Baldwin's strength, skill-position players offer high hopes
Baldwin is aiming to climb another step up the ladder in that grinding WPIAL Class AAAA division this season.
Under fourth-year head coach Jim Wehner, the Fighting Highlanders have gone from 2-7 in 2009, to 3-6 in 2010, to 4-5 in 2011. The team snapped a lengthy losing streak in 2009, and ended a five-year WPIAL playoff drought that year.
But returning to the playoffs this season may prove yet to be a formidable task, as the Fighting Highlanders are competing in a rugged Quad-A conference that, due to WPIAL realignment, includes holdovers Peters Township, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, Canon-McMillan and Bethel Park, plus newcomers Woodland Hills, Penn Hills and Plum.
Seven of the nine teams on this year's schedule were playoff qualifiers in 2011. Upper St. Clair advanced to the WPIAL championship at Heinz Field last year.
Five conference teams will advance to the WPIAL playoffs.
"Quad-A football is tough; there's nothing you can do about it. You have to come to play every week," Wehner said. "There are a lot of new coaches in the conference, but you know what you're getting with teams like Woodland Hills and Penn Hills.
"I like our chances. I like this team, if we stay healthy. We're just going to do what we have to do to win the games. It's always in the third, fourth or fifth year (in a program) that you will be your best. At least in the fourth year I know what to expect. I know the community now; I know the kids. This is the first group to come in with me. It takes time to get big and strong; this is probably my best team overall. Our skill players are pretty good."
In particular, Baldwin's star running back Dorian Brown ended a sensational 2011 junior season with more than 1,500 all-purpose yards, and 12 touchdowns.
Wehner is expecting more of the same this season from the explosive third-year starter.
"Dorian's looking really, really good. We expect him to be one of the top backs in the WPIAL," Wehner said. "Dorian is bigger and faster, and he has some guys pushing him; that's making everyone a better player."
Brown, who has blazing 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, rushed for 1,292 yards and 10 touchdowns on 197 carries in 2011.
His best overall performance came against rival Thomas Jefferson in a nonconference game when he ran for 278 yards and two scores - including a game-winning 80-yard romp with 1:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The elusive Baldwin running back knows the importance of working out diligently in the offseason.
Brown, who has a personal goal of rushing for 2,000 yards in 2012, packed on 20 pounds of muscle following his sophomore season, and has added another 15 pounds to his sturdy frame since last fall.
He has high hopes for the FightingHighlanders this season.
"We have a pretty young team, but we have a lot of skill players," Brown said. "We want to be a strong team, win more games and get into the (WPIAL) playoffs."
Wehner believes his star athlete, who is being recruited by the likes of Navy, Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Temple, Buffalo, Ohio, Duquesne and Robert Morris, has all the tangibles needed to be a premier running back.
"He is very strong and fast, and he has great vision," Wehner said of Brown, who plans to major in computer science, specializing in software development, in college. "We have other people that need to step up for us to be in the mix."
Along with Brown, players being counted on to make an impact this season include senior Deandre Andrews, at wide receiver/defensive back; juniors Gary Jackson and Alec Tambakis, at wide receiver/defensive back; juniorStephon Harris, at fullback/linebacker; juniors Luke Smorey and Bill Howley, as slotback/wide receivers; juniors Nick Barca and Jay Morrison, at slotback/running back; as well as sophomore Doug Altavilla, who is in his second season at quarterback.
"Harris has stepped up his game from last year," Wehner said. "All these kids are bigger and stronger."
Smorey and Barca also are starting linebackers, while Howley and Morrison also will start in the defensive secondary.
Juniors Jake Elk and Justin Zinsmeister are tight ends/linebackers, and are joined in the Baldwin linebacking corps by sophomores Martino Stein and Donny West.
"All those kids are fighting it out for the (linebacker) positions," Wehner said. "If you don't have linebackers, you will be in trouble. Those guys will step up for us."
Altavilla, an athletic 6-foot, 180-pound sophomore, and Smorey, a WPIAL and PIAA finalist in the javelin event last spring, combined for 611 yards in the passing department a year ago.
Altavilla, Smorey and Howley all spent time in preseason camp practicing at the quarterback position.
"Those three kids are athletes. They all do something better than each other (at the QB position)," Wehner said.
"Altavilla's biggest attribute is his leadership ability. Smorey has a strong arm; Howley is an athlete."
Baldwin's offensive line will be manned by senior Todd Zandier (5-10, 175), at center; juniors Sean Gerst (6-1, 225) and Enzo Ruscitto (6-1, 225), at guard; with senior Zack Nieman (5-11, 195), junior Dustin Pyeritz (6-1, 240) and sophomore Sterling Jenkins (6-8, 310), at tackle.
Senior Mainza Mweetwa (5-10, 225), Nieman, Gerst and Ruscitto will anchor the Fighting Highlanders' defensive line.
"We have been in the weight room since November," Wehner said."Our offensive and defensive lines are bigger than they've ever been before.
"I still don't think we're as big as some of the other teams in our conference."
There are only 10 seniors on this year's squad at Baldwin - Andrews, Brown, Mweetwa, Nieman, Zandier; and Trista Collins, a wide receiver/defensive back, Jeremy Gruntz, an offensive/defensive lineman, John Marchwinski, a running back/linebacker, and Brandon Marshell and Gino Szegedy, a pair of offensive/ defensive lineman.
The bulk of the starting lineup are members of the junior class.
"We do have a strong junior class. We do not have a lot of returning lettermen," Wehner said. "We have five returning offensive starters, and five returning defensive starters."
While the Fighting Highlanders look strong offensively at the skill positions and on the interior line, a key to success in 2012 lies in the performance of their linebacking corps on defense.
"Our defense is going to go as far as our linebackers take us," Wehner said.
Another strength on defense is the athleticism in the secondary.
"Ithink our D-backfield is the best we've had here," Wehner said. "They have a good skill set.
"Offensively, we're a pro-spread team. We'll use the tight ends in our package. We have some other athletes who can do other things now."
Baldwin opens the season Aug. 31 on the road against Peters Township. The Fighting Highlanders lost to the Indians by a 21-6 score last year.
"We've been competitive the last three years," Wehner said. "We're in every game we play; our opponents know they have to prepare for us."
The local squad, which has around 50 players competing at the varsity level this year, will play its home opener Sept. 7 against Plum.
"That's a good number to work with," Wehner said. "My expectations are to always play hard, and never quit.
"My coaches will teach and prepare at the highest level to get this team ready for the challenges of the season."