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North Augusta celebrates 6 senior signees at ceremony


North Augusta High School celebrated six senior signees at a ceremony Thursday afternoon. The signees are, from left, Matthew Baxley (USC Aiken golf), Bryson Nuckols (Newberry baseball), P'eris Smith (Campbell basketball), Monssi Avila (Winthrop soccer), Reilly Howell (Methodist softball) and Elizabeth Levins (Newberry softball).

NORTH AUGUSTA -- Thursday afternoon brought another opportunity to celebrate in a big way at North Augusta High School, which honored six senior signees who will be continuing their academic and athletic careers.

Monssi Avila (Winthrop soccer), Matthew Baxley (USC Aiken golf), Reilly Howell (Methodist softball), Elizabeth Levins (Newberry softball), Bryson Nuckols (Newberry baseball) and P'eris Smith (Campbell basketball) sat together at the signing table as the area around the school's main office was flooded with family, friends, teammates and coaches.

Winthrop was the choice for Avila, who has played soccer since she was very young and has earned the opportunity to play at the Division I level. She said making a big step like that makes her a bit nervous, but also very excited.

Like her fellow signees she still has her senior season ahead of her. Avila, an All-State midfielder a year ago, said her favorite part of being a part of the Jackets' program is the bonds she's formed.

"The family connection I have with everyone," she said. "It feels so united, and everyone's so supportive."

Baxley has made the All-State team two years in a row based on his performances at the Class AAAA state championship tournament, and the Jackets were runners-up both times. 

He said he felt like his level of play increased dramatically as a sophomore, then carried over into his junior season. A continued upward trend would go a long way toward the Jackets capturing a state title, not to mention how it could help the Pacers in the years to come. Baxley has known USCA head coach Michael Carlisle for years since playing in junior tournaments as a middle-schooler, and the prestige of the Pacers' program spoke for itself.

"We've had a really close relationship. They've obviously been No. 1 in D2 rankings. They play a lot of D1 tournaments, so it's a good fit," said Baxley, who's undecided on his studies. "It's close to home, and it's basically a D1 program. It seemed like a good place to go."

Howell swung one of the most dangerous bats in the Jackets' Class AAAA state championship lineup last season, and after years of close calls she wasn't sure if she'd be able to head off to college as a state champion.

Her championship ring sat next to her name card on the signing table, the ultimate proof that Methodist is adding a winner to its program.

"Just all of the hard work that I've put into the game I've been playing since I was 4," said Howell, who intends to go pre-med. "Then when the coaches came and saw me, I was ready. I love the players, the scenery, the college, everything about it."

The same goes for Levins, who also had her championship ring on display. She's played softball her entire life - and is also a member of the Jackets' volleyball program - and she said being part of an elite program has helped her reach this point.

At Newberry, where she plans to study mathematics before transferring to Clemson and finishing up in engineering, she's looking forward to experiencing more of the camaraderie she's enjoyed up to this point. 

"Just to be able to experience all of the bonds that I feel like you can make, because I've made so many amazing friendships from softball," she said. "I feel like that can be possible at the next level."

Nuckols' stock has been on the rise this year, first with All-Region honors in the spring followed by a big summer that ultimately included a commitment to Newberry.

He said Thursday's signing ceremony produced a lot of emotions, especially with so many friends and family members there to celebrate him. He intends to study nursing at Newberry, which he said gives him what he's looking for both as a student and as an athlete.

"It's a very successful nursing program, and baseball-wise they're very successful, too," he said. "It's a top-25 team in the nation, won the SAC conference two years ago, hosted a regional two years ago. It's a great place to be."

Smith acknowledged that playing basketball at the Division I level is a big opportunity, and she's proved time and time again at the high school level that she's more than capable of taking advantage of any opportunity she's given.

Smith has a pair of state championship rings, and last year she was the Region 5-AAAA Player of the Year and an All-State selection. This year she was named one of the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association's top five senior girls in Class AAAA, and in September she committed to Campbell.

Smith has been playing in the spotlight that North Augusta's program commands since she started playing on the varsity roster in the eighth grade. It's been a challenge, but she knows it's prepared her for the next level.

"It definitely gets you ready because you're playing against really good competition," said Smith, who wants to study business management. "We have a great coach here that really prepares you for college, mentally and physically. I think when I get there it will be a smooth transition."