Highlands basketball team spending offseason gaining experience
Tyler Stoczynski typically gives his players a month off at the end of each season before beginning work on the next one.
That proved too long for his current crop of players.
Two weeks after Highlands bowed out of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs with a first-round loss to Laurel Highlands, the Golden Rams' underclassmen were jonesing to get back into the gym and the weight room. So Stoczynski would wake up early each morning and make the 45-minute drive to Highlands to unlock the weight room.
“We're talking three days a week, or sometimes five days a week, waking up at 6 a.m. and putting in workouts before school, after school having another workout,” said rising sophomore point guard Luke Cochran. “Individual players (were) going to work on their game either in AAU or up at the (YMCA), playing on Saturdays, everything you can think of. Our coaches were amazing about it.”
With vacancies abundant in the lineup after the graduation of six seniors, this offseason took on great importance for Highlands' returning players, most of whom will take on much bigger roles next season.
The dedication paid off with a championship in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club's annual summer league, even if the Golden Rams likely won't hang a banner for the title anytime soon.
“Guys are working hard and really playing together,” said Stoczynski. “When you play together like that and you play for each other, it masks some things you may be a little more deficient at. Right now, that's what we're doing. We're really playing together, and we're learning. We've got a long way to go, and guys are getting better every day and getting in the gym. It's all part of the process.”
Cochran, John Crise, Shawn Erceg, Romello Freeman, Korry Myers, Ryan Signorella, Christian Tanelli and Dan Thimons comprised Highlands' roster for the summer league. Crise played the most of the eight during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.9 points.
Highlands' top four scorers — seniors Ryan Boda, Mitch DeZort, R.J. Rieger and Brayden Thimons — all graduated, as did Tyler Grosholz and Dom Martinka. Those players were ringleaders in Highlands' WPIAL runner-up finish in 2016.
“We really want to have a productive season this year because I know a lot of people are doubting what we can do because we lost a lot of great players,” said Cochran, who averaged 1.6 points as a freshman. “We haven't seen a lot of our bench play and a lot of our underclassman kids.
“It's a big role to fill because those players were so good. They took us to a WPIAL championship (game), so it's big shoes to fill. I definitely think the players we have, we definitely can do it. From the heart to the skill, we have it all.”
The summer league included top-tier opponents in the likes of Allderdice, Central Catholic and Fox Chapel, which Stoczynski believes will only help his team. Highlands defeated four-time defending City League champion Allderdice in the championship game.
“The competition was pretty good,” Crise said. “It was a good thing to get under our belt, give us some confidence going into the season. (The championship) was a very intense game, but as long as we came together and played together, we were fine.”
Cochran was named summer league MVP after scoring a game-high 16 points in the championship.
Although the summer league represented a big moment for Highlands' young players, Stoczynski said the team's work is just beginning.
Many of the underclassmen are playing AAU basketball over the summer — Crise's team, the College Basketball Prospects, recently won a national ninth-grade title in a National Youth Basketball League tournament in Georgia — as well as doing work on their own. Cochran, who said he originally wanted to improve his dribbling and shooting over the summer, worked with former Highlands and Duquesne star Micah Mason.
“They really want to be there and you're not coaching effort, you're coaching the philosophies of basketball and trying to instill a higher IQ in basketball and all these things that are going to make you more successful during the season,” said Stoczynski, who plans to coach Highlands in a fall basketball league.
“You're either getting better or you're getting worse, and we always want to be taking that step to get better.”