WPIAL champion Highlands excited to get back in gym after long layoff

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021 | 6:45 PM


All basketball teams around Western Pennsylvania have been through a series of ups and downs in the past few weeks. The Highlands boys, however, didn’t even get to take the court for so much as a practice before Gov. Tom Wolf put a three-week pause on high school sports.

So, when the Golden Rams began their first practice of the season Monday, the excitement level of coach Tyler Stoczynski and his players was through the roof.

“They were full of energy,” Stoczynski said. “We were trying to navigate how to play with masks on and what’s that going to be like and how that’s going to be a little different. But the kids were excited to be back, they were working hard, and it’s always good on that first day. Now we have to just see how the excitement level is on Day 2 and Day 12 and go from there.”

Before the Golden Rams could start practice in early December, the Highlands School Board postponed the start date for winter sports until Jan. 15. The decision was met by disappointment from coaches, athletes and parents.

Just days before Wolf paused winter sports until Jan. 4, the school board reversed its decision, and Highlands winter sports were allowed to resume. But, they never got the opportunity to.

Now the Golden Rams are ready to get back to work.

“We’ve been doing individual workouts and stuff like that, but it feels great to be back in the gym and getting our conditioning back,” senior Dom Pesci said.

Last season, Highlands won its first WPIAL title since 1995 with a 72-54 victory over Belle Vernon. Since then, the Golden Rams lost three key seniors in Luke Cochran, Johnny Crise and Korry Myers.

This offseason was supposed to be big for the Golden Rams, as they needed the extra time to allow their returning players to figure out their roles. Now, they are playing everything by ear as they get back on the court.

“As coaches, I feel like we always have a little bit of an idea of what we have coming back,” Stoczynski said. “But that’s going to be heavily mixed in with seeing how guys have progressed and that kind of thing. But it’s different as well because we didn’t have the offseason, so it’s going to be a feeling-out process as guys try to define their roles a little bit.”

Luckily for Stoczynski, his players have been playing together for a long time, and he has a few talented contributors coming back from a season ago.

Sophomore Jimmy Kunst returns after starting as a freshman. Seniors Antoine McDaniel and Wahkeem Roman are also back, along with junior Carter Leri and sophomore Chandler Thimons. All played important roles last season. Pesci is also back after being forced to sit out as a junior last year.

“We have a close-knit group of guys, and they enjoy playing with each other,” Stoczynski said. “So, all of those things are going to help us continue to become a better version of what we are right now.”

After a long layoff, the Golden Rams have a lot of challenges ahead of them before opening with Mars on Jan. 15. Getting back into game shape is at the top of the list.

“With the masks, it’s really difficult because you are trying to get that air intake, so we’re trying to navigate that,” Stoczynski said. “That’s new for us as well, and that’s probably the first thing. But there’s also knocking off the rust, improving our skills and going over our base sets.”

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

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