HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Indiana must beat Highlands to stay in conference title hunt
Indiana cannot win the Greater Allegheny Conference title on Friday with a win. But the Indians can sure fall out of the race with a loss.
The 2-2 Indians will be at a crossroads of sorts when they play host to Highlands (3-1) in a key WPIAL Class AAA game at Andy Kuzneski Field. Should the Indians knock off the Rams, coach Mark Zilinskas’ team will be right there in the thick of the race for a section title and a playoff berth.
If the Indians lose, they’ll likely be relegated to hoping to get into the playoffs as a low seed and getting an unfavorable matchup in the first round.
“You always want to take them one game at a time,” Zilinskas said, “and you never want to look past this week. But we obviously know how things could play out depending on the outcome of this game. Three section losses would be tough to overcome, but anything can happen.”
Indiana has wins over Derry (0-4) and Hampton (2-2) and losses to Mars (3-1) and Franklin Regional (3-1). The Indians have section games left against Greensburg Salem (1-3), Knoch (3-1) and Hollidaysburg (1-3).
A loss to Highlands would make it almost a certainty that Indiana could finish no higher than fourth in the conference. The top five earn playoff berths.
But then again, in an odd year when Franklin Regional beat Mars (20-13), Mars beat Highlands (39-0) and Highlands beat Franklin Regional (17-0), you never really know how things will shake out.
“This is the wackiest year I’ve seen in this conference,” Zilinskas said. “I really think anyone can beat anyone on any given night.”
That might be true, but the Indians are not relying on other teams to take care of business for them. Instead, Zilinskas has his team working hard this week to try to knock off Highlands, a team that Indiana has had some memorable battles with in the past.
Indiana is 5-4 against the Rams since dropping from Class AAAA to Class AAA in 2004. Three of the nine meetings have been decided by seven points or fewer.
“No matter how much talent they have, Highlands always has tough kids who will fight you for every yard,” Zilinskas said. “I like to think we’re that way, too. There’s a history there between these two programs, and we’ve both had success at times over the years. I respect their program, and I think they respect ours. A rivalry like this is what high school sports is all about. It’s one we’ll always up our intensity for.”
The Indians are coming off a 56-6 thrashing of Derry, a win that snapped Indiana’s two-game losing streak. Although struggling Derry did not put up much resistance, Zilinskas said he thinks the win will pay off down the road for his team.
Indiana led Derry 21-0 at halftime, but the Indians pulled away with a 28-point third quarter.
“I know Derry has not had a lot of success, but we were able to take the momentum and pretty much keep them out of the end zone,” he said. “We kicked it into gear in the second half and we played well. That’s something we’ll have to do this week.”
A fast start against Highlands would certainly help, so Zilinskas has been preaching about not letting the Rams hang around and make a game of it.
“We’ve got to get out of the gates strong,” he said. “This is a huge one for us. It puts us in good position with a win and tough position with a loss. We have a lot to play for. We’re fighting for our life every night out there.”