Highlands ready to compete in Northwest 8 Conference

Saturday, August 17, 2019 | 11:10 AM

Every week in WPIAL’s Class 4A Northwest Eight Conference is a grind, and Highlands coach Dom Girardi would have it no other way.

“We’re going to go out and compete every single week, and that’s how it’s going to be,” Girardi said.

As the season wore on last year, the Golden Rams felt the brunt of that grind. They finished with an overall record of 2-8, winning their games in back-to-back weeks against Beaver and Ambridge.

They had seniors in key positions all over the field, so they have holes to fill, but they still return players who Girardi believes will take the next step this season.

Senior wide receiver and linebacker Johnny Crise will be one of the key returning players for the Golden Rams. A Division I recruit in football and basketball, he has football offers from Robert Morris, Duquesne, Albany and Maine. He led Highlands in receiving last year with 796 yards and 10 touchdowns.

But Girardi won’t just be looking for Crise to make skill contributions this year, and Crise is ready to fill that void after receiving advice from his family.

“All of my older siblings have been leaders, and they’ve talked to me about how I need to take control of the team and if there’s problems how I can fix them,” Crise said. “I think I fit that role perfectly.”

Along with having a valuable target on the outside, Girardi returns experience across the line. In 2018, the Golden Rams started sophomores Jeremiah Nelson and Wahkeem Roman and juniors Darren Hildebrand and Max Weston.

With the core of the line returning, Girardi is hoping for big things.

“We have those kids back as juniors and seniors, and just having that for example is something we are looking to be a strength for us this year, where last year, it was kind of nervous going into the season with young kids on the line,” Girardi said.

With a strong line on both sides of the ball, Girardi is hoping the Golden Rams can get back to imposing their will, running the ball, and providing a solid base to work from. But Girardi stressed the importance of taking advantage of what the defense gives them.

“We’ve been balanced in the past, but as we progress through the season, we are going to go with what gives us the best results,” Girardi said. “We’ll throw 10 out of 10 times if that’s what is going to work, same thing with the run. It’s really going to depend on who we shape out to be.”

Highlands has big shoes to fill at quarterback. Not only did senior quarterback Seth Cohen lead the team in passing last season with 1,777 yards and 21 touchdowns, he led the Golden Rams in rushing with 679 yards.

Throughout camp, Girardi opened the quarterback competition to five players: senior Xavier Smith, junior Tyler Brzezinski, sophomore Elijah Coleman and freshmen Chandler Thimons and Nick McQuade.

Although none have significant varsity experience at the position, Girardi has seen improvement throughout the offseason. He said they will take their time making the decision, but he’s looking for one big thing.

“Consistency,” Girardi said. “As a coach and a playcaller, it helps when you know, this is what I’m going to get. Whether it’s good, bad or ugly, you want to know what to expect, and that’s just from them being consistent.

“Maybe running a certain play well because then you feel confident that is something they can do. When they are all over the place, it’s hard to get a feel for what they can do and what the offense can do. So the biggest thing is consistency.”

While it’s important for the quarterbacks to develop an understanding of the offense early in camp, it was also important to develop a relationship with their targets. Last year, Crise said he and Cohen had a great connection on and off the field, so he took it into his own hands to develop that relationship with the new quarterbacks.

“Seth and I were best friends on and off the field, so we pretty much knew what we were thinking without even saying anything,” Crise said.

“So we’re working with the new quarterbacks and getting that feel for each other, and we’re starting to build a bond together.”

The Golden Rams will step onto the field against Plum on Friday. The two teams squared off in Week Zero last year, and the Mustangs won 32-14. No matter the result, Girardi wants to see his players compete.

“It doesn’t matter what you do, you have to compete, and you have to compete the right way,” Girardi said. “The little things and the details, those are just in the coaching points, and we just have to make sure we coach them up.”


Coach: Dom Girardi

2018 record: 2-8, 2-5

All-time record: 262-239-7

Date, Opponent, Time

8.23, Plum, 7

8.30, Keystone Oaks, 7

9.6, at Blackhawk*, 7

9.13, Knoch*, 7

9.20, at Beaver*, 7

9.27, Ambridge*, 7

10.4, at Montour*, 7

10.11, South Fayette*, 7

10.18, New Castle*, 7

10.25, at Latrobe, 7

*Class 4A Northwestern 8 Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Seth Cohen*

107-217, 1,777 yards, 21 TDs

Receiving: Johnny Crise

40-796 yards, 10 TDs

Rushing: Cohen*

104-679 yards, 7 TDs


Highlands roster

No., Name, Pos., Ht./Wt., Cl.

