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June 21, 2012As Pennsylvania dominated the first 36 minutes of Saturday night's 55th Big 33 Classic, Mike Caprara stood on the sideline with JP Holtz and Rushel Shell.
"This is just a taste of things to come," Caprara told his fellow Pitt commits.
Despite a 24-21 overtime loss to Ohio in the game, it was more than just a game to all of future Panthers involved.
"It was an honor and a privilege," Caprara said about the week. "By far, I think this is the best high school all-star game out of all of them. I look back on the week, and I learned so much in so little team. I'll take it with me when I get to Pitt."
Pitt was represented by five players selected to play in the game. Caprara, Holtz, Shell and Tyrique Jarrett played for Pennsylvania. Terrell Jackson was named to the Ohio team, but did not play in the game.
Despite limited touches, Shell finished with five carries for 23 yards and three catches for 18 yards. He was also touted by his peers in practice all week for being "the real deal."
Holtz would be the only Pitt player to score a touchdown. With 47 seconds left in the third quarter, Pennsylvania ran a throw back where Rutgers commit Blake Rankin scrambled out of the pocket and threw it to Holtz across the field for a 4-yard touchdown.
"It was a huge honor really," Holtz said. "Especially the throwback, we worked on it all week. I knew when we got down there we were going to run it, and I knew it was going to work. It was just an amazing feeling to score a touchdown in the Big 33."
Of all the players at the game, Caprara had the most to prove.
Despite being a four-year starter for traditionally strong Woodland Hills, Caprara didn't have any Division I interest until Paul Chryst became Pitt's head coach and hired former Mt. Lebanon high school coach Chris Haering as linebackers coach.
The 6-foot, 210-pound quickly accepted Pitt's offer and had a chance to prove himself against the other top Division I talent in the Big 33 game. He played with a chip on his shoulder and didn't disappoint.
Caprara was named a captain of the Pennsylvania team. He led a strong linebacker corps, making plays all over the field and showing he could hold his own against the top competition.
"Without a doubt, I felt this was my opportunity to show people, and I feel like I did play to the best of my ability," Caprara said. "As it shows, I had a lot of tackles, a lot of game changing plays like the fumble recovery, a lot of big hits. To be honest, all these guys are top notch, going Division I, and I was able to show what I can do. People who doubt me, it kind of makes them look stupid because with my God-given ability, I did what I did.
"For those who doubt me, take a look at the game film, and see what's ahead for the next four or five years."
Still, this game has turned into an experience rather than just a football game. The players spent the entire week together, getting to know each other and doing good in the community.
Each player participated in the Buddy program, which paired up players, cheerleaders and coaches with a special needs child. The duo would spend time together on and off the field to enjoy memorable and rewarding moments.
"That was really nice," Holtz said. "To get to see, how happy we made less fortunate kids. We made their day just being around them. They were so happy to be around us."
It also provided a preview of what could be in store for Pitt over the next four or five years. All the Pitt commits clicked immediately and used the week to get to know each other better. In fact, Caprara and Holtz will be rooming together this fall.
The Big 33 game provided a great bookend to solid high school careers for all of these prospects. As the 2012 recruiting class begin to move in over this coming weekend (Caprara and Holtz will move in Sunday), they're excited to begin the next chapter of their lives at Pitt.
"I'm really excited to get down there," Holtz said. "It's only a week, but I've been waiting for awhile. I'm expecting to win a lot of games down there."
Caprara added: "I can't wait to get down there, and get in that grind of lifting, working out, studying the playbook, practicing, all that natural routine, going to class. Get into that natural role and getting adjusted to it. That's what I'm looking forward to a new beginning, and I'm going to make the best of it."