Highlands boys soccer set to contend for postseason berth under 1st-year coach

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Thursday, August 22, 2019 | 6:42 PM


The Highlands boys soccer team qualified for the WPIAL playoffs four straight seasons from 2001-04.

The Golden Rams haven’t reached the postseason since. They missed out by one game in the Section 1-3A standings both last year and in 2017. They were edged by Indiana both times.

But with nine returning starters and 11 letter winners back overall, there is a high level of optimism the team will be able to break through this fall.

“It comes down to hard work and winning games by outworking your opponent,” said first-year coach Jason Norris, who took over in late May for Brad Walker, now the coach of the new Leechburg boys program.

“Our practices have been high tempo, very grueling. Practices are usually three hours, and that’s by design. I’ve wanted them to experience that intensity in practice, and they have responded well to it.”

Norris is familiar with many members of the varsity and junior varsity teams through his coaching tenure with the Highlands Area Soccer Club.

“The boys could lay out a number of excuses for why they didn’t make the playoffs the past couple of years. But the rear-view mirror is small and the front windshield is large,” Norris said. “The opportunities lie in looking forward out that front windshield and not looking behind.”

Highlands won a combined 15 games the past two seasons after winning just three in 2016 and zero in 2015.

Junior center midfielder Gabe Norris, senior center midfielder Dan Signorella and senior center back Ethan Gillette are captains of this year’s squad.

“We’re excited because we have the team put together to be able to do a lot,” Signorella said. “Our coach has been reinforcing that we can beat some good teams this year. We just want to get the season started and go after it.”

Gabe Norris, a Division I prospect, led the team in goals (13) and assists (7) last year. The two-time all-section selection has 23 goals and 20 assists so far in his varsity career.

“As the season gets closer, the work rate has risen, and it’s led to some really good practices,” Gabe Norris said. “We understand the headline is getting to the playoffs, but we know we have to take care of one game at a time and hopefully build to something good.”

Gillette is excited to get back on the field after missing a majority of last season with a knee injury.

“I feel really good right now, even better than I did earlier in the summer,” he said.

Senior goalkeeper Gabe Anthony recorded 93 saves last year. He posted four shutouts, including two straight in section play to close out the season.

Other starters back this season are seniors Matt Cekeda (striker), Eliot English (center back), Cooper Schoen (right back) and Shane Stefanik (right wing); and junior Tomas White (attacking midfield).

Also hoping for big things are returning letter winners in juniors Declan McIntire and Gregory Wygonik.

Coach Norris said he was encouraged with his players’ performance in Tuesday’s scrimmage against Burrell.

“We’re implementing a new system, and we’ve been working on it for a week since camp started,” he said. “I thought the guys executed it well, and we opened up with a nice goal. I was happy with their effort. It was something to build on.”

Mars is the defending Section 1 champion. The Planets went 14-0 in the section and made it to the WPIAL semifinals. The other playoff qualifiers were Kiski Area, Hampton and Indiana.

“I think our section is one of the strongest in the WPIAL, from top to bottom,” coach Norris said. “There’s not a day off. You know Hampton and Mars are going to be tough outs, and Kiski will have a pretty good team. I think we’re right in the mix with Indiana, North Hills and Knoch. Against those teams, you play 10 times, it’s probably 5-5.”

Highlands kicks off its season Aug. 31 against 2018 Class 4A playoff qualifier Connellsville at the Belle Vernon tournament. The Golden Rams then will face Monessen on Sept. 1.

“It’s going to be a challenge this year, and I’m looking forward to it,” coach Norris said.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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