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Highlands trio to play final game together at Cager Classic

| Tuesday, March 21, 2017, 9:54 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Highlands’ Brayden Thimons shoots against Laurel Highlands' Iliesa Salauca during a WPIAL playoff game at Norwin High School in North Huntingdon, Pa. on Tuesday Feb. 21, 2017. Laurel Highlands won 49-48.

Brayden Thimons and Ryan Boda talked when they were younger about becoming “the two” — the Highlands boys basketball players who one day would represent the Golden Rams in the annual Cager Classic All-Star Game.

When Mitch DeZort transferred from Central Catholic to Highlands in 2014, that presented a conundrum, Thimons said, “Who's going to be the two now?”

Turns out, “the two” became “the three.” Boda, DeZort and Thimons will represent Highlands a final time as members of the West boys team in the 21st annual Cager Classic. The annual all-star games for local seniors will take place Saturday night at Highlands.

“It's huge for all three of us to go and play one more game on the home court in front of the home crowd,” Thimons said. “Everybody's excited.

“Whenever they picked the three of us, it was kind of a relief that they didn't (leave) one of us out.”

It's almost unprecedented for three teammates to play together in the Cager — Boda, DeZort and Thimons will join Knoch's 2014 contingent of David Gallagher, Chris Kier and Austin Miller as the only boys trios to be represented.

Highlands' girls team also will be triply represented, with Nicole Boda, Ashlyn Jonczak and Nia Thomas playing for the West. Highlands' coaches, Tyler Stoczynski and Drew Jonczak, will lead the West boys and girls, respectively.

“It'll definitely probably be easier when we're all three on the court together,” Ashlyn Jonczak said. “We all three know each other. And some of the girls like (Hampton's) Jenna Lafko and (St. Joseph's) Lizzy Celko, I played with them in AAU and grade school, so that'll be easier, too.”

The opportunity to play together one more time means something extra to the Highlands bunch because the game takes place in their home gym.

“It's exciting we'll get a chance to put on our uniforms and represent our community one last time,” DeZort said. “I think a lot of people know we wanted to end our career together at the high school level all together in this last game. It's a lot of hard work with these guys.”

The Golden Rams boys, however, wanted to spend this week preparing for another game.

They began the season with hopes of winning a PIAA basketball championship — the Class 5A boys title game is Friday night in Hershey — but instead saw it end in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs with a loss to Laurel Highlands.

It was a record scratch for Highlands, which had four returning starters from last season's WPIAL runner-up and PIAA quarterfinalist team. Mars' contingent at the 2016 Cager Classic, John Castello and Christian Schmitt, played in the PIAA Class AAA championship Friday and returned for the Cager game Saturday.

“Certain circumstances occurred, certain situations, and I really feel we didn't play to our potential or play to how we could have played by any means,” DeZort said. “Of course, we didn't expect to be sitting here. We expected to be in the semifinals of the states or something of that nature. But certain things happen for a reason. I know there's a plan for all of us.”

The Highlands girls were coming off a WPIAL playoff appearance a season ago, but a slow start combined with injuries and other absences to short-circuit the Rams' chances for a repeat.

With the high school season in the rearview mirror, the Highlands players are focusing on their last game on their home court, with their high school coaches leading the way.

“It's awesome that (Stoczynski) is our coach,” Thimons said. “We have one practice Thursday, so instead of us having to get used to somebody else and how they coach, it's our guy. He's been there, and everything he's going to run, we know how he is. I think he's the best candidate for it.

“He's a great coach, he's a great person, and he gets along with everyone. I think he's going to have a great connection with these kids only meeting them one time.”

Ashlyn Jonczak will get one more chance to play for her father, her coach at various levels since she was younger.

“I don't know how that'll be because I feel like I've played for him basically through grade school since I started,” she said. “It'll definitely be different. I didn't have him for AAU, but I definitely don't mind my dad coaching. I like him coaching. It'll be kind of sad, probably.”

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

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