Hampton-Highlands clash pits evenly matched, undefeated foes

Wednesday, September 22, 2021 | 6:29 PM

Friday night’s Class 4A Greater Allegheny Conference clash between Highlands and Hampton is about as even as it gets.

Both teams are 4-0 for the first time since 2015, both schools needed strong second-half performances Friday in their conference openers, and the schools are knotted at 15-15 in the all-time series that began in 1984.

Even their leading rushers are about equal. Hampton’s Christian Liberto leads Class 4A rushers with 519 yards while, and sophomore Luke Bombaski of Highlands is right behind at 513 yards.

About the only difference is Hampton has made the playoffs more recently — last year — than Highlands. The Golden Rams last reached the postseason in 2015.

But both teams are ready for Friday’s showdown at Golden Rams Stadium.

“They’re a very good, very sound team,” Highlands coach Dom Girardi said of the Talbots. “Everything they do, they do well. We need a great week of practice.”

Highlands was tested at Mars on Friday night, heading for locker room at halftime with a 7-7 stalemate.

“We realized we were in a fight now,” Girardi said. “This was the first conference action for a lot of the players and they answered the bell.”

“We went into the locker room with our heads down,” quarterback Chandler Thimons said. “We knew Mars could play with us. We came back out confident but not cocky. We knew we had to work hard.”

The final result was a 22-7 Highlands victory.

Hampton, meanwhile, had to stop a 2-point conversion attempt by Armstrong to eke out a 21-20 victory.

Thimons had another big night, throwing for 154 yards against the Planets. The junior has 496 yards on the season and 3,175 for his career.

But Highlands has developed a good balance between running and passing. The emergence of Bombalski, the first Highlands player to run for at least 100 yards in each of the first four games for the first time this century, has helped create the balance. He also has scored seven touchdowns and 18 extra points.

Thimons has augmented the rushing game with 202 yards on the ground, and the return of Brock White from a knee injury also helps.

“I hurt my leg against Burrell, so I didn’t run too much in the last game,” Thimons said. “I feel better now and what we’ve been able to do is a great tribute to our offensive line.”

Ashton Hatajik has contributed 106 rushing yards and 103 yards in kickoff returns.

“Any team hopes to have depth,” Girardi said. “We have a nice group of kids who work hard every day. Make no mistake, the credit comes down to the kids performing.”

Hampton, which finished last regular season 5-2 and lost to Aliquippa in the opening round of the WPIAL playoffs, is led by Liberto and Brock Borgo, who has seven touchdowns.

“Ours has been more of a team effort. We have a running back-by-committee, and they have done a great job,” Hampton coach Jacque DeMatteo said. “They’re unselfish, and they know we only have one football. There’s no animosity, and that’s a sign of leadership.”

Matt DeMatteo, son of veteran coach Jacque DeMatteo, has three touchdowns on the ground and has accounted for 17 extra points.

“We’re a senior-led team that I’m fortunate to be a part of,” Jacque DeMatteo said. “They have an upbeat attitude and we hope to stay healthy and focused.”

Coach DeMatteo, who earned high accolades as an assistant with Shady Side Academy’s 1998 WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up, is in his 14th season with the Talbots. He had led Hampton to six WPIAL playoff berths.

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