As the state's four-time defending state titlist in Group AAA Division 5, Phoebus has plenty of championship experience. Guys like Tony Pittman, Mark Wilson and Atavius Matthews have been around the block a time or two.
But the Phantoms also have a pair of freshmen starting at what head coach Stan Sexton considers the most important position on either side of the ball — quarterback and free safety. Terrell Toliver became the first ninth grader to start a season opener at Phoebus in … well, maybe ever. And Robbie Robinson moved from corner to free safety, where he has started since opening night.
Sexton would prefer having some experience at both positions — particularly at quarterback, at which Phoebus had started a senior every year since 2008. But sometimes, these things happen.
"It wasn't something we planned on doing," Sexton said. "But you've got to trust the kids to do the right things and when they make mistakes, point them out so they can improve and not make them again.
"Both kids are doing a really good job for us and they're improving each week. It's going to be interesting to see later in the season how well they improve and if they're ready for prime time."
Toliver and Robinson are two of a growing group of freshmen who are either starting or playing significant roles this season in the Peninsula District. Hampton has wideout Jovonn Quillen, who has three touchdowns the last two weeks. Woodside is starting Shane Westfall at offensive tackle. Warwick has a potential star on the rise in defensive end Malik A. Harris.
Not that freshmen playing in the Peninsula District is anything new. Hampton's Ronald Curry and Phoebus' Antwoine Womack started from day one along with some others few might remember. If you're good enough, you're good enough — regardless of your birth date.
"You evaluate kids in the off-season during two-a-days, and if you have a kid mature enough mentally and he has size and strength, you go ahead and play him on varsity to get him experience," Warwick coach Juan Jackson said. "And you have him next three or four years."
The coaches agree there seem to be more freshmen playing now. Why? Maybe it's cyclical, and last year's senior class left a void. Maybe it's that with better coaches in youth leagues, 14 year olds are better equipped now to handle the pace of varsity competition. Or some combination of the two.
Though no one can remember the last time a freshman quarterback started the opener at Phoebus, Sexton has started a ninth grader before. When he was at Warwick in 2006, Sexton gave the QB1 spot to Lamonte Williams. He held it for four years.
Toliver wasn't supposed to be the starter, but senior Will Mann was injured in a scrimmage. Toliver was next in line, and he's done nothing to lose the job. He's only 6-of-14 in passing, but he's averaging 24.5 yards per completion. He hasn't been intercepted, and four of his completions are for touchdowns.
"We're seeing some improvement, but he's got a long way to go in the passing game," Sexton said. "He's not real confident yet with his reads and everything, but he's getting there. He's getting better."
An interesting talent has been Quillen, whose name should sound familiar around these parts. His father is Jovonn Quillen, who as a quarterback/cornerback led Kecoughtan to the Division 6 championship game in 1997. His grandfather is John Quillen, who coached Heritage to the D-5 title in 2000.
Quillen has only three catches this season, but all three have been for touchdowns. Two covering 78 yards came in Friday night's 42-20 win over Woodside.
"He has a good frame and he's a great kid," Hampton coach Mike Smith said. "I really do like him. He's in the games on the kickoff team, kickoff return team, receiver, and he might play some quarterback. He's really a kid I like. He has a great future ahead of him.
"Sometimes they like to get there too quick. But he's talented. And the thing I like about him is that he's a competitor."
At Woodside, 280-pound lineman Shane Westfall has been in the starting lineup since opening night. Wolverines coach Danny Dodson he's the first freshman to start for him since linemen Mark Dixon and Daryl Cooper in 2004.
Dodson has three other freshmen who see a good amount of playing time — long snapper/backup quarterback Devin Gray, running back/safety Jordan Williams and athlete L.J. Taylor. Taylor broke his ankle in the opener but could return next month.
In a perfect world, the roster would be dominated by junior and seniors. And the freshmen could learn the trade on the JV team.
"Oh yeah, it would be nice if they could play JV," Dodson said. "If they're able get a lot of playing time with the varsity, sometimes they're better off. But sometimes you pay for it. Sometimes freshmen make freshmen mistakes, and it's better to make those in a JV game than a varsity game."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times