It wasn't all that long ago when the only place fans saw freshmen during a boys varsity basketball game was in the crowd. If they were really good, maybe they were behind the bench with the junior varsity. They weren't at the end of the bench, let alone on the floor.

Those times have changed.

Within the last 10 days, I've seen Valparaiso, Andrean and Munster, all three ranked in the Times top 10, and each one has at least one impact freshman.

"There's some really talented kids, some of them could've played last year on a lot of teams," Andrean coach Brad Stangel said last week after his trio of ninth graders, Kyle Ross, Nick Flesher and Caden Helfrich helped the 59ers take the Highland Holiday Hoopfest. "A lot of times, you have a really good class and we've had a lot come along right now."

It's one thing to be playing freshmen, it's another to be doing well with them, and the three schools have a combined 20 wins in a season when a look at the grade numbers on the roster would suggest rebuild. Kids are coming to the big team out of middle school and leaping into deep waters ready to swim.

"It doesn't have as much to do with his age as it does their ability to help the team, being coachable," Valpo coach Barak Coolman said after the Dec. 30 Grace College Champions of Character Classic, where frosh Cooper Jones and Colton Jones (no relation) saw major minutes. "It varies by kid, how they mature. There's no way you can predict it. It depends on the program. "

I'm not sure what impresses me more, the fact that so many of them don't look like freshmen or that they don't play like freshmen. Usually, the physical or mental maturity doesn't progress at the same rate.

"A lot of basketball is being played in sixth, seventh, eighth grade," Stangel said. "They have a lot of skills. Their bodies are ready. If they're on the national (AAU) circuit, they're seeing seniors at 14, competing with guys that age all over the country. If you're playing 60 games a summer since fifth grade, that's 240 games by the time you get to high school."

In the case of the Valpo Joneses, both came with a distinct set of skills that prepared them for the immediate leap.

"Colton hadn't played organized AAU since seventh grade, but he's a coach's kid," Coolman said. "With his knowledge, a particularly high basketball IQ, he was able to compete. Then Cooper has the physical build. Both kids have tremendous work ethics."

At Munster, coach Mike Hackett plays freshman Luka Balac extensively. Last year, Josh Davis started. Though the rise of young talent is indisputable, Hackett notes there are other reasons why there is a clearer path to playing time.

"The skill level's a little more advanced; freshmen are physically more advanced," he said. "In the glory days, they would be waiting their turn. Seven, eight years ago, he's a JV kid. What's causing it? I have no idea. We've only got one senior. Maybe the upperclassmen aren't as strong as in the past."

At Andrean and Valpo, the door was open newcomers with the graduation of large senior classes.

"It was a necessity for us. We didn't have a lot coming back," Stangel said. "We needed an influx of talent. Maybe older kids are getting burned out, getting tired of basketball."

Coolman's Vikings have just two seniors.

"Some of it has to do with what's ahead of them," he said. "If these freshmen came along last year, who knows? We had so many open jobs. You don't just replace seven seniors."

While talent can trump most cards, the consistency that comes with experience is hard to beat.

"They're still freshmen and we get that reminder at times, though the issues of inexperience are across the board " Coolman said. "Mental focus is so important. We live in a high-tech world. They've got all this stimuli. If It isn't vibrating and doesn't have flashing lights, it's hard for them to sustain, and that's regardless of age."

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This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.