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Highlands boys look to rally after going 1-21 last season

| Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands' Kaison Branch lines up a shot during practice Monday, Nov. 25, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands High School's Julian Flenory passes the ball during basketball practice on Monday, November 25, 2013.

The effort to restore the Highlands boys basketball team's reputation as a perennial contender in Section 1-AAA started early this summer, not all that long after the Golden Rams completed their one-win 2012-13 season.

As it prepares to open this season Dec. 6, Highlands knows it still has a way to go before it returns to the upper echelon of the section playoff and title races.

Two starters and several experienced subs return for the Golden Rams, who missed the postseason for the first time since 2004-05 and finished 1-21 and 1-11 in Section 1. Last season allowed first-year starters and major-minute earners to adjust to the varsity level. Now comes the time when the Golden Rams must apply the lessons they learned or endure another frustrating winter.

Second-year coach Tyler Stoczynski faces that scenario, too.

“It was very humbling,” Stoczynski said of last season. “I think, myself included, we came in with a false sense of security that we'd be better than we were.

“We needed to work on very basic things. Once we got those basic skills down, we were able to work more on basketball IQ stuff. I think it's been fruitful, and it'll be a big advantage heading into this season.”

Senior Julian Flenory, a 5-foot-11 forward, and 6-foot junior guard Kaison Branch are back in the starting lineup. Flenory, Highlands' only senior, averaged 6.1 points per game in the Golden Rams' balanced offense, while Branch led the team at 8.6 points per game.

“I feel like even though the season didn't end up how we wanted it to, we got more comfortable with each other, and it showed in the summer league and tournaments,” Flenory said. “We don't return that many starters, but we feel like we return a whole team, because we have eight or nine people that can definitely play.”

Branch became a more versatile scorer in the offseason, as he refined his jump shot to complement his driving skills. He also discovered a trustworthy backcourt sidekick in sophomore Tyler Alworth, a 5-11 guard who earned considerable playing time in his debut year.

“(Last year) really made me and my teammates work harder over the summer because we never want to go through a season like that again,” Branch said.

Forward Levonte Martin, a 6-1 junior, will join Flenory in the frontcourt. And 6-1 sophomore Jordan Lineburg will bolster Highlands' defense after a strong football season in which he impressed as an outside linebacker.

“If he really buys into this defensive mentality, I think he can guard anyone in the WPIAL,” Stoczynski said of Lineburg. “He just has to commit to it, but his upside is really incredible.”

The coach intends to part ways with the zone schemes he used a season ago and commit to the man-to-man defensive strategy that he holds closer to his heart. Improving a defense that allowed a section-high 62.5 points per game is at the top of Stoczynski's to-do list.

“We're really starting to lay that foundation down of being a defense-first type of place, whereas before they were more of a run-and-gun team,” he said. “Now we want to stop you and then go score.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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