It’s not easy being a freshman on a varsity sports team. But when it works out, the rewards can be great for player and team.
For the L.D. Bell and Trinity basketball programs, the formula has worked out well over the years.
“We try to bring the ones up we know can handle it,” said Bell girls basketball coach Brock Pembleton, adding that he tells his freshmen, “It’ll be hard, but worth it.”
Pembleton has four freshmen on his varsity roster this season, as does Sue Cannon, coach of the Trinity Lady Trojans. Also, numerous players who are now standouts for both teams found their way onto the varsity as freshmen, including Bell’s Lexi Gordon and Trinity’s Trinity Oliver, now juniors who have been top players for their respective teams through their entire careers.
Gordon, in fact, was the District 7-6A Offensive MVP last season, while Oliver was the Defensive MVP. Both were named all-state.
“We’ve had several freshmen who did a great job for us,” Cannon said. “It’s not easy on them, but it’s worked out well.”
Among others who have stood out as freshmen and beyond is Trinity junior Jhivvan Jackson, the boys MVP of 7-6A last season.
Coaches at Bell and Trinity note the HEB school district is different from others concerning freshmen and high school participation. They said if a sport is offered at the junior high level, such as basketball is, a freshman can only join the high school program if selected for the varsity, and it is only then that high school coaches can work with them.
However, numerous players who have been called to varsity have gone on to be some of the programs’ best.
“If I bring one up, they have to be able to make an impact,” said Trinity boys coach Mark Villines. “I have brought up four ninth-graders while I have been at Trinity [head coach since 2008] and they have all made a huge impact.”
Not being able to play on the junior varsity can create a sink-or-swim feeling for freshmen who do get called up to the varsity. But they should also know they are being elevated because coaches believe they can make a difference, if not immediately then after they’ve matured and endured the varsity growth process.
“I’ve had two freshmen play for me over the 10 years I’ve been at Bell,” said Raiders boys coach Willie Henderson. “One of them wasn’t ready, but I felt he’d be a starter for us a sophomore. I did it for his long-term development.”
Henderson was referring to Garrett Hammonds, who is now playing at Southwest Oklahoma State University.
“If I pull up a kid as a freshman, I see something special long-term for them,” Henderson said.
“The most impactful so far would be Adrian Wong,” said Villines, who noted that the one-time freshmen standout was part of the district championship team of 2013-2014. “Adrian is playing for Ateneo Univeristy in the Phillipines.”
Pembleton said some players called up as freshmen were critical in the best of his seven seasons.
“Our regional championship year (runners-up in 2014), we had five seniors and they’d all played as freshmen,” Pembleton said.
That team also featured Gordon, who was starting as a freshman.
Whether the current policy changes or not, it’s likely select freshmen will continue to play a role in the varsity successes as Bell and Trinity.
“There are a lot of young players out there who will continue to make an impact on the varsity,” said Cannon, adding that she expects Gordon’s younger sister to come up to the Bell varsity next season.
“They’ll be a dynamic duo. They’re going to be really hard to beat,” she said.
However, Pembleton said no player is brought up without first having explained to them what awaits at the varsity level. It’s a reward, but it’s also a mighty challenge that they need to understand be prepared to face.
“We talk to them about it,” he said. “We explain to them we’re giving them an opportunity.”