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Highlands girls hope to maintain spark this season

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 11:18 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Highlands girls basketball player Nicole Boda on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Highlands girls basketball players (from left) Ashlyn Jonczak, Renee Cebula ,Nicole Boda and Nia Thomas on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Highlands girls basketball player Nia Thomas on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Highlands girls basketball player Ashlyn Jonczak on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

Once on shaky ground, Highlands is doing everything it can to build a strong residence.

A program that suffered from low turnout and lower victory totals during a four-year postseason drought broke through last season, qualifying for the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2011 and registering their first winning season since 2010.

“It was just tremendous for the girls to break through, break the ceiling,” said Drew Jonczak, in his second season as coach after previously working as an assistant. “When we got there, it was a cave. Now we've got electricity, we're putting in plumbing now. We're getting there.”

Highlands has a sturdy foundation to build on, thanks to four returning starters in seniors Nicole Boda, Ashlyn Jonczak and Nia Thomas and junior Renee Cebula, who formed the core of last season's playoff team.

Cebula started at point guard last season, a new role for her, while Boda and Jonczak formed a high-scoring backcourt duo. Thomas was a strong scorer and rebounder at forward.

“I expect a lot of them,” Drew Jonczak said. “We have a good shot of having all four in double digits. (But) we know they can score. We've got to start assisting now and stealing, all the little things.”

Highlands ran into depth problems last year, both because of low turnout and injuries. In several games, the Golden Rams played with zero bench players.

Jonczak, who previously coached at Blessed Sacrament in Natrona Heights, is attempting to build up Highlands' program starting in junior high. For the time being, though, these Golden Rams will compete with a combined 12 varsity and junior varsity players.

“Obviously last year I worried, and I'll worry this year,” Jonczak said. “You've got to watch it. You waste your timeouts to rest them. You're thankful when (opposing teams) call timeout. That's the big problem. That's why we don't press a lot. If one or two of us are in foul trouble, we can't press.

“If we had some numbers, we'd be running and running and running. We're conditioned. We do a lot of push-ups, a lot of box jumps, a lot of squats, a lot of jumping rope, a lot of running.”

Beyond the core four, Jonczak said he's looking for contributions from junior Aliscea Branch and sophomore Jaharee Holt, along with freshmen Alexa Marasco and Sarah Sawhook.

“(Branch and Holt) put in a really good summer with me,” Jonczak said. “They will contribute a little bit. They're getting their confidence and footwork together. Their confidence has tremendously improved. I'm a big skills guy, and their dribbling has come along great. I always feel if you have five girls who can dribble, you have a chance. They know I expect them to step in and contribute valuable minutes.”

After playing in Class AAA previously, Highlands moves to Class 4A in the PIAA's new six-classification system. The Golden Rams will compete in Section 1 with former section opponents Deer Lakes, Knoch and Valley, along with newcomers Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic — the defending PIAA Class A champion — perennial contender Burrell and Freeport.

“I look at our schedule, and 10 of our 20 games are against top-three teams in divisions,” Jonczak said. “That's a pretty strong schedule, and not just our section but our non-division games.”

If all breaks well, Jonczak believes the Golden Rams can compete again and perhaps post their first playoff victory since 2008.

“We definitely have a shot,” he said. “We can play; we just have to do all the little things, and if the ball bounces right sometimes, (we can have success). Last year in our playoff game, we had three go halfway down and come back out. But we can play; we just have to execute and limit our turnovers.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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