Sometimes, they fill a void in the lineup.
Sometimes, they are part of a youth movement.
Sometimes, they are the best player at that position.
The reasons are varied why freshmen have figured prominently into nearly a dozen area baseball lineups this spring.
About one point, however, there is no dispute: The first-year players are making a tremendous impact.
Five freshmen start at St. Thomas More, which won the Sangamon Valley Conference title this year with a 13-1 record.
Three ninth-graders have contributed mightily to a Salt Fork program that captured the Vermilion Valley Conference championship. Three freshmen have been starters at Champaign Central since Game 1.
Monticello, St. Joseph-Ogden, Urbana and Westville are among the other schools that have standout freshmen in the varsity lineups.
Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said the young players have put themselves in position to succeed.
"They are very active in the summers and show a great desire to excel," Hansgen said.
He had a feeling that Ross Learnard (center fielder and pitcher), Max Stutsman (catcher and pitcher) and Cole Taylor (shortstop) would contribute immediately.
"There are kids that play baseball, and there are kids that are baseball players," Hansgen said, "and they have that extra sense or feel for the game."
Super (young) Sabers
As many as six freshmen have been on the field together for the Sabers. Their background enabled them to handle the transition to high school competition.
"A lot is attributed to the summer teams, but most of these boys either played at St. Matt, which was second in the state, or Holy Cross, which finished first, as eighth-graders.
"They are fundamentally sound and have handled the learning curve well. They maintain their poise and don't get flustered. They have an uncanny way to win a game," STM coach Steve Rear said.
St. Thomas More returned from its spring trip to Florida with a 4-4 record, then reeled off 17 consecutive wins before suffering its first loss to an opponent from Illinois (St. Joseph-Ogden) last week.
"It's a nice nucleus and very balanced," Rear said. "They can play multiple positions."
Freshman leadoff hitter Mike Plecki, a center fielder and pitcher, is batting .313. Shortstop/pitcher Storm Joop bats third in the order and is hitting .444 with a team-high 18 stolen bases. Austin Tabeling, a first baseman and pitcher, is batting .282 while sporting a 6-1 record and 1.19 ERA.
Sean Sullivan, the king of versatility among the ninth-graders, is batting .263. "He has played everywhere but first base," Rear said.
Outfielder Cam Deedrich is batting .367, and Keaton Davis, who plays second base when junior Aaron Pinkerton pitches, is hitting .208.
"This is one of the best freshman teams that play varsity and have been able to handle adversity on the baseball field and not let it bother them," Rear said.
The transition pains
Champaign Central coach John Staab installed three freshmen in the lineup prior to the Maroons' opener. Alec Altmyer has pitched and played shortstop, Jake Cribbett has been the catcher and Lucas Wilson has played center field.
A former Twin City Little League home run champion (2009), Wilson is third on the Maroons in batting with a .302 average. Cribbett is hitting .290, and Altmyer entered this week with a .270 average.
"Each plays a demanding position on defense," Staab said.
The freshmen have had moments where it was obvious they were varsity newcomers, Staab said, "struggling with the pace of the varsity game as well as lacking the consistent intensity and focus required to be more successful on the diamond."
Knowledge of the sport is a critical component for freshmen who wish to play a varsity role.
At St. Joseph-Ogden, Jake Stewart is one of several ninth-graders who've contributed.
"He understands the game as well as other players with more experience," SJ-O coach Brad Allen said.
Allen said he can tell which players are the ones who've devoted time to the game during the offseason.
"Our players who play competitively over the summer are ahead of those who do not," Allen said. "Our best players are the ones who love playing the game over the summer."
Other first-year Spartans who've made an impact include Hunter Hart, Tyler McCormick, Brent Schluter and Dalton Walsh.
"They have all exceeded my expectations," Allen said. "They are also getting out of it everything that they put into it."
Filling a void
Four years ago, Mahomet-Seymour coach Nic DiFilippo installed a freshman (Alex Smith) as his first-string catcher. The All-Area standout is now a senior.
"A lot comes down to needs for each team," DiFilippo said. "If Alex were 1 year older, he would have played JV his freshman year, and his sophomore year he would have been on varsity. He is a great example of a freshman that had a great opportunity."
DiFilippo said it's important to be careful with freshmen who are promoted to varsity so their confidence is not destroyed.
"Many of them have not struggled yet and do not know how to handle going 0 for 4 with four strikeouts," he said.
On the flip side, a freshman has not yet gained a reputation and is an unknown to many opposing pitchers.
"As a freshman, many teams did not know who Alex was and threw him lots of fastballs," DiFilippo said. "From then on, Alex does not get fastballs. His sophomore year, all he saw were curveballs and he struggled at the plate, hurting his confidence.
