North Xtra: Highlands facing a difficult road

Craig Meyer's high school football notebook

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It's common practice for football coaches to harp on adversity and challenges that their team faces going into a given season, but Sam Albert knows what faces his Highlands team is something greater, something that transcends the game it plays.

The most recent offseason was a tumultuous and emotionally overpowering one for the Golden Rams, as one of their team members, wide receiver Ryan Richards, died at age 17 after falling from the back of a pickup truck making a sharp turn in West Deer.

The obstacles typically associated with football -- a tough schedule, injuries, the loss of key players -- pale in comparison to the loss of a beloved teammate, especially at such a young age.

Understandably, this season will be a difficult one for Highlands, largely for reasons that go beyond the field, but the team is coping with the situation the best that it can.

"It's an ongoing process," Albert said. "We have good days and bad days. I think the kids have gotten something out of it and we're just trying to move on.

"I make sure to bring Ryan up every day in our prayers. He was a jokester, too. He kept things pretty light for us. Overall, I think they're coping pretty well with it."

This season, as the Golden Rams line up every Friday, they will be doing several things that will honor Richards and help his memory live on.

His locker still remains the way it was in the team's locker room, largely untouched. Richards' older brother, Dan, will also be serving in his brother's place as an honorary captain this season, wearing his No. 25 jersey and standing on the sideline with the team during games.

For the young players who take the field, and even the coaches, football can feel like the most important thing going in their lives. But, according to Albert, Richards' death has helped provide a sense of perspective for everyone on the team.

"In the big picture, how many people are remembered five years from now and what your record was?" Albert said. "In their small world, football is very important. But something like that makes them realize how important other things in your life are."

Though focusing on football in the wake of tragedy may seem menial, it's something that the Golden Rams must do with their first game just a day away.

As one of the smallest schools in WPIAL Class AAA, the usual concerns of depth and the risk of possible injuries remain. But after going 4-5 last season and only five players graduating, Highlands could be in contention for a playoff spot.

Albert singled out senior tight end Allan Cratsenberg, senior running back Zach Mazur, junior running back Elijah Jackson and junior quarterback Blake Leri as some of his best players.

The team's goals remain the same as they do every season -- to be able to compete, stay healthy and make the playoffs -- but this time around, its players will be working for a greater purpose -- to honor a teammate, but most importantly, a friend.

An elusive "W"

For Shaler, perhaps no goal will be more pressing this season than winning a game.

Last season, the program's first under coach Chris Siegle, the Titans finished 0-9. In those nine games, they were outscored by about 35 points per game, largely because of an offense that averaged nine points per game.

How possible will it be for Shaler to win a game this season? The Titans return eight starters on defense (and five on offense), meaning that they should at least be more competitive by improving upon the 43.9 points per game they allowed last season.

Games of interest

North Hills at Penn-Trafford -- Pat Carey's debut as the Indians' head coach is interesting enough. The fact it's coming against a Warriors team that went 7-3 last season makes it all-the-more intriguing.

Mt. Lebanon at North Allegheny -- The Tigers are still expected to be among the elite teams in Class AAAA despite the loss of 19 starters from last season. Their tests will begin early with an opening game against a talented Blue Devils team.


Craig Meyer: and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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