Highlands boys have high hopes coming off 23-win season
Mitch DeZort sometimes puts himself into the shoes of opposing coaches, trying to analyze Highlands' weaknesses and how other teams might attempt to exploit them.
He's finding it difficult to do that this season.
With four starters returning from a team that reached the WPIAL Class AAA championship game and PIAA quarterfinals, No. 3 Highlands looks as primed as ever to make a run at the school's first basketball championship since 1995.
“We have a lot of strong shooters, but at the same time, we can all get to the hoop, we can all rebound and we can all contest shots,” said DeZort, a senior and three-year starter at guard. “We're all a bunch of hustlers, too. I think we have a bunch of styles of play that we can hit any team with.
“I think we have almost every area covered. It's just getting it all together now.”
After posting a combined 32 victories in its previous four years, including a 1-21 record in 2012-13, Highlands broke through in a big way last season.
The Golden Rams won 23 games and reached the WPIAL final, where they lost to Beaver Falls, and state playoffs for the first time since 2009, when former star Micah Mason was a freshman. And they did it while enduring the loss of two significant contributors in the playoffs, when Lavontae Martin and Lamarr McKamey withdrew from Highlands and planned to enroll at Gateway.
That adversity only made Highlands stronger for this season, DeZort said.
“I've never been part of a team that's this well-connected,” said DeZort, Highlands' leading scorer last season with 19.1 points per game. “With players leaving our team last year, certain things happening, bumps in the path during the season, I really just think it grew us four a lot closer, a lot tighter-knit. It made us mature a lot.”
Of course, with great success comes great expectations, and the Rams face the season as one of the favorites in the brand-new Class 5A, making a two-classification jump as part of the PIAA's six-class system.
“We talk about staying hungry,” fifth-year coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We're no longer going to creep up on anybody, and we're going to get a lot of teams' best shot. We need to stay grounded and understand nothing's going to be given to us. We have to come out and play really hard every game to be able to get a lot of wins in the win column.
“We got a little taste of success, but we didn't get to have the full meal. That's something we're going to build on. We want to be a WPIAL champion, but we want to have a good practice tomorrow. We want to take it one step at a time because you can't get too far ahead of yourself.”
Stoczynski recognizes the need for slow building perhaps as much as anyone. His first season at Highlands ended with that 1-21 record, but the Rams increased that win total to nine the next season and won a pair of WPIAL playoff games in 2014-15 before making their run last season.
“A lot of it comes down to the guys we're working with,” Stoczynski said. “They want to be in the gym, they want to be good, and it's easy to coach basketball when you have guys who want to be there and want to do the extra stuff so they can be successful on the court.
“Even the year we were 1-21, we had one or two guys coming in the morning to get extra shots up. Now, when we did our preseason, we had an entire group of guys that came. It kind of fed from one year to the next and built upon itself. Most of the credit goes to the guys.”
Highlands must replace one of its integral players in guard Jamison Nee, who averaged 17.4 points per game and played strong defense.
But the Rams can turn to four returning starters — DeZort and fellow seniors Ryan Boda and R.J. Reiger at guard and Brayden Thimons at forward — and a few key returning bench contributors as they look to build on last season's success. Boda and Reiger are strong shooters, and Thimons brings a physical post presence.
Senior Dom Martinka and junior Romello Freeman both played key minutes in the playoffs after the departure of Martin and McKamey. Tyler Grosholz, a 6-foot-4 senior, and junior Christian Tanilli could see expanded roles.
In the new Class 5A, Section 3, Highlands moved away from rivals like Freeport, Hampton and Mars and will square off instead with Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Gateway, Greensburg Salem and Kiski Area.
No matter the opponent, the Golden Rams expect stiff competition.
“We have really high expectations for ourselves,” DeZort said. “We try to just remain humble and make sure we're doing all the right things, taking care of everything in the classroom, (but we hope to) build on our dynasty from last year and just try to get back to where we were. We have plans to go even beyond where we were last year.”