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those guys still trying to find their way around the school -- are having no trouble finding their way into the end zones and starting lineups at a number of schools this season.

Maturity levels, lack of size and handling the pressure of the varsity game was usually enough to keep a promising 14-year-old at the junior varsity level. But coaches who talk about "that rare athlete" seem to be finding him more often.

Freshman Nick Martone is one of the players carrying the banner for the Class of 2003. Martone scored three touchdowns for Williamsville South, including the game-winner with 1:15 left, in a victory over rival Williamsville East on Sept. 9.

South coach Mike Kelly describes the 5-foot-5, 150-pound Martone as a "waterbug," adding that his 4.7-second 40-yard dash filled the team's need for speed.

"The team had little speed coming back," said Kelly, who coached Martone on the JV last year. "The thing about Nick is he's physically mature, and a pretty solid 150 pounds. He's a good receiver, and our secondary was in shambles. If he failed miserably, we would have sent him down."

Derek Ziders kicked a 32-yard field goal and five extra points in his varsity debut as Lancaster beat North Tonawanda for the first of its four straight victories.

Ziders gives Lancaster a welcome weapon with his deep kickoffs, 13 of 14 accuracy in extra point attempts and four field goals.

"Here I wasn't sure if I was ever going to have a freshman who started, and there's been two (Ty Godinho) in the last three years," Redskin coach Len Jankiewicz said.

Jehuu Caulcrick has nine touchdowns in four games for undefeated Clymer. Caulcrick has led the Pirates in rushing in every game and found the end zone three times against Ellicottville and Frewsburg.

It wasn't that long ago that freshmen were relegated to the junior varsity to "pay their dues." They were considered mistake-prone and could undermine camaraderie by taking playing time from seniors. Helping change those stereotypes were players like Andy Benson (Jamestown), Malik Campbell (Turner/Carroll) and Ray Callicutt (Albion).

Benson broke onto Jamestown's roster as a freshman in 1992. His first taste of varsity competition, however, was the year before on the Red Raiders' wrestling team. In his first play as a varsity football player, he ran a kickoff back for a touchdown against Sweet Home.

"Here we were wondering what we were doing with him back there as a freshman catching the football . . .," coach Wally Huckno said. "When you looked at Andy Benson you thought, is he a junior or is he a senior? He had the moves, the maturity and the confidence.

"I generally don't adhere to freshmen coming up. We had 48 kids out for varsity, 58 for ninth grade and 25 for junior varsity. Generally those holes are filled by people at the appropriate grade level. But every once in a while . . ."

Benson helped lead the Red Raiders to consecutive state titles in 1994 and 1995. He had such an impact that an award in his name is presented each year at the WNY football banquet to an individual or team showing the commitment to excellence Benson displayed during his career.

Even though it's easier for a freshman to crack the varsity in the Harvard Cup (where there are no JV programs), that probably wouldn't have mattered for lineman Ryan Alway, who's an imposing 6-4, 235.

Coach Ken Pope was thrilled before the start of the season when the young giant asked if he could play football. "When Ryan first asked me if he could play, I took one look at him and ran inside to made sure he was registered," Pope said.

Freshman twins Kasem and Kasen Turner also get plenty of carries in the Sparks' backfield and are invaluable at outside linebacker. Pope said he'll play freshmen as long as they produce. And because they seem to make their worst mistakes at the worst time, he's careful to surround them with veteran players.

If there was ever a year where freshmen could get a lot of snaps at Dunkirk, it's this year. Coach Mark Benton said with the players lost to injury and attitude adjustments, he started three freshmen Friday at East Aurora.

Jose Ruiz, a 5-10, 155-pound freshman, rushed for 53 yards against Lackawanna. "He showed us that he has promise, and he's ready to split time with a senior," Benton said. "We keep telling him, your time is coming, coming real soon. We're being forced to bring the younger kids up and mixing and matching."

From his experience, Frewsburg coach Tom Sharp has found most freshmen to be more physically than mentally ready for the varsity. Brandon Rowley, a 5-5, 165-pound guard/linebacker, starts for the 3-1 Bears.

Sharp said he starts the best players regardless of their year. "We're not talking about Williamsville South or somebody like that who has 60, 70, 80 kids come out," he said.

Retired Depew coach Frank Constantino, since inducted to the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, said he could remember only one freshman who started during his tenure (1955-1987).

Leonard Oleksy, a 225-pound fullback, played for the Wildcats during the 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960 seasons, rushing for 633 yards as a senior.

"He was the best fullback I ever had," Constantino said. "For a freshman to be on the varsity was extremely rare. I don't think it's good for them. I don't know if he'd be accepted by the group. On the other hand, I had Leonard Olesky, and he was outstanding."

Retired Salamanca coach George Whitcher said among the Class C and Class D schools, it's a "different world" as far as numbers of players go. Freshmen can be a blessing when it comes time to fill jerseys.

Some small schools struggle to satisfy the state requirement to dress 18 players for games. Some schools have had to drop freshman football or, in worst-case scenarios such as Sherman, Walsh and Hinsdale, drop their entire programs.

Declining enrollments, the tug from soccer and fewer kids willing to make the commitment to football also forced several programs to dress freshmen just to reach 18.

Whitcher said he had two freshman starters in a 25-year career. He said he would have preferred that one of them had played JV, but his needs on the varsity were too great.

But the other player was Mike John, who in 1982 was 5-11, 240 pounds and had a 49-inch chest. "He was way beyond his years," Whitcher said. "I never felt an obligation to a senior. One of the great things about coaching at Salamanca is they expected you to play the best. Kids had a great attitude about that."

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