Tim Sohyda appreciates talent when he sees it.
So, Canon-McMillan High School's head football coach can only imagine what type of impact Alex Paulina would have made had he not been injured in the seventh game of the Big Macs' 2011 football season.
As it was, his fellow coaches in the WPIAL Class AAAA Great Southern Conference confirmed what he already suspected: Alex Paulina is an outstanding lineman who was named to the 2011 all-conference's first team.
As a freshman.
On a team that finished the season with an 0-10 record.
Bigger things are expected from Paulina, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore from North Strabane.
"Kids usually aren't as big as Alex," said Sohyda, a Canon-McMillan graduate who enters his third season as the Big Macs head coach.
"We made no guarantees to Alex or his dad that he would be on the varsity team. He'd have to earn it. It's one thing when your best kid is 5-10 and 160, and it's another when he's the biggest kid in the room."
For his part, though, Paulina, had to watch the Big Macs' final three games of the season from the sideline as he was injured on the second play of the seventh game against WPIAL runner-up Upper St. Clair on Oct. 14.
"I was setting up to pass block and one of the [Upper St. Clair] defensive ends fell on the outside of my left knee, and I got a grade three tear of [the medial collateral ligament]," Paulina said.
"It took me four months to be able to jump and sprint again, and it took me until March to be able to make some deep cuts and dodges."
That was just in time for the start of lacrosse season. Big Macs lacrosse coach Craig Schleifstein was more than pleased that Paulina was able to be a part of a team that finished the 2012 season with a 13-5 record.
"I play crease defenseman, so I'm right in front of the goal," he said. "My doctor and my physical therapist thought it would take me five months to come back from the injury, and it took me about four."
As stunning as his recovery was from his injury, Paulina's selection to the all-conference team was just as surprising.
"I was talking to my position coach [Joe Grosso], and he said it's very rare for a freshman to start on the varsity let alone make all-conference. After I was injured, he doubted that I'd make that team. I was very surprised I did."
This season, Paulina will once again be part of offensive and defensive lines that feature a pair of returning starters in seniors Torre Carr and Alex Campbell.
Carr, a 5-11, 245-pound senior, has twice been named an all-conference selection on the defensive line. Campbell, a 6-3, 230-pound senior, finished fifth in the 220-pound weight class at the 2012 PIAA Class AAA state wrestling championships.
"I've never had three guys this good up front," Sohyda said. "Our expectations couldn't be any higher, and these kids understand that. Their expectations are also high.
"Our Achilles heel, though, will be our [low] numbers. Against Pine-Richland [in the 2011 season finale], we dressed 42 kids. This year, we might have 46 to 48. But these kids have created this optimism, and right now we have more than just hope around here."
Sohyda said Virginia Tech and Ohio State already have expressed interest in Paulina, who is trying to keep everything in perspective. Earlier this month, he visited the Ohio State campus, and Sohyda said Paulina learned a lot.
"[That trip] exposed him to what college football was all about, and I think it opened his eyes," the coach said.
For his part, Paulina is focusing attention on the season, which begins with a WPIAL Class AAAA Southeastern Conference game on Aug. 31 against visiting Penn Hills.
"I think about what kind of plans God has for me," he said. "The way my parents raised me, I try to stay humble and not let anything to go to my head. I also have grandparents who have been strong Christian role models in my life along with my parents."hsfootball