Highlands looks to refocus after two straight losses
It's been an out-of-sorts last two weeks for the Highlands football team, which had its momentum stunted by back-to-back losses.
But there seemed to be a shift in focus, a new-found sense of clarity, as the Golden Rams (6-3) began practice this week in preparation for Friday's home playoff game against New Castle (7-2).
“We know we have to come to play and we have to come out hitting,” Highlands senior tight end/linebacker Allan Cratsenberg said. “Last week was a big loss and it's going to motivate us.”
After falling to Ringgold, 45-20, in Week 8 — Highlands rested its starters in that game to avoid injury — the Rams were tripped by Knoch, 19-7, last Friday. That meant no share of the Greater Allegheny Conference and a bad taste at the completion of the regular season.
But that all seems to be in the rear-view mirror on the eve of the postseason.
“We wanted to get that Knoch win for coach, and we want to keep winning for (the late) Ryan (Richards),” Highlands senior fullback/linebacker Zach Mazur said. “I guess you could say this game will be our senior night. And it will be the last time the seniors play on our field.”
Holding on to the football seems to be the bulk of the lesson plan. Highlands turned the ball over nine times in its first six games. Compare that to 12 turnovers in its last three.
“We hope to eliminate the turnovers and penalties; that's killed us lately,” Rams coach Sam Albert said. “You take those things away and we've played fairly well.”
New Castle finished third in the perennially-strong Parkway Conference, coming within a touchdown and extra point of beating top-seeded West Allegheny (9-0) in Week 7.
The Red Hurricanes have scored 42 or more points five times. The centerpiece of their offense is 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior Malik Hooker, a gifted wide receiver and defensive back who has committed to Ohio State.
Hooker, who has lined up at running back, receiver and wildcat quarterback, has 21 catches for 35 yards and four touchdowns. He's also rushed for three scores.
“They're an exceptional football team,” Albert said. “You don't (simulate) some of their guys. (Hooker) is as good as I've seen. Their tailback is fast and their quarterback is big and elusive. We'll never match up with them skill-wise. We just have to play our brand of football.”
Quarterback Julian Cox (6-3, 190) has thrown for 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“We need to come out and hit them first,” Mazur said. “As long as we show up to play we'll be alright.”
Highlands relies on a running game led by junior tailback Elijah Jackson, who has rushed for 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
Cratsenberg jump-starts a defense that creates havoc with its linebackers. He has a team-high 64 tackles and 11 sacks.
Mazur has 53 tackles and four sacks.
Highlands' pass defense has allowed 118 yards per game, but has 11 interceptions. The run defense, though, has allowed just 92.9 yards per game.
Cratsenberg thinks the week off was a positive.
“I feel more fresh; we had a week off and I think it helped us,” Cratsenberg said. “It was tough because I have been on the field since my freshman year.”
Albert thinks setting the tone early could be the key.
“Whoever hits the hardest and longest wins the game,” Albert said.