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Experienced Highlands team hopes for bounce-back year

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 8:56 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dis
Highlands quarterback Blake Leri hands the ball off during practice Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, in Harrison Township.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Wearing one of his usual off-the-wall training camp outfits, Highlands coach Sam Albert calls out to a player during practice Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, at the high school in Harrison Township.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands running back Zach Mazur runs the ball past a defender during practice at the high school in Harrison Township on Monday, August 12, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands head coach Sam Albert watches a play during practice at the high school in Harrison Township on Monday, August 12, 2013.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Highlands running back Zach Mazur runs the ball during practice at the high school in Harrison Township on Monday, August 12, 2013.

Last year at this time, Highlands was getting ready to start a season with just five returning starters.

This year, the Golden Rams will have nine starters on each side of the ball coming back.

Coach Sam Albert, set to become the school's longest tenured head coach in his 10th season, was happy with how his youthful team progressed in 2012.

“I was real proud,” he said. “We started out 0-4, but the kids kept going and believing.”

A late-season surge wasn't quite enough to enhance the Highlands legacy of 13 WPIAL playoff appearances in 17 years, but the Golden Rams are poised to make it back to the postseason with so many players gaining experience and posting a 4-5 record.

If there's one play that kept the Golden Rams out of last year's playoffs, it came on opening night at Hollidaysburg.

After falling behind, 22-0, Highlands took a 26-25 lead early in the fourth quarter.

But a 95-yard return on the ensuing kickoff was the difference in Highlands going 3-5 in the Greater Allegheny Conference.

“I put the scores of the games we lost on the weight room wall over the winter,” Albert said. “And I asked what the players are going to do about reversing the outcomes this year.”

One red flag for Highlands could be a lack of depth. If any starter goes down, Albert knows he can't easily be replaced.

Tragedy hit the Golden Rams family July 12 when projected two-way starter Ryan Richards died after being thrown from the back of a pick-up truck. Richards would have manned one of the starting wide receiver and outside linebacker spots in his senior season.

“Losing Ryan really hurts; you don't replace anybody like him,” Albert said of the popular Richards, who has been named an honorary captain for this season.

Returning from a knee injury is quarterback Blake Leri, who played well as a sophomore last season, throwing for 815 yards on 55 completions.

Another junior being counted on is running back Elijah Jackson, who led the team with 10 touchdowns and 756 rushing yards last season.

Senior Allan Cratsenburg had another stellar season in 2012, leading Highlands in tackles (102), sacks (14) and fumble recoveries (four).

He will be joined in the linebacking corps by fellow four-year letterman Zach Mazur and junior Wes Bernath.

The Golden Rams will miss graduated starting lineman Kalvin Hines and four-year placekicker Mike Masarik.

Three players are vying to replace Masarik, who booted 17 extra points and four field goals last season. Sam Elliott, Rege Uhric and Alex Bates will be under the tutelage of new special teams coach Nick Bouchat, who kicked for the Golden Rams from 2005-08.

Albert said he also accepts the challenge of preparing his teams for games against veteran coaches in the conference. For instance, Mike King of Knoch and Scott Heinauer of Mars are among the winningest all-time coaches at their respective Greater Allegheny Conference schools.

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