No. 8 Highlands routs Greensburg Salem to secure playoff berth
Highlands football coach Sam Albert often characterizes his team in terms of hits and hustle.
High-scoring is not an attribute he associates with the Golden Rams, but as of late, it applies.
Able to dominate field positioning through special teams play, forced turnovers and stifling defense, No. 8 Highlands (6-1, 6-1) rolled to a 59-7 Greater Allegheny home win over Greensburg Salem (2-5, 2-5) on Friday and clinched a playoff berth.
The Golden Rams, who prior to this season hadn't exceeded 50 points in a decade, have at least 57 points the last two weeks.
“You may out-skill us, you may be more athletic, but nobody out-hits us,” Albert said. “That's what we did tonight.”
Due to a series of costly Greensburg Salem mistakes and an efficient run game, Highlands led, 52-0, at halftime and used backups thereafter.
“We clicked on all cylinders,” senior linebacker Zach Mazur said. “Usually we do — but it's usually later on.”
Perhaps no play encapsulated Highlands' hot start better than the opening kickoff. The Golden Rams put in a surprise onside-kick package and pulled it off perfectly, as they recovered the loose football at Greensburg Salem's 30-yard line.
“That's what you've got to do, make a big play early,” senior linebacker Allan Cratsenberg said.
Highlands got just three points out of that possession, as Sam Elliott kicked a 31-yard field goal. But the sequence of events foreshadowed the nature of the many moments that followed.
Twice in the first half, Greensburg Salem, forced to field Highlands' squib kicks, committed turnovers during returns.
And even when the Golden Lions held onto the kickoff, they struggled to sustain or even start drives. Three times, within the first three plays of a Greensburg Salem possession, Highlands picked off passes.
The Golden Rams left Greensburg Salem with few other offensive options but passing. Running back Dom McKinley, responsible for 214 yards on the ground in Week 6, had six carries for 1 yard in the first half.
“We were expecting No. 5 (McKinley),” Cratsenberg said. “After watching the film, we thought he's probably the best weapon we've seen so far.”
Greensburg Salem accumulated just 18 yards of offense through two quarters, while Highlands had 286.
Albert spoke at length about the importance of having his top linebackers — Cratsenberg, Mazur, junior Wes Bernath and sophomore Jordan Lineburg — fully recovered from myriad injuries.
“When they're all healthy, they're as good as I've had,” Albert said.
Junior running back Elijah Jackson picked up 135 of Highlands' 286 first-half yards on 16 carries. He scored on runs of 1, 4, 4 and 8 yards.
His brother, Jeremy, returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown with 5:40 left in the second quarter to put Highlands ahead, 38-0.
Bernath, a fullback, went straight up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown run.
And freshman running back Dominic Martinka scored from 12 yards out with less than a minute left in the second quarter.
Adam Indof's 10-yard touchdown pass to Simeon Stevens with 2:21 left in the fourth quarter allowed Greensburg Salem to avoid the shutout.
“I don't think there's one thing you point your finger at,” Greensburg Salem coach Dave Keefer said. “It just unraveled as a whole.
“So often we look at wins and losses, and we get consumed in that. But part of this is about growing up, too. … These young men are going to face adversity in life, and this helps them learn.”