Phil Anastasia: Don't look now, but Highland football is back

Fullback/linebacker Fred Morrison : "We know how hard we worked tomake this happen. We expect to win." ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Fullback/linebacker Fred Morrison : "We know how hard we worked tomake this happen. We expect to win." ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The Tartans are 3-1 this season after losing 22 of their previous 23 games.

Posted: October 05, 2012

Coach Craig Stinson points to a June visit by Green Bay Packers rookie defensive lineman Mike Daniels, a Highland High School graduate and proud product of the football program.

"This is a guy who walked the same hallways," Stinson said. "He got dressed in the same locker room. He played on the same field.

"You can bring in any NFL player, but when you bring in a guy who breathed the same air, who drank the same water, it means something."

Junior fullback Fred Morrison points to a July night when the weight room was crowded with football players and the practice field was full of athletes in conditioning drills.

"It just seemed like everybody was determined," Morrison said. "It was like, 'We're not going to let people step all over us anymore.' "

Maybe it was Daniels' visit, or a strong offseason program, or the poetic justice of a reversal in fortune for a program that has been battered by more than its share of bad breaks.

But the lowdown is that things are looking up at Highland: The Tartans are 3-1, with a three-game winning streak, and sitting smack-dab in the middle of the race for a South Jersey Group 3 tournament berth.

"I'm not going to say I'm surprised," said Morrison, a 5-foot-10, 215-pounder who leads the team in rushing with 404 yards and touchdowns with six. "We know how hard we worked to make this happen. We expect to win."

It's just four weeks into the season, but it's more than a little satisfying for the Tartans and their supporters that Highland has the best record among the three teams in the Black Horse Pike Regional School District.

Timber Creek, the defending South Jersey Group 3 champion and the program whose recent rise had coincided with Highland's recent fall, is 2-2. Triton is 2-1.

Now in his fourth season as coach, Stinson knows his team is the third-best in the district. And he knows that the West Jersey Football League realignment for this season - which placed Highland in the Diamond Division with three Group 1 and two Group 2 teams - has helped from a competitive standpoint.

But the coach also knows that Highland was trailing in its last two games, and rallied both times for victories.

"That doesn't happen in the past," Stinson said of the comebacks in a 19-10 victory over Schalick and last Friday's 32-28 win over Pennsville. "These guys just don't quit. They fight the whole game."

With home games the next two Friday nights against 1-3 Gloucester Catholic and 1-3 Cumberland, Highland has a chance - a legitimate chance - to get to 5-1 and start dreaming about the program's second playoff berth. But Stinson knows better than to cast his team in the favorite's role.

"We can't overlook anybody," Stinson said. "We used to have to build these guys up. Now we've got to bring them down to earth."

Four games is a pretty small sample. And the schedule turns to a hard road in the final three regular-season games, against Glassboro, Delsea, and Penns Grove.

But with a strong junior class led by Morrison, DeVante Parker, Jacorey Williams, and others, Highland has a chance to build a foundation for lasting success. Or lasting competitiveness, anyway.

The Tartans were 1-9 last season. They were 0-10 in 2010. They entered this season with losses in 22 of their last 23 games.

So if 3-1 with victories over winless Woodrow Wilson and Group 1 opponents Schalick and Pennsville doesn't seem like a big deal to others, it has worked wonders at Highland.

"After the last two years, it's like, 'Finally,' " Morrison said. "We want to let people know that, 'Hey, we're here, too.' "


Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com or on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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