Highlands returns talented skill players in high-scoring spread offense
Highlands updated its record books frequently in 2017, with quarterback Seth Cohen thriving in a pass-friendly attack with five dependable wide receivers.
But while old program passing and receiving marks fell in favor of new ones, one crucial statistic didn’t improve enough, as the Golden Rams’ 5-4 record kept them out of the WPIAL playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Ending that drought is top of mind for Highlands as it enters the second year of coach Dom Girardi’s tenure.
“We’re not interested in (individual) records,” Girardi said. “We’re interested in the team’s record. We’re interested in a lot of things you can’t put a stat to, like leadership and intelligence and stuff like that.”
Girardi said he liked his players’ buy-in to new offensive and defensive schemes, and their dedication carried over to offseason workouts.
″(There’s) a lot of hard work going on, getting in the weight room, trying to get kids to come in more and more because we have a lot of young kids coming up,” senior Cam Taylor said. “We want to get them in the swing ... get them lifting and get them a little bit more advanced for when they come up, so it’s not a hard hassle for them.”
A senior-heavy team from last season gives way to a younger group this fall, but a core of experienced upperclassmen remain and will need to take on bigger leadership roles.
Heading that group is Cohen, a senior who threw for 2,001 yards in his first full season as starter -- including a school-record 412-yard, seven-touchdown performance in a double-overtime loss to New Castle. Girardi said he expects Cohen to take on a bigger leadership role as a senior.
“It’s a lot more dedication than it is skill or anything like that,” Cohen said. “You just have to come to every practice and just know every play (and) where everybody’s got to be at every time.
“As a senior and a quarterback, it’s like one of the coaches. You’ve got to get people here, you’ve got to be on time, you’ve got to be everywhere.”
Girardi’s spread offense calls for talented wide receivers and a strong offensive line that can protect the quarterback, and the Golden Rams have to replace four top contributors at both spots.
Romello Freeman, Logan Crise, Ryan Signorella and Gabe Booker departed at wide receiver. The group combined for more than 80 catches, nearly 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
Johnny Crise, a 6-foot-7 junior who caught 24 passes and four touchdowns last season, returns out wide. Taylor, a “bruiser” of a running back in Girardi’s words, led the team with 398 rushing yards last season and will supplement the passing attack.
Senior Dan Thimons is the lone returning full-time starter up front, although senior Ethan Jones also saw time there. Thimons will shift from left guard to left tackle once he returns from offseason foot surgery.
Senior linebacker Noah Gillette, the Golden Rams’ leading tackler last season with 106, will anchor the middle of the defense. Thimons, who had a team-high six sacks, and Jones will lead the line, while Crise is the primary leader in the secondary.
A quintet of sophomores -- wide receiver/defensive backs D.J. Loveland and Kaeleb Radeshak, linemen Jeremiah Nelson and Wahkeem Roman and linebacker Kyron Long -- all have made offseason strides and could take on bigger roles this season.
“We have some key guys in some key spots that we’re going to rely on to bring the new guys around,” Girardi said. “That’s why we’ve been preaching leadership. They don’t even necessarily have to be seniors. Anybody who’s out there on the field needs to take some responsibility for trying to get their teammates to play at the best level that they can.”
That’s especially true in Highlands’ Northwest 8 Conference, a Class 4A league that Girardi labeled a “meat grinder.” Although Mars moved to Class 5A through offseason realignment, holdovers Ambridge, Blackhawk, Knoch, Montour, New Castle and South Fayette remain and will be joined by Beaver, a Class 3A semifinalist last season.
“When you look at this conference, there’s no one you look at and say oh boy, this is an easy one,” Girardi said. “And that’s exciting. When it boils down to it, we put in a lot of time, a lot of effort, so let’s go out and compete against good teams and have good games.”
Highlands kicks off its season with a Week Zero game at Plum, followed by a nonconference game at Keystone Oaks before hosting Blackhawk for its conference opener Sept. 7.
“The big focus for us is us,” Girardi said. “That’s what we talk about all the time: We are what matters. It doesn’t matter who we play, what matters is us executing, what we’re supposed to do to the best of our ability. If we can do that, I’ll put us up against anybody and we’ll have a competitive game.”
Coach: Dom Girardi
2017 record: 5-4, 4-4
All-time record: 260-231-7
Date, Opponent, Time
8.24, at Plum, 7 p.m.
8.31, at Keystone Oaks, 7 p.m.
9.7, Blackhawk*, 7 p.m.
9.14, at Knoch*, 7 p.m.
9.21, Beaver*, 7 p.m.
9.28, at Ambridge*, 7 p.m.
10.5, Montour*, 7 p.m.
10.12, at South Fayette*, 7 p.m.
10.19, at New Castle*, 7 p.m.
10.26, Latrobe, 7 p.m.
*Class 4A Northwest 8 Conference game
Passing: Seth Cohen
100-221, 2,001 yards, 24 TDs
Rushing: Cameron Taylor
84-398 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Romello Freeman*
26-766 yards, 11 TDs