On a September evening two years ago, Ken Sollom, a sophomore quarterback for Canyon High, trotted onto the field for a game against Hart to run the first play of his varsity career.
Sollom took the snap, dropped back, spotted his receiver and threw a strike--right into the hands of a Hart defensive back.
“It wasn’t the greatest way to start a career,” said Sollom, a senior who is one of the most highly regarded quarterbacks in the state. “But you learn a lot when you get the opportunity to play on the varsity as a sophomore. Playing at that level when I was that young has made me a better player today.”
Valley-area coaches take opposing stands on the use of 10th-graders on the varsity. Schools such as Canyon have had great success with sophomores in the lineup. Hart, on the other hand, has had success by waiting until the players are juniors.
City Section schools often are forced into using their younger players because of the exponent system, which dictates the level at which a player participates based on his height and weight. And small schools often use sophomores because they don’t have enough qualified juniors and seniors.
“At schools like ours, it’s very unusual that you’ll have a sophomore that will play, let alone start,” said Crespi Coach Bill Redell, who will start sophomore running back/defensive back Russell White and defensive tackle Quinn Fauria this season. “There’s a big mental adjustment from freshman football to this level. I think both of them are mature enough to handle it.”
Canyon Coach Harry Welch has used sophomores extensively in the past three seasons. Sollom, senior running backs Lance Cross and Paul Chadwell and senior split end/defensive back Chad Zeigler all got varsity experience as sophomores and have helped the Cowboys win two of their three Golden League and Northwestern Conference championships while compiling a 38-game winning streak. Canyon, which has been moved to the Coastal Conference, is ranked second behind Muir in the Southern Section preseason poll.
“If a kid is capable of playing at the highest level possible, and he has the maturity and support of his family to do so, you should give him the opportunity,” said Welch. He will start sophomore defensive tackle Justin Fix, sophomore defensive back Brian Schroeder and freshman tight end Chris Peery this season. “If they can take a Harry Welch practice in the August heat, they can play varsity football.”
The sophomores themselves welcome the opportunity to show off their skills on the varsity. White, who is the nephew of former Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, has been receiving a lot of attention since last year, when he helped lead the Crespi freshman team to a 9-1 record.
“It’s already been a big adjustment just going against my teammates,” said White, who was the Del Rey League 100-meter sprint champion last spring. “Playing on the freshman team last year, I just went out and outran everyone. I’m finding it’s not as easy to do that at this level. But I’m glad I’m getting the chance.”
Said Fix of Canyon: “Last year on JV, I’d let up a lot at different times. But this year, I’m getting conditioned mentally to do every little thing right. The hitting is harder, but I like it.”
Southern Section schools such as Hart prefer to use consistently strong sophomore teams to feed the varsity with groups of players rather than individuals. Using that system, the Indians have had two straight undefeated Foothill League seasons and have appeared in two out of the past three Coastal Conference championship games.
“There’s no question that if a kid can compete for a starting position on the varsity, he should get the chance,” Hart Coach Rick Scott said. “But in most cases, we think it’s better to keep all of the sophomores together and let them taste success as a group at the lower level before coming up to the varsity.”
Although a Southern Section school can keep all of its sophomores together and bring them up as a unit, City schools have no such luxury. San Fernando and Cleveland have been using sophomores on the varsity for years. Under the City’s exponent system, some sophomores are forced to play at the varsity level because of their size.
“It’s rough not really having a lower-level program to feed your varsity,” Cleveland Coach Steve Landress said. “But you make the best of the situation. Sometimes, you get lucky and get some kids who can do exceptional jobs as sophomores.”
Cleveland appears to have one such exception this season in sophomore running back Terrell Woodard, who has been impressive in preseason workouts.
San Fernando Coach Tom Hernandez said he plans to use 10 sophomores this season. Defensive lineman Anthony Hall and running back DeShante Wilson will have an immediate impact on the Tigers’ performance this season, according to Hernandez. He said the rest of the 10th-graders on the varsity will contribute in spot situations.
“They’re up here to use the 10th-grade year for learning, so they can step right in the next year,” Hernandez said. “There is no adjustment period. They spend their sophomore year getting pushed around a lot, but it’s good for them.”
Smaller schools such as Montclair Prep and Chaminade are almost forced to use sophomores because of their enrollment.
Montclair Prep, ranked first in the Inland Conference in the preseason poll, might start two sophomore running backs this season. Tyler Robuck and Mike Broussard played Pop Warner football together before they became Mounties.
Chaminade Coach Rich Montanio, who used five sophomores last season, will go with sophomore Sean Burwell at tailback.
“Maturity is the key thing,” Montanio said. “If you’re going to use sophomores, they can’t be the type of kid that is going to get intimidated. We choose people who will fill leadership roles later on.”
White, like any player about to play his first varsity game, is nervous. But he doesn’t expect that feeling to last long.
“I know it’ll be strange when the lights come on and I step onto the field,” White said. “But, I also know that when you take that first hit, you get into the swing of things. It should be fun.”
SOPHOMORES TO WATCH
PLAYER HT WT POS SCHOOL Mike Broussard 5-7 165 RB Montclair Prep Sean Burwell 6-1 170 RB Chaminade Quinn Fauria 6-0 200 TE/DE Crespi Justin Fix 6-3 215 DT Canyon Anthony Hall 6-3 230 DT San Fernando Tyler Robuck 5-10 170 RB Montclair Prep Brian Schroeder 6-0 165 DB Canyon Jason Stein 5-8 170 WR Oak Park Russell White 6-1 185 RB/DB Crespi DeShante Wilson 5-9 169 RB San Fernando Terrell Woodard 6-1 185 RB Cleveland