Teammwork to guide Highlands boys soccer in Section 1

Friday, August 25, 2017 | 5:06 PM

Gabriel Norris never needed to venture far from Oakwood Place in Natrona Heights to find a practice partner. When Norris, an incoming freshman at Highlands, wanted to play pick-up soccer, his now-senior teammate Cris White was next door.

If they wanted another player, sophomore midfielder Dan Signorella wasn't too far away on Freeport Road. Forging a bond throughout the program has allowed the Golden Rams to develop a strong backbone.

By adding physical maturity and tougher play to the list, Highlands hopes to put a potential playoff contender on the field when the Golden Rams open the season against Gateway on Sept. 2 at the Ambridge tournament.

“We've been playing soccer together since I moved here when I was 3,” Norris said of White. “I think it helps with chemistry between players on and off the field. We know what each other is thinking and the way we communicate.”

Familiarity will play a vital role for Highlands. The Golden Rams return nine starters from a team that finished 3-14-1 overall and 2-9-1 in Section 1-AAA last season.

Highlands still has a young roster which features two seniors: last season's leading scorer Andre Christopher and White.

The challenge of managing such a young rotation is to encourage toughness. Golden Rams coach Brad Walker doesn't want any backing down. Style points aren't awarded for goals, and Walker believes high school goal scoring is seldom pretty.

Teams more often score ugly, and the way to prevent it is being physical.

“I think they responded well,” Walker said about practices focusing on battling for the ball. “I really drove it home to them that they have to win the ball in the air. They have to be physical and can't get pushed around.”

White said he believed Highlands learned a lot from a practice last week, which focused on set pieces. Walker challenged them to battle for 50-50 balls.

“I feel like our competitiveness and drive can show people Highlands soccer isn't just kick-and-run,” White said. “We have skill. We have technique. We have the strategy and all the aspects of our game. Our competitiveness is going to run people over this year.”

Norris has been warned about the difference in battling against high school opponents.

“You go into the game ready to play physical and know it's coming,” Norris said. “It's all mental. You can't prepare for that.”

Being around teammates who can provide advice from their experience will help.

Highlands' players are eager to help each other.

Especially when it doesn't require much effort to communicate.

“I think we are cohesive in our starting 11,” White said. “Some of my midfield teammates are my next-door neighbors. Some of them I have played with since middle-school soccer. Team building is going to make a big impact. We all trust each other and have each others' backs.”

Josh Rizzo is a freelance writer.


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