For many years, the route to WPIAL playoff berths from Section 1-AAA frequently passed through Highlands.
The Golden Rams made the playoffs seven straight seasons and 12 out of 14 years at one stretch.
But Highlands has sat out the playoffs the last two seasons, and the Golden Rams are yearning to get back into the postseason mix.
Last year, the Golden Rams were 4-8 in section competition, 9-13 overall.
For many years, the school had the “runnin’ Rams” philosophy: pile up the points and wear down the opposition.
This season, third-year coach Tyler Stoczynski is using a strong defensive concept to get Highlands back in the playoff hunt.
“We’re a defense-first program, and that’s what we’re about,” Stoczynski said. “We preach defense every day. Stand in front of your man, help defense has to be there and make sure you have your teammate’s back.”
“We’re working on communicating and being the best defense that we can,” senior Kaison Branch added. “That’s what we’re built on, getting stops.”
Branch, last year’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, is optimistic about the season.
“I think we’ll be good this year and want to make a run in that section,” Branch said.
Branch will be getting plenty of help this season.
“I think Jordan Lineburg, Levontae Martin and Brayden Thimons will give us a lot of strength and a lot of height inside,” Stoczynski said. “I feel we should be powerful and strong in there.”
Highlands also will welcome back Mitch DeZort, who returned after a stint at Central Catholic. Ryan Boda and Tyler Alworth also are expected to contribute heavily this season.
Mars and Hampton figure to be the teams to beat in the section, while Highlands will be welcoming newcomers Deer Lakes and Burrell.
Local rivals Valley, Freeport and Knoch will remain section mainstays, a situation that’s pleasing to Branch.
“It’s always fun to go against your friends,” Branch said. “Winning the rival games are even much more fun. What makes it fun is that everyone wants to win and everyone goes their hardest.”
Highlands will be taking part in the Penn-Trafford Classic, taking on the host Warriors and Norwin in an effort to be tested by much larger schools before embarking on section play.
George Guido is a freelance writer.