"Alex was able to listen to the coaching staff and work through it. His junior and senior years, he can hit off-speed pitches, making him a player."
Urbana's Tanner Russell has been a fixture in the lineup in his first year in high school. He played third base and second base before settling in at shortstop. In the second game of doubleheaders, he catches. Russell leads the Tigers in runs scored, RBI and stolen bases.
Summer travel teams have played a key role, according to Urbana coach Mike Johnson.
"I believe this has given him a greater advantage over most players his age since the level of competition and coaching are typically better than other baseball alternatives," Johnson said. "The common denominator with all the local freshmen making an impact in varsity baseball is the travel baseball experience.
"Although it is very expensive to play on most travel teams, the players that are able to play are certainly gaining valuable experience."
Russell is unique in that he is not restricting himself to baseball. He also plays football and basketball.
"What makes Tanner special is his work ethic and drive to be successful," Johnson said. "It's not uncommon for him to go to football practice after school and go home and shoot 100 jump shots, then take 150 swings off a tee. All of this and he remains active in student life, too."
Westville's Kyle Brazas is a similar story: a freshman who excels in football, basketball and baseball.
"He goes from one sport to the next to the next, and then to the summer where he lifts weights first, then plays basketball in open gyms and then baseball on weekend traveling tournaments," said Westville baseball coach Joe Brazas, his father.
Kyle Brazas has been on summer traveling teams for four years, starting with the Catlin Cobras and switching to the Champaign Tribe. This year he'll join the Champaign Dream.
"I personally feel travel baseball has given Kyle the opportunity to play each week against some of the best ball- players in his age group," Joe Brazas said. "Some of your opponents can throw the ball harder, run faster and hit harder, so you must respect them and stay focused on your game plan to beat them.
"The schedule seeks out competitive tournaments where the competition is at a higher level."
Tuscola's Duff Hoel is one coach who has concerns about travel ball for the younger ages, especially those under 12.
"In larger towns, I can understand the benefits," Hoel said. "In Tuscola, we may only have 20 kids in a particular age group. I'm only interested in building the program. I have witnessed children that ceased playing the game at an early age because they were not chosen for some travel team.
"My fear, in Tuscola with perhaps only 20 kids per age group, is that when 12 of those 20 are chosen for a travel team, the other eight will cease playing. Keeping in mind that a program is only as strong as its weakest link, I do not want to lose 40 percent of the potential ballplayers, one of which might be a left-hander who grows to be 6-foot-5, at an early age."
Those who bring the extensive travel background with them to high school, however, often step right in, as Monticello's Nick Stokowski has done as a pitcher and a hitter.
"He has confidence in his abilities," Monticello coach Chris Jones said. "It is a sign of being around baseball a lot and learning the fundamentals."
Stokowski played for two years with the Champaign Tribe travel team but this year will join the Champaign Dream.
"At the plate I expected him to be a player that could step right in and put the ball in play," Jones said. "Nick has very good balance and quick hands."
A successful debut
A year ago, Danville's Chuckie Robinson was one of the area's most touted freshmen. A catcher, he started all 34 games the Vikings played and led the regional champions in home runs (four) and RBI (26).
His defense was the eye-opener. He allowed six stolen bases and committed two errors for the season.
"Even as a freshman, Chuckie forced teams to go station to station against us," Danville coach Gary Gritton said. "In high school baseball, if you can shut down the running game and force a team to get three hits in an inning to beat you, you have a chance to be pretty good."
Robinson fit right in, Gritton said, because the 6-1, 220-pounder "had the body of a senior as a ninth-grader."
As a sophomore, who plays his home games at spacious Danville Stadium, Robinson has pounded seven home runs, one away from the school's single-season record.
"He had great baseball influences at home," Gritton said, "and Chuckie always played with older kids in summer ball."
He was the starting American Legion Post 210 catcher the summer after his eighth-grade year at North Ridge, where he was coached by Gritton.
The coach sees better days ahead.
"Chuckie has the drive to excel and will not be satisfied with what he has done so far," Gritton said.
More on the way
The future looks bright for area baseball players in the Class of 2014. Besides those who've already made an impact, Centennial has a talented group that brought a 13-1 season record in freshman games into this week.
"There are plenty of good freshmen that we have, but I did not want to bring them up and have them sit on the bench," Centennial coach Rich Hyde said. "I would rather have them playing as much as possible at a lower level."
Two ninth-graders who've made varsity appearances for the Chargers are Austin Johnson and Jimmy Nelligan.
For schools with an opening that a freshman fills, Hyde sees reasons they can be successful.
"One factor could be they have not put too much pressure upon themselves yet and are able to play a little looser than an older player who may be feeling the pressure of a college and living up to expectations of themselves and others," Hyde said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, by phone at 217-351-5232 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.