Florida girls' basketball star Payton Paro is still seeking a sign

Courtesy Carlos M Garcia

Payton Paro has earned 12 varsity letters, in basketball, flag football and golf, during her four years at Plant.

Payton Paro was born in California. She packed up and started over six times by the time she entered seventh grade. One of her stops was in Spain. Another was in Germany. But for the past four years, she put down roots at Plant (Tampa, Florida) and left her mark as one of the school's best athletes.

Now, she has no idea where she's going.

Paro, a 5-foot-9 shooting guard and the daughter of a Navy Seal who is set to retire in June after 31 years of service, set Plant's career records for games played (110) and blocks (90). She is second in career points (1,355) and set the single-season record for 3-point percentage (45.9).

But she's stuck on zero when it comes to scholarship offers. That's counting both Division I and Division II.

Carrie Mahon, who has spent 23 years coaching, can't for the life of her figure out why.

"I've never been around a better person," said Mahon, the girls' basketball coach at Plant. "Or a more complete basketball player. ... If you watch her on video, she's tremendous. She doesn't miss games -- she is built to last. ... I don't think she has a weakness. And then intellectually, she's so gifted."

Paro has a 3.83 GPA and was named the best female academic athlete in Hillsborough County. In addition to basketball, Paro has competed in golf and flag football all four years, earning a total of 12 varsity letters. She was a team captain in all three of her sports. She had her heart set on attending the Naval Academy, but she was not accepted. Her search continues.

But Paro doesn't blame any outside forces for her predicament and expresses confidence she'll end up at a good school. On scholarship.

"I think it's totally my fault," said Paro, a member of the National Honor Society. "I didn't start my recruiting process early enough. I didn't ask [college] coaches to come to my games like some of my [AAU] teammates did."

Rob Walker, who has coached her since seventh grade with the Tampa Thunder AAU program, has a different theory.

"For some, she's a tweener," said Walker, who has seen her slap the backboard. "But my answer is that she's a basketball player. She's a tough kid. She may not look really athletic, and she's not ultra explosive, but she's actually really good. She's really strong. She's faster and can jump higher than most."

As a senior, Paro averaged 12.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 steals, 2.7 assists and 0.8 blocks, leading her team to a 28-2 record as Plant advanced to the regional semifinals, losing to eventual state champion Winter Haven.

Courtesy Carlos M Garcia

Payton Paro averaged 12.9 points per game as a senior.

In golf, she reached the regional round, even though she had little time to practice. And football might just be her best sport.

A fan of fellow quarterback Tom Brady, Paro was named first-team all-state and is working on repeating that honor this spring.

Mahon said she's seen Paro throw a 50-yard spiral. Division III basketball coaches have seen highlights of Paro rolling left and throwing right and have said, in essence, 'No need to see basketball tape. We can tell she's athletic.' "

Getting Division II or Division I coaches to come to the same realization is a work in progress.

Paro has been accepted, academically, to Virginia Tech, Appalachian State and Emory. Mahon, who had sent one of her players from a previous season to Appalachian State, reached out to the Mountaineers -- now under a different coaching staff -- and has yet to hear back.

"Payton is frustrated," Mahon said. "She's a class act and handles it well, but I can sense frustration. I promised her something will work out. I hope it wasn't a lie."

Paro, with uncommon poise for an 18-year-old, contradicts her coach on one point.

"It's not really frustrating," Paro said. "Playing D-I would be a dream come true. But whatever opportunity I get, I would be happy."

Paro, the older of Kent and Christy's two daughters, has planned a few weekend trips to visit schools. Once she chooses a destination, she plans to major in criminology or sociology, whichever can best serve her ultimate goal of becoming an FBI agent.

"I want to give back and serve my country," she said when asked why she wants a career in the FBI. "It's a job that constantly changes, and I can use my observations to solve problems."

Which creates one for Mahon.

"After being with Payton for 110 games, I've really come to rely on her," Mahon said. "I've never been around someone so competitive. It's going to be different without her."

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