New coach, offseason workouts provide optimism for Highlands boys soccer

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Thursday, July 4, 2019 | 5:28 PM


Jason Norris was on a plane to Los Angeles when he found out he was hired as coach of the Highlands boys soccer team.

“When the athletic director called me to tell me the news, the people on the plane were telling us to put our phones away, and I couldn’t take the call,” said Norris, who replaced Brad Walker, who is the coach of the new boys soccer program at Leechburg.

“But I couldn’t stand waiting to find out what he had to say, so I got the internet on the plane and contacted him. He offered me the job, and I accepted.”

Norris flew through five countries during a business trip in late May, and throughout his journey, he said had a lot of time to think about what he wanted for the program, which includes players he helped coach on teams in Highlands Area Soccer Club.

“I started writing down what I felt would help establish the culture of the team,” Norris said. “We’ve been gaining in terms of wins the past couple of seasons, and I want to see these guys take that next step. I want them to expect to walk on the field and compete and play with high energy.”

Through the first series of voluntary skill and conditioning workouts over the past month, Norris said he has seen a group, which is led by several returning starters, eager to guide the program to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Highlands won 15 games the past two seasons after winning just three in 2016 and none in ‘15.

“I’ve been pleased with the response from the guys,” Norris said. “The workouts are voluntary, and the boys don’t have to be here, but we’ve gotten about 80 percent attendance. There are things like work commitments, vacations and other things, but when they are here, they give 100%. That has everyone excited.”

Highlands finished a game out of a spot in the WPIAL Class 3A playoffs each of the past two seasons. Last fall, Indiana edged the Golden Rams for the last playoff spot in Section 1.

“Working on the little things early in the summer can build and make the difference in winning those close section games to get to the playoffs,” rising senior goalie Gabe Anthony said.

Despite wins in its final two section games last season, Highlands experienced a five-game losing streak that dimmed its postseason chances.

“We want to start working as a team early in these workouts to get that chemistry going,” defender Cooper Schoen said. “We lost a couple of good players who graduated, but we got a few freshmen who have shown they are willing to put the work in.”

Center back Ethan Gillette is taking nothing for granted since his 2018 season ended after eight games with an ACL injury. Sporting a brace on a repaired and rehabilitated knee, he is full speed in the workouts.

“Coach Norris brings that intensity and up-tempo pace,” Gillette said. “He’s pushing us to be the best we can be. With what we are doing now, it is getting me really pumped up for August. I don’t want to wait another 40 days. I’m already counting down.”

Official preseason practices for boys soccer and other WPIAL fall sports begin Aug. 12.

Gabe Norris, a forward, earned all-section honors his first two varsity seasons and led the team last year in goals with 10. He added 13 assists.

“There’s a renewed energy in the workouts,” said Norris, who is garnering Division I interest.

“We’ve been conditioning with a little bit of ball skill, possession and passing. It’s been a lot of good foundation work to get us ready for the start of preseason practices. We want to get out here, stay sharp and just be together as a team.”

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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