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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

It's a Tough Call for Coaches

January 25, 2005|Eric Sondheimer

When coaches guide teams to championships, others want to emulate, study and learn from them.

Pete Carroll of USC is the genius of the moment, with much attention being paid to his successful creation of an environment in which every football position is competed for on a daily basis. Additionally, incoming freshmen are given the opportunity to play immediately.

There are risks in competing for USC, starting with no guarantee of playing time because the talent level is off the charts.

But All-American defensive lineman Shaun Cody said "the competitive level is really unbelievable. If you want to showcase how good you are and be challenged, you'll want to come here."

It's not much different a strategy than what any coach would try. Carroll wants the best players on the field, no matter their age.

The question is, can his philosophy be duplicated in high school?

The advantage for Carroll is he gets to recruit and high school coaches can't. It means there can be a huge disparity in playing ability.

"Ideally, you'd have competition at every position between sophomores and seniors," Sherman Oaks Notre Dame football Coach Kevin Rooney said. "What makes it hard at the high school level is one guy is usually a lot better than everyone else at a position, and it's hard to be competitive. When it is competitive, you have a good team. You have depth."

The biggest obstacle for high school coaches trying to copy Carroll's philosophy is they can't count on freshmen being ready.

A college freshman, at age 18 or 19, is far more mature physically and emotionally than a high school freshman, at 14 or 15, especially in football.

"There's a huge difference maturity-wise," Rooney said.

Lake Balboa Birmingham, which won the City Championship, played freshman Milton Knox at cornerback and backup tailback. Knox developed into a second-team All-City player, but Coach Ed Croson said Knox was fortunate to make varsity.

"The reason we played Milton is because we had to," he said. "We didn't have people in those positions."

At Orange, Coach Greg Gibson gave freshman running back Matthew Contreras the chance to start, and he responded with 1,498 yards rushing. But he doesn't believe relying on freshmen is possible at the high school level.

"We just had an extraordinary kid who was already in a varsity frame as a freshman," Gibson said. "I could have had him on the freshman level and he would have rushed for 3,000 yards. But we would have wasted his talent."

It can prove sensitive when a coach chooses to play a freshman or sophomore over a senior in high school. Seniors don't like one of their own losing out to a rookie. It can create tension and turmoil.

"Senior leadership is such a big factor that I don't think you can burn off seniors," Croson said. "You're counting on those guys for a lot of things."

But athletes are entering high school with far more playing experience, making some of them ready to compete immediately on the varsity.

Coaches are aware of the ramifications.

Football Coach Jim Benkert of Westlake Village Westlake said he has had seniors quit after losing a starting position to a sophomore.

"More times than not, the senior will say, 'I'm out of here,' " Benkert said.

All players want to win, and if a young player is better than a senior, they'll know. It's up to the coach to create a climate where competition is rewarded.

Tom Meusborn, the Chatsworth baseball coach whose team has won a state-record 50 consecutive games, inserted two freshmen, third baseman Matt Dominguez and shortstop Mike Moustakas, into the lineup last season.

They earned their positions through play in the winter, documented by statistics and performance. So when the spring came and both were starting, no one could question the decision.

"The best person plays, and we've always had that philosophy," Meusborn said. "We say that from Day 1. We play in the fall, keep stats, keep numbers so that guys are able to see the results."

Coaches must communicate to parents why young players are getting the nod over loyal seniors because some still think high school sports should be run like Little League, where everyone gets to play. Those days are long gone.

What's clear is Carroll intends to stick with the philosophy that has enabled USC to win consecutive national championships.

"We give our guys an extraordinary opportunity to play," he said. "We've had 30 first-semester freshmen play in the last three years. We will continue to operate in that manner.

"We expect our young guys to contribute immediately when they come here. I think there's a sense guys can play a significant role on a championship team. Maybe they can go somewhere else and play more, but when you get to what we are doing, I think it's a tremendous attraction to kids."

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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