2, Kaeleb White, FB/LB, 5-11/169, Jr.

3, Elijah Coleman, QB/CB, 5-11/153, So.

4, Dashawn Holley, WR/CB, 5-10/146, Sr.

6, Tyler Brzezinski, QB/LB, 5-7/147, Jr.

7, Isaiah Coleman, RB/CB, 5-1/141, Sr.

8, Nick McQuade, QB/LB, 5-9/178, Fr.

9, Xavier Smith, QB/CB, 5-9/178, Fr.

10, D.J. Loveland, WR/CB, 6-0/156, Jr.

11, Jrake Burford, WR/CB, 5-8/141, So.

12, Chandler Thimons, QB/LB, 6-0/190, Fr.

14, Ashton Hatajik, RB/CB, 5-9/146, Fr.

15, Tony Jones, WR/CB, 5-9/167, So.

20, Landan Signorella, WR/LB, 6-0/146, Fr.

21, Brian Jones, WR/CB, 5-9/142, Jr.

22, Brock White, RB/LB, 5-11/170, So.

24, Kyron Long, RB/LB, 5-11/197, Jr.

26, Johnny Crise, WR/LB, 6-6/200, Sr.

28, Brandon Jochim, WR/S, 5-10/163, Sr.

30, James Vance, FB/LB, 5-10/184, Sr.

31, Antoinne Labbauf, TE/CB, 6-1/175, So.

32, Tyler Oligee, WR/LB, 5-8/145, Fr.

33, Manni Carson, WR/S, 5-10/130, Fr.

34, Cameron Layhew, WR/CB, 5-4/130, Fr.

40, Jordan Snyder, RB/LB, 5-8/147, Fr.

41, Richard Ratliff, WR/LB, 5-7/140, So.

42, Blake Clark, TE/NG, 5-7/168, Sr.

43, Tyler Bender, TE/DE, 5-11/188, Fr.

46, Demani Cargile, WR/CB, 6-0/160, Fr.

48, Caleb Hilty, TE/DE, 6-2/162, Fr.

50, Jeremiah Nelson, OG/NG, 5-10/268, Jr.

52, Wahkeem Roman, OT/DE, 6-5/286, JR.

53, Darren Hildebrand, C/LB, 5-8/194, Sr.

54, Jeremiah Saunders, OT/LB, 6-2/220, Jr.

55, Tyrus Kerr, OG/LB, 5-10/187, Jr.

56, Lucas Callen, C/DT, 5-6/210, So.

57, Logan Wetmore, OT/DT, 5-7/202, Fr.

58, Tyler Visnick, OG/DE, 5-8/201, SO.

59, Max Weston, OG/DE, 6-0/248, Sr.

63, Zach McIntire, OT/DT, 6-1/262, Fr.

67, Roman Vivirito, OG/DT, 5-7/186, Fr.

68, Alphousus Gibson, OT/DT, 5-6/150, Fr.

70, Geoff Shock, OT/DT, 5-10/231, Fr.

72, Daniel Thimons, OG/DE, 5-10/231, So.

73, Logan Leslie, OT/DT, 5-11/260, Fr.

75, Noah Leslie, OT/DT, 5-11/255, Fr.

78, Ibrahim Green, OT/DE, 5-11/185, Fr.

81, Hailey Hiester, K/P, 5-5/140, Sr.

82, Ethan Wemore, TE/DE, 5-11/155, Jr.

83, Austin Rose, WR/LB, 6-0/170, Sr.

84, Cody Hubert, TE/DE, 5-9/239, Fr.

85, Cyler Strader, WR/CB, 5-7/123, So.

86, Justin Crilley, WR/CB, 6-0/157, Jr.

88, Caliel Long, TE/DE, 6-3/210, So.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .


More Football

After prolific career at Allegheny, former Norwin receiver moving up to Division I FCS level
Belle Vernon seniors celebrate back-to-back WPIAL, PIAA football titles
Ligonier Valley, Latrobe, Jeannette coaches eager for East/West All-Star game
Leechburg coach Randy Walters selected to coaching staff for U.S. Tackle National Team
Top Western Pa. quarterbacks set to show skills at 4th Willie Thrower camp