Young Laurel Highlands team making strides toward success
Zach Just knows his team will have to undergo the growing pains that an inexperienced squad must endure.
The third-year Laurel Highlands coach still is excited about the upcoming season.
“We're going to be young, that's a fact,” he said. “Right now, we only have six seniors on the team. But we have kids who are definitely hungry and extremely coachable. Every position is open.”
Laurel Highlands went 1-9 last season and finished at the bottom of the Big 9 Conference along with Albert Gallatin.
Just has three starters back on both sides of the ball, and among them, two are seniors.
“We were clearly upset in the offseason about our wins and losses last year,” Just said. “But my seniors that graduated gave me tremendous effort, and the ball never bounced our way. To go 1-9 was no one's goal, and we've approached it that way in the offseason in the weight room and with conditioning.”
Because of injuries, Jimmy Pierce took over at quarterback with three games to play last season.
Just expects Pierce not only will succeed in running the offense, but he will also become one of the team's leaders.
“Jimmy showed some tremendous skills for a young kid in the spot he was in,” Just said. “He's a true leader and one of the hardest workers on the team. He's earned the respect of every player and coach. Jimmy's a great athlete. He's not a true pocket passer, but he knows when to get rid of the ball and where to put it.”
Seniors Will Benesh and Dante Lizza will return to anchor the offensive line.
“Obviously, offensive line is a key position,” Just said. “You can't win games in Western Pennsylvania if you can't run the football. We need to be much better and more consistent. We have eight guys battling for those five spots, and we think we'll be all right. We're thin, but if we stay healthy we feel we can have a solid year.”
Just said Laurel Highlands will run the double-wing offense and, right now, about six players are competing for time at running back.
Among them is junior Dontay Jacobs.
“We're inexperienced, but we feel we have some good depth,” Just said. “He played some as a sophomore, but he broke his leg in Week 5 against Trinity. Dontay's a name people will be familiar with. He's a guy we're hoping will become our true home run threat.”
Sophomore Chad Livingston is expected to lead the receiving corps.
Defensively, juniors Brett Kusniar, James Isler and Brandon Crayton saw significant playing time last season.
Kusniar will make the move from safety to linebacker, Isler will man another one of the linebacker positions and Crayton will play on the defensive line.
Joining Laurel Highlands in the Big 9 Conference will be Albert Gallatin, Belle Vernon, Elizabeth Forward, Ringgold, Thomas Jefferson, Trinity, Uniontown and West Mifflin.
“West Mifflin and Thomas Jefferson have been the standard of the conference and continue to be,” Just said. “There are no weak teams. Belle Vernon and Trinity will be good as usual, Albert Gallatin is much improved, and Uniontown was young last year but returns all of its key players.
“We open with West Mifflin, and then we have Ringgold. We don't have a lot of time to wait around and see how fast the kids are going to step up.”