For many local athletes, the idea of playing in college has been a distant hope, but for some, the dream is starting to come true

by: JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Standout senior lineman Jacob Zartman leaps in front of a pass during St. Helens' narrow loss at Sandy. His play on the offensive and defensive lines for the Lions garnered a host of attention from college coaches, and the process has been a fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Zartman.For many athletes, the time and energy put in tends to subside once the season is over. Sure, ‘next season begins on Monday,' but there's a bit of a lull before things start to ramp up once more.

Not for St. Helens senior Jacob Zartman. Only a month removed from the final football game of his high school career, Zartman has his sights on something he views far bigger than anything else in his life: playing football in college.

“That's my dream. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to play college football,” he said, his eyes lighting up at the prospect of stepping on a college field. “Not a lot of people get to do that. I'd be extremely blessed, and I'd be very happy with myself, knowing that I've put the work in to deserve that.”

'Work' might be somewhat of a euphemism. While many college-bound athletes can rely on media exposure, recruiting websites or ample help from their high school coaches, Zartman has taken the burden on himself. He researches schools, looking at the players listed on the defensive line and compares himself.

“If I fit the height, weight, skills, all that type of thing, then I'll send them an email. If I already – right off the bat – feel like I could fit in, then it's worth a shot,” said Zartman. “I've sent stuff to Oregon State, (but) that was just to see what would happen. Most of the time I like to see where I could fit in best, and where I think I could play well right away.”

The process hasn't been without drawbacks. It's a test of patience, as often Zartman won't hear from a school for weeks after first sending an email or talking to a coach in person. He's talked to Pacific University, and Eastern Washington (which made their win over Oregon State all the more exciting) as well as Idaho State and Western Oregon, both of which are frontrunners. Zartman says he is currently leaning toward Western Oregon, but the prospect of playing Division-I AA football is too intriguing to simply brush off.

Idaho State, which plays in the Big Sky conference with Eastern Washington, Brigham Young, Portland State and Weber State (alma mater of Blazer guard Damian Lillard), hopes to continue talks with Zartman, but hasn't extended an offer because they're still in the process of narrowing down their roster. The line coach from Idaho State has been helpful in more ways than one.

“He also told me that if we couldn't work things out, he knows most of the coaches in the Big Sky conference... (and) he would get ahold of for me to kind of put me out there more,” said Zartman, adding that the coach was also from a rural area. “It was always one of those things I wasn't gonna let hold me back, being from a smaller town. I knew I could still play good and get my name out, so he's gonna help me with that.”

Now that the process has hit the home stretch, the reality of playing football in college has truly begun to sink in for Zartman, who started to get a taste in his sophomore year.

“My friend's parents always told me that I could play college football. I didn't believe them because I was just a sophomore, but when I got into my junior year, and my first game (was) really dominant. I had three sacks, knocked a kid's helmet off, and I was like ‘wow, that's pretty good,'” said Zartman.

Coming into senior year, everything was different. Hard work in the offseason, plenty of film and a trip to camp at NW Elite had him primed for combat, and a confident “probably almost cocky” Zartman started to outwork and overpower his opponents. As the season continued, he only got better.

“It helped me play better, just knowing that I can dominate the guy across from me, so now I just have to do it,” he said. “And I did, I had a pretty successful senior year.”

He hasn't made his choice yet, and he hopes for a few more offers to come in before reaching a final decision, but regardless of where he falls, it's a dream come true. Against the odds – an injury in his junior season, a low-profile program, a rural setting – Zartman is well on the way toward attaining a lifelong goal.

“It's been a long process,” he said, “but I think I can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Stadium lights, maybe.

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