can find the players it needs in its own backyard, too.
That's a relationship that is only going to get stronger.