Outlook: Two years ago, a large collection of talented sophomores were thrown into the fire at Highland. The Hawks had gotten off to an 0-5 start, and with little chance of making the postseason, coach Pete Wahlheim figured it was time to turn the page and evaluate his youngsters.
That group responded, helping Highland win four of its final five games to build some excitement. Last year they were juniors and added another building block, finishing the regular season 6-4 – including a win over Desert Mountain and a close loss to Basha – to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Now they are seniors and ready to turn it up yet again. Highland has a talented and experienced roster which has set high goals in 2013. Fourteen players will be third-year starters this season, including defensive end Grant Gale, quarterback Blake Young and middle linebacker Tre Tyler.
“This is a group that we’ve (long) identified as a group that should win a lot of games and we fully expect to do that,” Wahlheim said.
The team’s personnel meshes perfectly with Wahlheim’s style. It’s a smash-mouth team on offense complemented by a hard-nosed defense which rarely gives up big plays. Between Gale and Grant Thompson, the Hawks have one of the best defensive line duos in the state, as they combined for 18 sacks a year ago. Tyler anchors the linebackers, while Chip White and Casey Cole (who missed nearly all of last season with a concussion) hold down the secondary.
Young is a tested quarterback and Ryan McCord returns as the feature running back. He battled shoulder injuries last season but averaged a team-best 7.9 yards-per-carry when he was healthy.
“I believe Ryan MCcord is as good a back as I’ve ever coached,” Wahlheim said. “People look at his size but I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
The Hawks’ biggest offensive question mark will be replacing leading receiver Bill Johnson (398 rec. yards, 2 TD), although Jake Brown is expected to take over as the main pass-catching weapon.
The schedule is tough, with matchups against Queen Creek, Mountain View, Perry, Basha, Chandler and Hamilton dotting the regular season slate. If the Hawks can win even half those games, a playoff berth should await.
“A lot of things have to fall in place to have a successful season but I think we have the pieces to do it,” Wahlheim said.
Division I, Section I
Coach: Pete Wahlheim
Last year’s record: 6-5, lost in first round of Division I state tournament to Hamilton
Returning Starters: 6 on offense/ 8 on defense
Returning Statistical Leaders: QB Blake Young (73-126, 1,100 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT; 295 rush yards, 3 TD); DL Grant Thompson (75 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 4 FR); DL Grant Gale (53 tackles, 8 sacks); LB Tre Tyler (109 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF); DB Chip White (78 tackles, 3 INT).
Aug. 30 vs. Queen Creek ; Sept. 5 at Mesa; Sept. 12 vs. Mountain View; Sept. 20 at Mountain Ridge; Sept. 27 at Campo Verde; Oct. 4 vs. Gilbert; Oct. 11 vs. Perry; Oct. 18 at Basha; Oct. 25 at Hamilton; Nov. 1 vs. Chandler
Aug. 30 vs. Queen Creek: The season starts off with a tough matchup against the Division III defending champion Bulldogs. Queen Creek boasts reigning Tribune Player of the Year Matt Guida, one of the best running backs in the state. Highland has a stout defense, so this matchup will feature strength against strength.
Sept. 12 vs. Mountain View: Both teams are trending upward, and both are expected to be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. The Toros have an impressive aerial combination of QB John Clark and WRs Clark Brown and Robbie Millward returning. Highland lost to Mountain View last season and will look for revenge in 2013.
Oct. 18 at Basha: The Hawks end the season with a three-game gauntlet against Basha, Hamilton and Chandler. Highland almost knocked off the Bears last season and will look to finish the task this year. The Hawks will be underdogs in their final two regular season contests against Hamilton and Chandler, so picking up a win in this one would be a big boost to their playoff hopes.