As recent as 15 years ago it was rare to see anybody but juniors and seniors on varsity boys' basketball teams.
That was just the way it worked out. Freshmen played freshman ball and sophomores toiled on the junior varsity.
There were exceptions, but seldom more than one or two players per league, and they generally were the athletes so far ahead of their classmates the varsity head coach had no choice but to pull the trigger on the promotion.
Somewhere along the time of specialization and year-round travel teams the line between the classes was blurred, to the point where it now is very rare to attend a high school boys' varsity game and not see sophomores and even freshmen playing significant minutes.
But that doesn't mean the decision to promote an underclassman to the varsity is easy.
It seldom is.
"It's really tough and the longer I coach the less I bring kids up," said Gregori coach Mike Vander Molen. "Last year we only had juniors, so I brought two sophomores up."
Vander Molen is living both sides of this difficult decision. He not only has sophomore Tyler Janitz playing on the Jaguars' varsity team, but his own son Travis is a freshman on the varsity team at Ripon Christian.
"You have to pick the players best for the team and also consider what's best for the kid," Vander Molen said. "I always talk to the parents. They're always good with it at first and might change their minds later if the playing time isn't there. My feeling is that the kid has to be a starter."
On Jan. 16, Central Catholic sophomore Peter Hamilton hit nine 3-point shots and scored 29 points in a junior varsity win at Patterson. The Raiders lost the varsity game to the Tigers by two points.
Could Hamilton have pushed Central Catholic over the top that night? He did play with the varsity, and his brother Joe Hamilton, during the preseason.
"We make that decision based on the need of the varsity team, and this is the deepest team I've ever had," said CCHS coach Mike Wilson. "We also look at mental maturity. I've brought up kids that weren't mature enough mentally to play varsity ball, but I needed them on the team.
"I've tested kids in the preseason with the idea of maybe playing them in the postseason, but you also have to consider that if a kid plays one game with the varsity in league play, he has to stay up with the varsity the rest of the season."
Pitman coach Harvey Marable frequently has pulled underclassmen up to the varsity level, and has witnessed those players turning into team leaders by the time they're juniors.
"I had people tell me that Austin Keaton was ready to play as a freshman, but as soon as he came into the program, Colin Kaepernick took Keaton under his wing," Marable said. "Like Colin, Keaton was a three-sport athlete.
"Colin took the time to help all the young players coming in and showed them everything they needed to do, even academically, and then Austin turned around and did the same thing. So I bring up a young player occasionally just to make sure that by the time he's a senior he'll be there to tell the young kids how to act."
In the Stanislaus District, no school plays more underclassmen than Modesto Christian, and this year's Crusaders' team includes a freshman (guard Christian Ellis) and two sophomores (posts Anthony Townes and LeAndro Amador) who are significant parts of the MC rotation.
"The best players play on varsity regardless of class," said MC co-head coach Gary Porter. "I don't have any other rules regarding that. We had one class where four freshmen were the best players in the program, so they all came up."
This year, however, the effect of the promotions at Modesto Christian has been to decimate the junior varsity. The Crusaders' JV team suits six players, including five freshmen.
"I need to make sure freshman play half the game or three quarters or it's not worth it," Porter said.
Incoming freshman players deemed elite through travel ball experience can choose to attend Modesto Christian partly because of the opportunity to be showcased and develop through four seasons of varsity ball.
But Beyer coach Brandon Hellstrom believes it's part of his job to sell the young athletes in his district on the idea that they also will be developed in the Patriots' program.
"If there are kids that get through the MC radar and are good enough to play varsity as a freshman, we'll bring them up," Hellstrom said.
"We're letting people know that we see the value in playing those kids. We're going to get four years out of them, and if they're a player we hope playing at Beyer will develop them just as good as any other school."
The final regular-season power rankings, released Monday, revealed a host of teams on the bubble in addition to teams securely in the field with sub-par records.
When the section playoff seedings are announced Feb. 13, all league champions and co-champions, all teams within the top 16 in Divisions 1-4 (within the top 12 in Division 5 and top eight in Division 6) will be in the playoffs. Those brackets will be expanded to include all teams with 15 or more wins not seeded in the top 16.
All boys' and girls' playoff teams with seedings out of the top 16 will be playing out-bracket games on Feb. 15.
BOYSDivision 1: The Stanislaus District likely will get two teams. Golden Valley is a 4-seed, and Turlock is seeded 14, but already is guaranteed a playoff spot because of its 15 wins. Modesto (21) would earn a playoff berth if it continues its current streak to earn a share of the MMC title.
Division 2: Two district teams have locked-up berths. Gregori is at No. 15 and Johansen is at 16 and share the MMC lead, but neither has punched the golden ticket. Atwater (17 seed) and Buhach Colony (18) both have reached the magic number of wins.
Division 3: Sierra (1), Modesto Christian (5), Patterson (7) and East Union (13) all have berths locked up. Manteca (14) and Ceres (15) both are two wins from automatically qualifying but might make the field even with 14 wins.
Division 4: Summerville (2), Riverbank (3) and Escalon (8) have secured berths. Ripon is 8-15 but has earned an 11 seed because of its strength of schedule. Delhi (13), Mariposa (14), Hughson (15) and Waterford (16) are on the bubble and easily could be bounced since none will reach 15 wins.
Division 5: Central Catholic (2) and Ripon Christian (3) appear bound for a meeting in the section semifinals, with the winner likely getting a shot at Capitol Christian.
Division 6: Turlock Christian (3) has locked up a berth.
GIRLSDivision 1: Enochs (13) and Merced (14) have secured berths, and no other district Division 1 teams can climb high enough in the ratings or notch enough wins to make the field.
Division 2: Gregori (3) and Buhach Colony (4) are in. Beyer is at No. 15, but within only nine wins needs one or two more wins to stay in the field. Davis (17) and Atwater (19) are long shots but still remain in control of their own destiny.
Division 3: Modesto Christian (4), Patterson (6) and Manteca (7) will be playing. Ceres (14) likely will not reach the automatic win total. East Union (17) and Sierra (19) may need to win-out to reach the field.
Division 4: Ripon (4), Sonora (8), Riverbank (11) and Hilmar (16 wins) have secured berths. Mariposa (15) needs two wins to gain automatic entry and Los Banos (16) needs a strong finish.
Division 5: Turlock Christian (3), Ripon Christian (4), Central Catholic (6) and Big Valley Christian (7) are in. Le Grand (12) probably needs wins in two of its last four games to to remain above the cut line.
Division 6: No teams.
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter @modestobeek