LANSING | When Robert Shell was a senior on the T.F. South football team, there was an emergence of a "super sophomore."
"He was a skinny kid back then being that he was 15 at the time," Shell said of his then-underclass teammate, Pierre Thomas, "but you could already see that he was exceptional.
"My younger brother also played football, so I followed the team after I graduated, and saw how (Thomas) progressed and worked to make himself the player he is today."
Thomas is in his seventh year with the New Orleans Saints, whom he helped win a Super Bowl in 2009.
Whether T.F. South is going to be blessed with any more "super sophomores" of the same caliber anytime soon remains to be seen, but Shell just finished coaching a crop of "super freshmen."
"We've had freshman teams go undefeated before," said Shell, who has been coaching the Rebels' ninth-grade program for nine years, "but this is by far the best team I've ever coached."
The young Rebels finished the season at 9-0 and were the undisputed South Suburban Blue champions. Other than a season-opening win over Crete-Monee (30-20), the Rebels' other victories were substantially one-side as they outscored the competition by a 470-to-85 margin.
Before defeating Lemont 62-27 in the season finale, the Rebels rolled over their foes by a 314-to-14 margin during a five-game stretch.
One of the key contributors to this onslaught was running back and co-captain Sterling Smith, who led the team with 25 touchdowns.
"I do see some similarities between Sterling and Pierre," Shell said. "Still, that's much to ask a kid to match what (Thomas) has done, and a lot still has to happen to get to that level."
Leading the Rebels on the other side of the ball was defensive end Nate Sanders.
"He was a dominating physical force," Shell said of Sanders. "When you see him up close, he looks like he's 17 or 18, but he really is only 15."
Both Smith and Sanders were postseason additions to the Rebels varsity team.
"We had our share of standouts, but overall this whole class of kids from top to bottom was outstanding," Shell said.
The middle schools that feed into T.F. South don't have football programs, so the high school relies primarily on what the Lansing Lions youth program produces.
"(The Lions) have grown considerably since I've been here," Shell said. "Still, I usually have no idea who I have until the first day of practice."
When Shell learned he had a core of eight players who were part of a Lions football team that went undefeated for two straight seasons, there was reason for optimism.
"Now they've gone undefeated for three straight seasons," Shell said.
The team received kudos from the school and its p.a. system, and commemorative T-shirts are being made. During his final speech with the team, Shell made sure to keep things in perspective.
"What they did was great, but let's not forget this is just freshman football," he said. "What really matters is success at the varsity level. For them, this is one of the first steps in that direction."
Shell also advised his players to remain active in extracurricular activities throughout the school year.
"Many of our guys have never wrestled before, and I hope some will give it a try ... or play basketball, baseball, or run track," Shell said. "If anything, it forces them to keep their grades up. Too often kids who play one sport will let their grades slip once their season is over and realize too late that they made themselves ineligible for the next season."