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Cassell joins Winslett at Eastern Kentucky

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- It was a good recruiting season for Leon Hart.

Eastern Kentucky's area scout secured two of the North Suncoast's top recruits Wednesday when Hernando's Steve Cassell followed Central's Willie Winslett in signing a national letter of intent to play for the Richmond, Ky., school.

"You can pretty much call me a happy camper," Hart said.

Wednesday was the first day recruits officially could commit.

Winslett, a 6-4, 270-pound guard, made his intentions clear Tuesday, but Cassell kept his decision personal until Wednesday morning. Both received full scholarships.

Eastern Kentucky, which finished last season 8-2 and 18th in the final USA Today I-AA poll, has the most victories in I-AA history and hasn't had a losing season since 1972.

Head coach Roy Kidd, Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Penn State's Joe Paterno are the only active coaches with 300 or more wins.

Cassell, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound defensive end with superior athleticism and a mean streak, chose EKU over Connecticut, a third-year Div. I-A program in the process of major upgrades.

His senior year at Hernando, he said, had a bearing on the decision, as a rebuilding Leopards team went 3-7, and Cassell was forced to play running back more than defensive end.

"Eastern Kentucky was 8-2 last year and UConn was 2-9," Cassell said. "I like to be on the winning side. I'm not so much a building kind of guy."

EKU seemed more interested in what he wants to accomplish, Cassell said.

"I felt comfortable at UConn, but I thought at Eastern Kentucky I had a better understanding of what I was doing and why I was doing it," he said. "And all they seemed to want to do at UConn was party. That's not what I'm all about. I mean, I like to party, but that's all my host seemed to want to do."

Hart was impressed with the entire Cassell when he finally met him in person.

"I knew he was a big, strong kid that could run, but what I liked about him from the first time I met him was the personality," Hart said. "He's got a smile on all the time, and there was never any aloofness to him.

"He was genuinely interested in us from the beginning, no matter who else in the country was recruiting him."

Hart said he projects Cassell to eventually bulk up to 250 pounds. A lack of depth at defensive end, Hart said, will guarantee one newcomer a chance for copious playing time.

Cassell's decision brings to nine the number of Hernando County products to play at EKU.

Rodney Byrd, Hernando's former athletic director, helped begin the string in the 1970s when he, George Floyd and Tom Darby, a future Hernando coach, attended EKU together (Darby as a graduate assistant) and won a national championship there in 1979.

The Brooksville-to-Richmond trail had begun when Masaryktown's Frank Vohan took a coaching job at EKU, mined his home area and landed Byrd and Floyd. It fully developed later when Vohan made a habit of contacting Darby during recruiting season.

This fall, Hart, the Colonels' offensive coordinator, and the quarterbacks coach when Byrd was there, contacted Byrd in search of recruits. Byrd knew Cassell would be a good fit, but said he did not push his alma mater.

"He had a lot of questions," Byrd said of Cassell. "I basically just told him about my experience; but the school kind of sold itself."

Cassell said the decision was his alone. He liked the criminal justice program, in which he hopes to major, and wants to minor in theatre to advance a possible career in private investigation.

Byrd said it helped him as a freshman to have a friend and roommate in Floyd.

Winslett and Cassell could provide the same support system if they choose, but Cassell, a gregarious and confident sort, said he won't suffer the homesickness that seems to afflict so many local athletes who leave Florida.

"I can go off and last years at end," he said. "I can hang, because I'm that disciplined and I know what I want to accomplish."

Hart learned of Winslett when Central coach Steve Crognale called to tell him he was sending him a videotape.

"I saw him on film and I loved him. That big son of a gun runs like a gazelle," Hart said.

"I told (Crognale) I couldn't come see him until the following week because I had to go over to New Smyrna Beach and I was talking to (NSB) coach (Gerald) Odom and I told him I was looking for offensive linemen. He said there was one at Brooksville Central.

"I said, "Willie Winslett." He said, "You know that guy?,' and I said, "Oh, yeah."'

The Hernando pipeline won't end with Cassell and Winslett, Hart said.

"You can pretty much bet I'll be back next year," he said.

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