First-year Lawrence High boys basketball coach Mike Lewis knew before he took the job that sophomores would factor heavily into his rotation this season.
But he didn’t let that shape the way he conducted his business.
Instead of elevating sophomores K.J. Pritchard, Anthony Buffalomeat and Logan Henrichs to the varsity level before they earned their spots, Lewis treated each like any other LHS basketball player. During tryouts, Lewis required the three to attend the sophomore sessions instead of allowing them to join the varsity guys.
“We’ve really stressed to them that they have to perform in practice and earn those minutes,” Lewis said. “Nothing’s going to be given to them.”
It didn’t take long for the threesome to learn that lesson and, because of it, all three are among the team’s leaders in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and minutes played through six games.
“At the beginning of the year, I didn’t think I would play this much,” said Buffalomeat, who has started all six games for the Lions. “Coach stayed on me. He just kept telling me how hard I needed to work, and he kept pushing me, and I think that really helped.”
Although the LHS trio has received the bulk of the spotlight this season, they’re hardly alone. Several other sophomores at LHS and Free State High have played meaningful minutes. Never before has Lawrence seen so many sophomores contributing so much at the same time.
“It’s just a rare, rare season,” Lewis said.
Added Free State High boys coach Chuck Law: “I don’t have any rhyme or reason for it. It just happens to be a particularly deep class. I don’t know what else explains it other than that. There are just a lot of talented sophomores in the city right now.”
Like Lewis, Law also has reaped the benefits of sticking a sophomore onto the floor. Brett Frantz, a 6-1 guard, has played significant minutes for Free State, and, each time out, he’s proven he belongs. The reason? Law says it’s the fact that Frantz is, by nature, a pure basketball player. Frantz plays year-round, devotes hours to working on his game and truly loves the sport. Law suspects it’s the same story for the others throughout the city.
“A lot of times (sophomores) might not be in tune with what you’re trying to do,” Law said. “But I think the thing that makes them all viable options is that they have high basketball instincts and can go out there and make plays.”
Several sophomores have made their marks at LHS and Free State in the past decade or so, but rarely have they played such a heavy role so early on.
Take current Div. I basketball players Brady Morningstar (Free State, Class of 2005) and Dorian Green (LHS, Class of 2009), for example. Both spent the early portion of their sophomore seasons riding the pine. When they finally cracked the rotation, several factors kept them from becoming the focal point.
Those factors included depth, talent and experience above them, coaches who were hesitant to throw them into the fire and the fact that they had some maturing to do before being ready to compete.
Things have changed drastically in the days since then. Young athletes are becoming more specialized in their chosen sports, which has sped up their development. In addition, coaches have become more willing to look past things such as age, size and experience in favor of going with athletes who have a natural feel for the game.
“You just kind of throw out what grade they’re in and what their name is and say, ‘Here’s our top seven or eight guys and those are the guys we’re going to play,’” Lewis said. “It would be nice for these three to have some guys ahead of them who have been through it so they could sort of show them how to win these tight games. But that’s just not the reality for us.”
Free State High girls coach Bryan Duncan has another theory for why so many sophomores are on the floor this season.
“The three sophomore girls that we have playing played with us this summer, so maybe those new rules helped them out,” said Duncan, referring to the state’s more relaxed policy on interaction between players and coaches. “I know I’m more comfortable putting them out there because I was able to see them in the summer.”
Duncan is in the infant stages of his third straight stellar class of sophomores. In 2005, he started a trio of underclassmen who, by their senior season, led the Firebirds to third place at state. Jenna Brantley, Kelsey Harrison and Lauren Kimball each started for Duncan for three years. This year’s seniors — Chantay Caron, Ashli Hill and Wren Wiebe — are currently in their third season as starters, as well. Joining them is Duncan’s next group of sophomores: Starting point guard Lynn Robinson and valuable subs Jackie Garcia and Kylee Loneker.
“My philosophy has always been to play our best players, regardless of age,” Duncan said.
Although all three coaches agreed there were tremendous benefits to getting young players on the floor as early as possible, they also admitted to seeing the drawbacks, which include the deer-in-the-headlights mentality, broken confidence and, on the other end of the scale, inflated egos.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Law, who saw a few sophomores (now juniors) struggle to make the adjustment last season.
“It was certainly awfully tough for Alec (Heline) and Eric (Watson) last year,” Law said. “And that can kind of crush your confidence as much as it can pay dividends.”
Of all the potential pitfalls, LHS’s Henrichs said shaken self-esteem was the most worrisome for the players.
“It hurt my confidence a little, at first,” he said. “It’s harder to get your shot off and pass and guys are a lot quicker at this level. But it’s a lot easier now that we’ve seen how it’s going to be.”
As Lawrence inches toward allowing freshmen to play at the varsity level — a move that could come as soon as next season — eyes will drift away from sophomores and the debate will rage on with freshmen at the heart of the matter.
Regardless, coaches at both schools insist the issue will always be the same.
“I think we all realize that the sooner they get that exposure and get acclimated to the way the game is played at the varsity level, the sooner they get over the growing pains and the sooner they can start to have a positive impact on your program,” Law said.