Ability to defend all 5 positions key for Highlands boys basketball

Monday, March 12, 2018 | 7:54 PM

Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski knows the time will come during games when his 6-foot-6 center, Shawn Erceg, will get matched up against an opponent's smaller, quicker point guard.

Here's the thing: Stoczynski doesn't mind that matchup. And neither does Erceg.

“I am completely comfortable,” Erceg said. “I have faith in me and all five of our guys that they can guard one through five on the opposite team.”

That confidence is well-founded of late for Highlands, which will meet City League representative Carrick in the PIAA Class 5A second round Tuesday at Gateway.

Although Highlands made a name for itself in recent years as a run-and-gun, offensively-oriented team, these Rams are proving they can win just as effectively in a lock-down, grind-it-out defensive battle.

For proof, look no further than the Golden Rams' PIAA Class 5A opener against Franklin Regional, when they smothered the WPIAL runner-up Panthers in a 52-31 victory to advance to the PIAA second round for the second time in three seasons.

It marked the sixth time this season Highlands (19-5) held an opponent to fewer than 40 points. For the season, the Golden Rams are allowing 50.2 points per game, their best in more than 15 years and an improvement of nearly 5 ppg from last season.

“Our guys take a lot of pride in it,” Stoczynski said. “We try to make it one of the pillars of our program. When our coaches show a lot of pride in it, that trickles down to our players and they've taken ownership in it.”

The Golden Rams' man-to-man defense relies heavily on switching, meaning it can often lead to potential mismatches — say, Erceg against a point guard or the smaller Ryan Signorella against a big man.

Highlands counters those situations with communication, a major focus from the beginning of the season.

“We got yelled at every day,” senior Romello Freeman said. “It helps us out when he tells us, ‘Communicate, communicate.' It's the No. 1 thing on defense, so we keep on that every day.

“Everyone has to be on point. If we put (Erceg) on the tallest guy, we've got to have his back. It's about the positioning on the floor. If Sig's going to get switched onto the biggest kid, we're just going to have his back.”

The foundation for the defensive improvement was laid last season, as Erceg and Christian Tanilli asked to begin switching on defense during junior varsity games. Highlands continued to work on that over the summer, when the team won the Pittsburgh Basketball Club's summer league.

“A lot of us didn't get a lot of experience over the last three or four years, so we've always been playing together with the JVs and stuff,” Erceg said. “When it was our time to come back, we already knew each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we just kept it rolling.”

Although communication is key, it doesn't hurt that Highlands has the size and athleticism with the likes of Erceg, 6-foot-7 Johnny Crise and the 6-foot-3 Freeman to erase any potential mistakes.

And that athleticism can lead to points the other way, as the high-flying Crise proved with big dunks in the win over Franklin Regional.

“You play with defense, it's going to lead to offense,” said Freeman, a dangerous open-floor player in his own right. “That's what starts the game, is defense. All of us have that mindset of you're not going by us — we have you, you're right there in front of us, you're not getting by. And if you do go by us, our teammates, we've got your back.”

Last week's win over Franklin Regional avenged a loss to the Panthers in the WPIAL semifinals, a game in which the Golden Rams let an early lead slip away. In the rematch, they never let Franklin Regional back into the game.

That kind of consistent intensity will prove key for Highlands as it continues in the state playoff bracket, Stoczynski said, beginning with Tuesday's game against Carrick.

“It's one of those things where the seniors understand it's their last game,” said Stoczynski, who credited Freeman and Tanilli for getting the team ready against Franklin Regional. “I tell them to play until exhaustion. When you're done on that night, don't be able to have any energy left. Be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say I left it all out on the floor. If you guys do that, the young guys will follow your lead and it will become contagious.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.


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