Small numbers don’t dampen enthusiasm, energy for Highlands soccer teams

Tuesday, September 14, 2021 | 2:37 PM

The Highlands boys soccer team opened camp with 15 players, but that number became smaller heading into the season-opening tournament at home.

Contact tracing from covid cases within the school forced four players into quarantine, leaving the Golden Rams with only 11 players and no subs for games on back-to-back days.

To make matters more challenging, the first game against Blackhawk went into double overtime. The Golden Rams lost 2-1.

But with exhausted legs, the Rams returned the following day and found a way to grind out a 2-1 win over Leechburg.

“I was proud of how they did,” first-year coach Jakub Kasprzyk said. “They are ready to play and fight with everything they have. The atmosphere has been great, and our guys have the ability, as well. I believe in both games we definitely were not the weaker side. All said and done, had we lost both games the outlook wouldn’t have been any different because we played really well. Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve, but, on Sunday, we did. I couldn’t ask for any more. The performances were top-notch both days.”

The boys took a 1-0 lead in the first half against Blackhawk when Shawn Kramer scored on a goal that was assisted by Sam Norris. The Cougars tied the score late in the second half. Fatigue set in for Highlands, and Blackhawk capitalized with a goal in double overtime.

“Not having any subs was a big factor in that first game,” Kasprzyk said. “The boys were cramping up. Tightness set in, and they struggled to compete physically. We had enough opportunities to win that game. They played absolutely fantastic.”

About 24 hours later, the same 11 took the field again, but this time the Golden Rams were rewarded for gutting out 80 minutes without a substitution. Highlands netted a pair of goals in the first half.

Norris scored on a free kick, and Tyler Smith netted the winning goal. Highlands led 2-1 at halftime and anchored down defensively in the second half to keep Leechburg from scoring again. The Golden Rams did so without their regular goalkeeper, who was in quarantine. Nathan Lehew, normally a midfielder, was pressed into goalkeeping duty, and Kasprzyk praised his efforts.

“The boys definitely felt it in their legs from the double overtime the day before, so we knew we may struggle to keep up the entire 80 minutes, especially playing a team with 16-17 players that can sub in fresh legs. But the boys dug deep,” Kasprzyk said. “We knew we had to finish the game within regulation because there was no way that we were going to survive another overtime game. They put in this game all they had. We created a lot of opportunities and got the deserved win.”

The first weekend gave Highlands a preview of what it will be like grinding through this season with a small roster. The hope is to have everyone healthy, but if pressed into another difficult situation, Highlands can handle it.

“Through a whole season, looking after the players’ fitness is a big part of it,” Kasprzyk said. “It’s always a balance between what we need to work on and what we actually do in practice to be ready for the game physically. It’s not easy, but it is what it is and we do the best with what we have.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer


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