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Young Highlands girls team expects to go through growing pains

| Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 12:51 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands's Kayla Beale completes a layup during practice Monday, Nov. 25, 2013.

Highlands girls basketball coach Ron Lang recognizes the raw talent and enthusiasm when he studies his players at practice.

A couple of years down the road, Lang can envision a team that could compete with Section 1-AAA's finest.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, there's no way to hide the Golden Rams from experienced, physically superior foes.

The absence of seniors and a limited amount of returning starters might signal trouble for Highlands, which concluded last season 1-17 overall and 0-12 in Section 1. Five girls graduated after last season, including Nikki Misejka and Carly Hines, who combined to score almost all of the team's points. Leaning on a strong crop of freshmen, the Golden Rams aim to defy their collective age.

“We've been going at it all summer,” said Lang, whose roster includes just one junior. “We've played well in a couple shootouts, but we're young and we're making young mistakes. It's a lot of fun, and it'll probably pay dividends in the future. But we're basically a JV team playing varsity.”

Sophomore Kayla Beale, a 5-foot-1 guard, is the most experienced returning player. She and 5-8 junior forward Shannon Bernardi serve as team leaders.

“I feel pressure, but I just want to contribute to this team,” said Bernardi, who played basketball for the first time last season. “Last year, it was kind of crazy.”

Said Beale: “Last season, I learned that whenever you're in a tough situation in a game, you just have to keep your head up. Even if you don't think you're doing your best, you have to keep going.”

That's a message Beale intends to share with Highlands' freshmen, a group that includes guards Nicole Boda, Sam Cichello, Ashlyn Jonczak and Nia Thomas, and forwards Olivia Graff and Lauren Torgent.

The freshmen, particularly Boda, Graff and Jonczak, have impressed with their commitment to the sport and their athleticism. Lang said five freshmen might be on the floor at the same time.

“This is pretty much a new team from last year,” Bernardi said, “so we'll be showing a new kind of Highlands.”

Bernardi will share a frontcourt with sophomores Cailynn Borkowski (5-8), Courtney Pigott (5-5) and Saniece Auguste (5-7). Guard Alex Bonnett rounds out the sophomore class.

The Golden Rams understand that another difficult season might await. Highlands opened last season with a 51-36 win over Leechburg but lost 16 straight, and only one of those setbacks came by fewer than 10 points.

“The first goal is to win a game,” Beale said, “and just to keep people wanting to play, especially the younger girls.”

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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