Sixty percent of the starters at Scottsdale Horizon are too young to watch an R-rated flick without a parent or guardian.
On the basketball court, that same trio is a big reason why the Huskies are battling for a region crown.
Stephen Topercer and Collin Woods — both sophomores — and freshman Eric Lewis are a part of the bevy of youngsters invading varsity programs around the East Valley.
But these players aren’t just filling up space and minutes.
Take Phoenix Mountain Pointe’s Jahii Carson. He averaged 18.3 points and 6.6 assists per game as a freshman for the Pride last year, and has bumped up his scoring to 26.3 points per game this season, fourth highest in the state.
Gilbert Highland’s sophomore duo of Matt Carlino and Nick Johnson are the team’s leading scorers and have both had scholarship offers since junior high.
Is it true across the board? Are young players making more of an impact on the varsity level at an early age?
“It’s a great question,” Mountain Pointe coach Brian Fleming said. “The kids are definitely playing younger. They’re starting younger.”
Most coaches see a change, citing the influence of club ball and early specialization.
“When I was growing up, which was just back in the ’80s, we had rec leagues, boys club and YMCA, and that was it,” Gilbert Perry coach Mark Nold said. “Now there are a ton of clubs around. It makes a big impact on things.”
Players travel at an early age with summer club teams, and also get instruction from private trainers and coaches. Many decide on their sport of choice early on, and fewer three-sport stars arise.
In turn, it leads to fewer football players trying out for basketball, and more roster spots for the younger players.
All of these factors force a domino effect that some say has made a noticeable wave on the varsity basketball scene.
“You have a lot more opportunities to get better,” Highland coach Mark Carlino said. “A lot more training vehicles. There’s more people doing basketball nowadays. Parents being involved in their kids’ sport, getting them put into the right place. All that stuff plays into it.”
Longtime Arizona basketball coach Tom Bennett doesn’t buy it.
“Sophomores have played varsity forever,” Bennett said. “The good ones have.”
He said there are more impact sophomores simply because there are more teams.
“Twenty years ago we didn’t have half this many schools,” he said. “Population is a big thing.”
But what about freshmen?
“The freshmen are a very unique thing,” Bennett allowed.
In his second start at Horizon, Lewis had six points and hauled down 16 rebounds.
His numbers aren’t overwhelming because coach Paul Long eased him into the rotation, but the talent is there.
At Mesa, freshman Danny Powell is starting and averaging 8.9 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. He doesn’t even go to the school yet. Powell attends Taylor Middle School and won’t make the jump to Mesa High until next year.
Calaen Robinson starts at Corona del Sol as a freshman, too.
Matt Carlino, Johnson, Carson, Topercer and Phoenix Shadow Mountain’s Martyre Demarco all joined the fray as freshmen last year.
“It was very rare for sophomores to play when I played in the early 1980s,” Mark Carlino said. “And there were some very, very good players in this area at that point. It was absolutely nonexistent that a freshman would play varsity. No one played varsity as freshman. No one.”
It is this year’s sophomores who have really taken off. Many are already the focal points of their teams.
“That class is crazy loaded,” Long said.
It could just be cyclical.
At Scottsdale Saguaro, Bob LaRue is forced to stock his roster with freshmen and sophomores regularly because of low participation numbers. He said it usually goes in phases, where he has a young team for a couple years, and then an experienced one, and then a young one again.
So, is the latest batch of newcomers more advanced than the previous ones?
“Not really,” LaRue said. “You have the exceptions, but for the most part we’ve been dealing with the same issues four years ago and the same issues today.”
Maybe nothing definitive can be said. Most coaches believe the overall talent level has increased.
But others hold steadfast to the fact that population and notoriety have bloated those numbers.
One thing seems certain: If a player has the prerequisite skill, he will find early entrance onto a varsity roster.
“They’re playing more, and that’s increased their abilities,” Fleming said. “I think physically they’re as good as a lot of the seniors.”