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Ex-Highlands player Courtney Udanis ready to oversee rebuild

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First-year Highlands girls basketball coach Courtney Udanis has been there before. She played for the Rams during some pretty lean years.

Udanis was a part of a freshman class that moved up to the high school ranks looking to turn around a struggling program. Two years later as a junior, Udanis and her teammates earned the program’s first playoff appearance in 33 years, which ignited a run of four straight postseason appearances for the Rams.

A little over a decade later, Udanis is back in a role she always envisioned, and while the situation is almost identical from her playing days, there is renewed optimism surrounding the program.

“I understand how to make a team become a successful and winning program,” said Udanis, who went on to play golf at Penn State. “My freshman and sophomore years, we were turning the program around. The program had really made a turn and was going in the right direction.”

The first thing Udanis did was set the team rules and hold her team accountable. There was an adjustment period.

“I think it was a transition for them, and I will say that it was a very big change,” Udanis said. “The rules that I have set in place, they were not used to. I’ve always been a stickler on that, and I grew up with coaches like that.”

Udanis and her Rams have their work cut out for them. The team struggled in Section 1-4A last season, where both of Highlands’ wins came against a winless Valley team. Points were hard to come by last season.

Udanis said was she would like her team to play aggressive at both ends of the court so it can dictate the pace.

Show up at a Rams practice, and there is a ton of running. Highlands might be a work-in-progress, but the Rams will be in shape.

“I prefer to dictate the pace,” Udanis said.

Highlands lost last year’s points leader, Renee Cebula, and the starting lineup is not set. Udanis is waiting until after Wednesday’s scrimmage with Leechburg before deciding on who will play and who will sit.

“We’re a very young team, and we only have two seniors,” Udanis said.

One player who will be fast-tracked into the starting lineup will be 6-foot freshman forward Jocelyn Luzier. Skyler Summers also will get some time at forward.

“I prefer to have (Luzier) down low,” Udanis said. “She’s the biggest girl we have and probably the biggest girl they’ve had here in a long time.”

Highlands’ speed will come from junior guard Sarah Sawhook. Senior guard Sarah Young will get a chance to make her case to start, as well.

“I’m really excited to see how this goes, and I really think that we’re already making progress,” said Young. “We’re working with trying to see where everybody’s at and looking to see what people’s strengths are.”

The Rams eventually will get back junior guard Alexa Marasco from an ACL injury she suffered last season. Marasco has been cleared to practice but not play. Sara Karns will get a chance to start, and freshman Maria Fabregás’ hustle has caught Udanis’ eye.

“I’d like to be here a long while, and I want to see this program turn around,” Udanis said.

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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