Stingy Highlands defense ready for another challenge against Mars
Talk about sizing up the competition.
During pregame warm-ups last week, Highlands players and coaches marveled at the size and speed of Franklin Regional's players.
“We're sitting there going, ‘These guys look like a college team,' ” Highlands coach Sam Albert said. “My goodness.”
Fair enough. But when the game started, Highlands took the unbeaten Panthers to class.
In one of their most impressive shutouts in recent years, the Golden Rams won, 17-0, to improve to 3-0 and give them added confidence heading into another Greater Allegheny Conference pressure-cooker this week against Class AAA No. 5 Mars (2-1, 2-1).
“We game-planned well and executed,” Highlands senior offensive guard and defensive end Julian Flenory said of last week's win. “We hit them from the gate.”
No. 8-ranked Highlands' message this week: Bring on the next challenge.
“Our kids don't back down from anybody,” Albert said. “They'll come after you. You may have more skills, but our kids are tough.”
Highlands started last season 0-4 but suddenly sits a win away from 4-0.
Highlands held then-No. 4 Franklin Regional to only five first downs and 124 yards of offense. Albert's most notable teams over the years have been known for their defensive play: “We fly to the football,” the coach said.
The Rams have surrendered a conference-low 21 points through three weeks, adding their usual heat to quarterbacks and clogging running lanes. Opponents have rushed for only 79 yards against the Golden Rams.
“We feel we have a very fast defense; our linebackers really get after it,” said Flenory, who leads Highlands with 22 tackles. “We're getting stops, and that helps our offense.”
Highlands' running game has hit another gear. Junior tailback Elijah Jackson ran for 232 yards and a touchdown against Franklin Regional, giving him a 520 yards for the season.
“Reggie's running well for sure,” said Albert, who has a nickname for just about every player he's coached. Jackson's comes from comparisons to Reggie Bush.
But it could just as easily mean Reggie Jackson if the running back continues his strong play into October. By then, the conference will know if Highlands is for real. Better yet, the team will know that much before the calendar flips.
“We'll find out,” Albert said. “Our next two games will show how good we are. Mars and Indiana will be tellers.”
Mars' only loss is to Franklin Regional, 20-13, in the season opener.
The Fighting Planets are based in a Wing-T but not averse to spreading the field this season. They rely heavily on fullback Josh Shultheis. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder has rushed for 522 yards and seven touchdowns. He gets his number called an average of 23 times per game.
Shultheis tallied 212 yards and three scores on 30 carries as Mars rolled to a 38-15 win over Indiana last week. Indiana came in as a team with high regard but fell from the Trib Total Media rankings after holding the No. 10 spot. The Little Indians allowed the Fighting Planets to rush for 354 yards. Albert is wary of their balance.
It's rare for Mars to pass, but it's never ruled out.
“They return all of their skill kids, their quarterback (Owen Nearhoof) is exceptional, and we have nobody to match their fullback,” Albert said. “Scott Heinauer does a great job coaching-wise. He knows how to exploit weaknesses and show their strengths. And they're well-balanced.”
Schultheis scored three times last season in a 55-6 route of Highlands at Mars. That, however, was against a Highlands defense that's a year wiser.
Highlands will be without receiver Chris Fick this week. Albert said he broke a bone in his face during gym-class football.
Albert admits the Rams have unused play calls at their disposal.
“There are a few things we haven't done,” he said. “We just hope we can continue to improve.”
Mars has a player with some off-the-field celebrity. Senior John King, a right guard and middle linebacker, is featured along with his family on “Farm Kings,” a reality show on the Great American Country network.
So if Mars has farm boys, what does Highlands have?
“Tough boys,” Flenory said.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.