Nicole Ekhomu could have gone pretty much anywhere. Any of the established women's college basketball programs with championship pedigrees would have thrown open their doors for her. But one thought kept holding her back.
"I was like, 'OK, it would be great to be one of the first to ever do it instead of one of the 19th or 20th to ever do it,'" said Ekhomu, a Bolingbrook, Illinois, native who is the No. 19 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2016 class.
Almost a thousand miles away, a similar thought was bouncing around in the brain of Nausia Woolfolk, the No. 53 player in the class, who had considered perennial contenders like Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville.
"My parents always tell me you want to go where you can make a difference," said Woolfolk, who hails from Fort Valley, Georgia. "I felt like going somewhere and making my imprint on the team so we can make history."
That pioneering spirit helped bring Ekhomu and Woolfolk to Florida State, a school that has made the NCAA tournament 10 times in 11 years but is still seeking its first Final Four appearance (it made the Elite Eight in 2010 and again this past season, when it lost to South Carolina by six points).
Ekhomu, Woolfolk, fellow highly acclaimed guard A'Tyanna Gaulden (the 21st-ranked player in the class out of Americus, Georgia) and 6-4 forward Iho Lopez (a member of the 2015 U19 Spanish national team) all signed national letters of intent to Florida State this past week. On Monday, Jasmine Walker, the No. 23 prospect in the nation from Jefferson Davis (Montgomery Alabama), joined the group of incoming FSU recruits, giving the Seminoles perhaps their greatest recruiting class ever.
After spending the past two years outside of the top 20 recruiting class rankings, Florida State is seventh in the most recent version.
Ekhomu's initial college search was truly national, with schools from the West like UCLA and Colorado, South Carolina and Maryland in the East, and Louisville, Ohio State and DePaul in the Midwest. Ekhomu, who averaged 16.6 points, 5.1 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game as a junior, said it was the family atmosphere, as well as the team's uptempo style, that finally drew her to the Seminoles.
"I did question being so far [from home]," said Ekhomu, who plays at Joliet Catholic Academy near Chicago. "But when I was down there I felt so comfortable that I felt like distance would not be a problem for me at all because it was just like a second family for me. Out of all the schools, I felt like they were the closest, and it was easy for me to fit in."
An explosive offensive player with the ability to play shutdown defense, Ekhomu can be a difference-maker on both ends of the court.
"She takes charges and is the kind of player that has a lot of grits and guts, but is also highly skilled," FSU coach Sue Semrau said after Ekhomu signed on Thursday. "Maybe one of the most skilled players we've brought in to a freshmen class."
Woolfolk, who averaged 25.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.0 steals as a junior, said that besides the relative proximity of Florida State, she also was sold on Semrau.
"She was more like my previous coaches, the type that will push you to your best ability," Woolfolk said. "That's what I was looking for."
While dealing with the increased physicality at the next level can be one of the most difficult transitions for prep stars, Kirk Pointer said that Woolfolk already has a college-ready body.
"She's the 'and-1' champ," said Pointer, who coaches Woolfolk with Nike Team Elite. "Because she embraces contact, she doesn't mind throwing her body around. She's one of those kids you won't believe how strong she is."
Gaulden started going to Florida State basketball camps in sixth grade, and Seminoles coaches started attending her games before any other college coaches. Though schools like South Carolina and Florida eventually entered the picture, the speedy point guard committed in June of her sophomore year and became the first player in the FSU class.
"I always tell coaches these girls are loyal, if you get to know them at an early age, then in turn we pay attention back," said Rick Jones, who coaches Gaulden with the Georgia Sparks.
Though Florida State has been an emerging power and was ranked 7th in both the preseason AP and USA Today coaches polls, the incoming talent may be enough to push the Seminoles further than they've ever been before.
"Up-and-coming program and you're playing in the best conference in college basketball [the Atlantic Coast Conference]. I think that was a huge factor," said Chris Smith, who coaches Ekhomu on the Bolingbrook Panthers. "You're able to set the standards there at Florida State because it is a program that's on the rise right now."