Even before the football season started, longtime Newman football coach Mike Papoccia said a talented group of Comets sophomores might force his hand.
Historically, Papoccia has never been a fan of bringing up 10th graders to the varsity team, preferring instead to run his well-established system with juniors and seniors who had paid their dues in the high school program.
But way back in August, the 33-year veteran knew the skill-set some of his sophomores possessed were going to be too hard to ignore.
"We've got some really good sophomores who are pressing," Papoccia said back on August 14. "I don't like to bring sophomores up, but these kids are going to get a chance probably; they're pretty good."
Not only is Papoccia a four-time state champion coach, he's also a prophet.
The two sophomore starters on the Comet offensive line – center David Rowzee and guard Jacob Barnes – have been anchors in the middle all season long, and three of the 11 sophomores Papoccia brought up the for the playoffs have also proven to be key contributors to Newman's run to the Class 3A semifinals.
"It's been quite a ride," said the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Barnes, from Rock Falls. "I love these seniors, I love these coaches, and I love this team. It's been a great experience, and it's going to be tough to say goodbye to this season."
While Barnes and Rowzee were varsity newbies, classmates Dillan Heffelfinger and Nolan McGinn had some experience at the highest level. McGinn was a strong performer last spring for the track team, while Heffelfinger made a splash on the baseball diamond as the Comets' leadoff hitter.
Those two, along with punter Brandon Ahlgrim, have stepped in and been big parts of this playoff run since being called up at the end of the regular season.
"It's definitely helped me adjust, knowing a lot of the seniors from playing baseball with them," said Heffelfinger, who has two TDs while spelling fullback Brian Bahrs at various points throughout the postseason. "I thought my role would mainly be on special teams, but then I got an opportunity to play some fullback against Monmouth [-Roseville in the second round] and was able to score a couple of touchdowns. My role's gotten bigger week by week."
"I didn't expect to be in the position I'm in," added McGinn, who caught a pair of long passes in the first-round win against Erie-Prophetstown, "and I think the other sophomores would say the same thing. There was some pressure at first, but now we're getting used to it, and it's been a lot of fun being able to play with these older guys."
The biggest impact has been the sophomores' ability to fill in for some of Newman's two-way starters, giving them much-needed breaks in high-pressure playoff games. Heffelfinger has been the most effective in keeping Bahrs fresh for his linebacking duties, while McGinn has been able to give guys like receiver/cornerback Maison Bittner a breather every now and then.
"We're just doing our responsibilities, not worrying about anything else," McGinn said. "We all want to prove ourselves and prove we can help this team win, and the best way to do that is by filling in wherever we can."
That's been the key for such a smooth transition into varsity football for these sophomores: learning from the veterans' past experiences and relying on their expertise and history of success.
"I just go out and keep quiet, just listen to what Kyle [Moore] and Tanner [Cole] and my other role models out on the field are saying," Barnes said. "I just try and do what I'm supposed to do, and do it at 100 percent all the time."
And that's the part of the equation that the upperclassmen really appreciate. No matter what the circumstance in the game, no matter which position on the field, these 10th graders are helping make the 2012 season memorable.
"It's not surprising," senior lineman/linebacker Kyle Moore said, "because they're a talented class and we always knew they could step in and make an impact for us anywhere on the field. It was weird at first, but they've done their jobs and done them well, and they're just one of us now: guys doing what they can to help the team win."
Class 3A semifinal
Aurora Christian (11-1) at Newman (12-0)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1240 AM, 107.7 FM
Twitter: Follow Dan Woessner (@DanWoessner) for live updates