Making a varsity roster is tough. For freshmen, it’s near impossible. In the nearly two decades that El Campo Ricebirds Head Coach Wayne Condra has been in coaching with the school, he can only count on one hand the number of times the team has had a freshman on the varsity roster.
Not even the Hunt brothers who both ended up making it to the NFL played on varsity as freshmen. Last season, sophomore offensive and defensive lineman Juan Leal was the first to make the team in recent memory as a freshman.
“You see freshmen on varsity at different places,” Condra said. “When you have three contributing a bunch, yeah, that’s probably kind of rare. It’s one of those things that they’ve stepped in and done a tremendous job for us as far as the offensive and defensive side.”
This season, the Ricebirds not only have more than one freshman, but they are counting on three to help them win games this season.
Reuben Owens, Hal Erwin and Emmanuel Velasquez all played eighth-grade football last year. Now, they’re a part of the reason the Ricebirds have started the season hot with a 5-1 record.
For Owens and Erwin, the preparation started during seven-on-seven when they practiced and played with the varsity team. While they didn’t know they’d make varsity, it got them ready by playing against the bigger and more physical competition they’d see on the high school level.
“I know we had a chance, but I didn’t know they were going to put us on (varsity) like they did,” Owens said. “It meant a lot. We worked for it in the offseason. We lifted. Played seven-on-seven and it worked out.”
Velasquez’ path was a little bit different. The freshman kicker wasn’t on varsity to start the year. He was playing freshman football.
Following the Texas City scrimmage, the coaching staff plucked him from the freshman team and he’s been a welcomed addition ever since.
The freshman kicker joked his parents didn’t even believe him when he told them he made the varsity roster. However, it’s no laughing matter now, as Velasquez has been a big part of the kicking team, scoring 26 points for the Ricebirds, two coming on field goals. Outside of missing his very first varsity extra point, he’s been as close to automatic as you can get.
Erwin and Owens spent all of training camp with the varsity team and, like Velasquez, they are a big part of the Ricebirds on Friday nights.
“They don’t hand (you a spot), you have to work for it,” Erwin said recalling all of the tough work that went into making the team.
Erwin in his first varsity game scored on a long 66-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter from senior quarterback Clay Jung against Texas City. The Ricebirds went on to win that game by one score.
Erwin also contributes on defense. While varsity football was a big step, he has taken to it quickly.
“It was a big jump, but it’s still football. Football is always going to be football,” Erwin said. “Playing on seven-on-seven helped me get used to playing against bigger guys.”
For Erwin, the jump became real when he was offering advice to some eighth-graders during one of their games this season.
“It’s crazy to think I was playing on that level last year and, how different it is and how better it is now,” Erwin said.
The biggest difference for the trio is how much better the competition is at the varsity level.
Owens, a defensive back and running back for the Ricebirds, scored on nearly every touch he had in eighth-grade football. This year, he’s part of El Campo’s three-headed running back committee. While he hasn’t been able to score at will like last season, Owens still has accounted for 451 of the Ricebirds 1,933 yards.
“Eighth-grade I’m not going to lie, it was easy. We hardly got touched. Teams didn’t really score on us last year, now it’s just harder,” Owens said.
Owens might only have one touchdown to his name, but he has made some jaw-dropping runs, some have been called back, some came in scrimmages and one came against Fulshear.
Trailing against Fulshear, Owens had a run that only went 14 yards, but he broke four arm-tackles and made a stop on a dime to allow defenders chasing him to pass him by as he gained a few extra yards before getting tackled out of bounds. The run was met by massive cheers from the home-stands.
The cheers and the big crowds are something the freshmen are still getting used to.
“In eighth-grade not a lot of people came to the games, (now) the whole school comes out,” Owens said.
Last year all three played football on Tuesday nights. The atmosphere on Friday nights is something special and all three know they have what it takes to play at the highest high school level.
“It’s unexplainable,” Erwin said. “It’s a feeling only football players can understand. It’s excitement, it’s a little bit of nervousness, but if you believe in yourself you can do anything.”