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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Sherman Oaks Notre Dame's Hilinski learning far away from Friday nights

The 6-foot-5 freshman quarterback is tall and talented enough to start for most varsity teams, but is playing his first season of high school football on the freshman team.

October 16, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

In this era of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and ESPN, if you're a sports prodigy, don't expect anonymity to last long.

Kelly Hilinski, a 6-foot-5 freshman quarterback who turns 15 on Nov. 20, should be thankful that his future varsity coach, Kevin Rooney of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, has him playing his first season of high school football far away from the glamour and glare of Friday nights.

Thursday afternoons are when Hilinski is taking baby steps as the quarterback of the future. In his latest performance for Notre Dame's unbeaten freshman team, he looked like a typical freshman, struggling at times with his throwing motion before finishing 13 of 25 for 129 yards against La Canada St. Francis. He has completed 53 of 89 passes for 717 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions this season.

It's a go-slow approach for someone who could be starting for other varsity programs, but the right path to follow for a teenager already anointed as the one of region's next big-time athletes.

"There's no question he has a lot of ability," Rooney said. "What I don't like is putting a lot of expectations on him before he has a chance to do special things. He's only 14 and happens to be real tall."

The first step is becoming comfortable and competent in your surroundings, and that's what Hilinski is doing.

"It's going great," he said of his first two months of high school. "I love the whole experience."

He lives in Claremont, and wakes up at 5:45 a.m. to be out the door by 6:30 so he can be driven to Sherman Oaks by one of his parents.

"It's tougher on my parents than me," he said of the commute. "I don't have to drive yet. I'm prepared to keep doing it for as long as it takes."

He's getting A's in honors biology, English and algebra. He's making new friends, learning how to play quarterback and trying not to look too far ahead.

"I look to what could be in the future," he said, "but I'm living the moment. I don't want to move too fast."

He says all the right things, treats people with respect and fits naturally into a leadership role. It's difficult not to get excited about his athletic potential, because watching him on a field with freshmen he towers over everyone, and with each game his instincts and decision making take shape.

Rooney, though, is a wise, Yoda-like mentor who knows how to handle these situations. He had Justin Fargas, an All-American running back in the 1990s whose father was a well-known actor, making for a media frenzy. He also coached quarterbacks Garrett Green and Dayne Crist, who signed with USC and Notre Dame, respectively.

"Having ability for someone his age is great, but competing against older kids down the road, you don't know until you get going," he said. "I'm just not a big believer in saying the guy's going to be great until you've had a chance to coach him and see what he can do. I hope it works out that way."

What does Hilinski have to look forward to?

Come spring, he'll need to win the varsity starting job. Come summer, the Internet recruiting gurus will start speculating about the colleges in which he's interested.

Come fall, the scrutiny will begin among fans, media and college coaches, all curious about a sophomore in a man's body and wondering what he's capable of doing. By senior year, he'll need a cellphone with unlimited text messages to handle the number of inquiries.

Based on early reviews, Hilinski is going to be ready for the challenge.

"He's hard on himself and wants to do well, and that's a good sign," Rooney said.

Walking around Notre Dame, Hilinski draws the occasional stare.

"People still don't believe I'm a freshman," he said. "There's the comment, 'Wow. Really?' "

It's fun seeing him pass out of Notre Dame's shotgun formation because he has power and precision in his arm, something that makes him valuable in a sport that treats its quarterbacks like royalty.

"There's so many things I can get better at," he said.

So far, he appears to be heeding the words of Rooney, who said, "The good hotshots are guys who don't act like hotshots."

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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