By: William Whalen
Wednesday, March 13, 2019 | 9:10 PM
To say that it has been a long time since the Highlands baseball team showed up in a WPIAL playoff bracket would be an understatement.
There was a time the Golden Rams were the gold standard for Alle-Kiski Valley baseball. If opposing teams entertained any thoughts of making a postseason run, they almost always had to go through Highlands. That hasn’t been the case for a long while, but there is renewed optimism for the Golden Rams.
“They are ready to go,” second-year coach Jeff Campbell said. “They are ready for the challenge, and they got a little taste of success last year and they are ready to build on it.”
The last time Highlands appeared in the WPIAL playoffs and won a game was 2003. The last section title came in 1992.
Highlands (4-13) picked up some nice wins last season, beating Section 1-4A foes Indiana, Derry (twice) and cross-river rival Valley. The biggest struggle was consistency. The win total might not look like much, but last season marked the first time in four years the Rams didn’t finish last in the section.
“We can see (the improvement) coming out of the winter workouts and even since practice has started,” Campbell said. “We don’t have to teach as much as we had to teach them from last year.”
There are numerous position battles going on, with some young players pushing for playing time.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Campbell said. “There’s big battles at first base and big battles at second base. I’m in search of a steady second baseman and a steady first baseman. That’s where the challenges are going to be.”
Campbell said in addition to a few underclassmen, seniors Grayson Mann and Braden Goldberg and junior Chase Godfrey are in the mix at second base.
The Rams have two vets at shortstop and third base in seniors Zac Kuniak and Noah Gillette. Both have been through tough times at Highlands and are optimistic heading into the season.
“My senior season, I want to win and at least make the Highlands reputation a little better than it has been,” said Kuniak, a Slippery Rock commit. “Maybe we make (the) playoffs and try to have a good season.”
Gillette sees the influx of talent in the underclassmen and likes how the youngsters have sparked the team and pushed for playing time.
“There’s a pretty good amount of younger kids,” said Gillette, a Pitt-Johnstown recruit. “We do have a lot of younger kids working hard, and they have a lot of the older guys working hard.”
There’s uncertainty in the outfield, and it’s because of the question mark at first base. Campbell might be forced to make a tough decision and move senior Jaden Yarris from center field to first base. Moving Yarris to first base would negate the Penn State New Kensington recruit’s speed and athleticism in the outfield.
“In my opinion, he’s the best center fielder in the conference, and I hate to move him (to first base),” Campbell said. “Then again, he could be the best first baseman in the conference.”
Sophomore Luke Beer will get the nod in left field, with Goldberg, Mann Godfrey and junior Michael Magdinec in a battle for the starting spot in right field. Junior Matt Cekada will take over at catcher.
Kuniak, Gillette, Godfrey, Magdimec and Goldberg will anchor the pitching staff. There’s also a host of underclassmen who will see time at pitcher.
The teeth of the Highlands lineup will come from Kuniak, Gillette and Yarris. Campbell is looking for a true top-of-the-order hitter so he can move Yarris out of the leadoff spot and into the middle of the order.
Also in the mix is junior basketball/football star Johnny Crise. The 6-foot-7 Crise, who was a solid youth baseball player, could become an intriguing addition, although his position is unclear.
Highlands will open the regular season at home against St. Joseph on March 25 and travel to Mt. Pleasant on April 3 to open the Section 1-4A schedule.
“The kids are bigger and stronger from their winter weightlifting and workouts,” Campbell said. “I think a lot of good things are coming. There’s a lot boys itching to get out there and play some baseball.”