Northwest Nine matchup carries weight for Highlands, Knoch

Wednesday, September 13, 2017 | 6:06 PM

During Dom Girardi's days as an assistant at Knoch, he noticed a different mentality in the players leading up to games against Highlands.

More excitement. More intensity. More focus.

It was rivalry week.

“I know it's definitely a rivalry from Knoch's standpoint from being there,” said Girardi, in his first season as Highlands coach. “The intensity of this week is different than other weeks.”

Girardi wants to see the same amount of intensity from his own players as Highlands and Knoch prepare to renew their rivalry at 7 p.m. Friday at Highlands Golden Rams Stadium, particularly in the run-up to the game.

“For Knoch, we're their big game,” senior Tyler Sportelli said. “I feel like we have to make them our big game, too, if we really want to meet them in toughness and throw that punch back.”

Sportelli called games against Knoch a fistfight, or “about as close as you can get without it being one.”

The former conference rivals were brought back together when the PIAA realigned into six classifications in 2016. Knoch represents Highlands' closest geographic opponent in Class 4A's Northwest Nine, and the one with which they share the most history.

The recent history favors Knoch, which holds a six-game winning streak in the series and an overall edge of 18-14. That includes a 17-14 victory a season ago.

“The intensity we had, no one had intensity,” Highlands senior Romello Freeman said. “You need intensity to win. It can't just be skill. It can't just be because you're big.”

Knoch prides itself on toughness, on defense and running the ball, and the Knights recently have done both to great success against Highlands. They held the Golden Rams to 14 points or fewer in each of the past four meetings and did just enough on offense to win the low-scoring affairs.

“It's definitely going to be a hard-hitting game. They always are,” first-year Knoch coach Frank Whalen said. “I don't anticipate that changing this week. These games are always physical games, always fun to watch, and this one should be no different.”

Highlands (1-1, 1-1) and Knoch (1-1, 1-0) could find themselves battling for a playoff spot out of the Northwest Nine. Each team is coming off a narrow loss. Highlands dropped a double-overtime thriller to New Castle, as junior quarterback Seth Cohen set school records for passing yards and touchdowns. Knoch fell in a nonconference battle against West Mifflin.

There's also the matter of what Girardi called his “special and unique” bond with Whalen. Whalen coached Girardi at Valley, and they coached together at Knoch and Geneva. On Friday, they'll oppose each other for the first time.

“Dom is a great friend of mine, and he's doing a great job over there,” Whalen said. “He and I text regularly, even now, so it's going to be an enjoyable game.”

Although the recent Highlands-Knoch games often came down to which team played more physically, this one could be decided by which team can impose its style of play.

Under Girardi, a former high school and college quarterback, Highlands is playing an up-tempo spread attack. Cohen shattered school records by passing for 412 yards and seven touchdowns in the loss to New Castle. Freeman and Ryan Signorella both topped 100 receiving yards, with two touchdowns apiece.

“I like what I see with the big picture,” Girardi said. “They're buying into the program. They're buying into the philosophies of what we're doing. I hear them repeating what I've been preaching to them since April. So big picture, I'm very, very happy with the progress we've made.

“Obviously every team in Week 2 still has details they want to work on. There are fundamentals on both offense and defense we want to work with, but so far everything we've identified as something we need to put extra work into, they've stepped in, they've done it, and they've improved on it. It's a process.”

In Week 1, Highlands leaned more on the ground game, as senior Jermaine Jett rushed for 114 yards in a win over Ambridge.

“It's fun, I'll tell you that,” Freeman said. “Last year I feel like we didn't have as much offensive power. This year, I think our offensive power is great. We've got great kids.”

Knoch will counter with its run-based offense, led by quarterback Jake Herrit and running back Ivan Stapchuck, who rushed for 194 yards and five touchdowns in the Knights' Week 1 victory over Blackhawk.

“They look very, very explosive offensively,” Whalen said. “We definitely are going to have our hands full.

“We're a ball-control offense, so we want to take as much time off the clock as possible. We want to grind it out. We're satisfied with 4-yard gains; matter of fact, that's a win for us.”

Girardi liked the intensity he saw from his team in its early practices this week. He hopes the Golden Rams can handle Friday the same way.

“The key is going to be maintaining and managing your intensity and composure,” he said. “You don't want to get too far out of hand, you don't want to be not intense enough. With the kids, it's just coming out and finding that right balance of being intense but being focused.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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