Highland High School
Conference: 5A District 5-6 Conference
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Head Coach: Gino Mariani
Years as Head Coach: 15th Season
Previous Experience: 11 years at Pocatello HS
Record Last Year: 9-2
State Titles: 84, 88, 93, 95, 97, 98, 00, 02, 08, 14
Tommy Togiai, DT, 11
Aren Manu, ILB, 12
Aisa Kelemete, DE, 12
Dylan Mangum, OLB, 12
Payton McCarthy, QB, 12
Sam Liday, TE, 11
Jake Sorenson, RB, 12
RJ Palmer, RB 12
Returning Players with Honors:
Tommy Togiai, DT, 11 – All-Idaho
Aren Manu, ILB, 12 – All-Conference
Aisa Kelemete, DE, 12 – All-Conference
Key Players lost from last year:
Connor Harding, WR
Wayne Kirby, DT
Hunter Eborn, DE
Photo By: Willy Harris - #72 Tommy Togiai
Incoming impact players:
Hayden Foltz, DB, 12
Karson Eborn, SS, 12
Vince Kelemete, DT, 12
Kyle Taylor, WR/RB, 11
Landon Huff, WR, 12
Cameron Cook, WR, 12
CC Burrup, TE, 12
Bryce Johnson, WR, 12
Written by: Matt Harris (@IdahoSportsMatt)
“The process is a beautiful journey.”
That’s how Highland Rams head coach Gino Mariani described the opportunity to mentor student athletes from the time they enter high school as freshmen until the time they graduate as seniors.
“I just love working with young athletes,” he said. “As they grow through the years, the improvement they make in the classroom and on the field is very rewarding. Repetition of statements that they will remember for a life time in competing on the field and in life – buying in to a motto and believing in it until the finish.”
The process that plays out on the football field is fun to watch if you’re a Highland fan, player, or coach, but a nightmare if you’re anyone from the opposing team.
Everyone knows about Highland football.
It’s one of the more storied programs in all of Idaho. Year in and year out, the school on the hill in Pocatello is always in the state playoff conversation. The Rams have been to the state tournament 21 straight seasons – all of their players hadn’t been born yet when that streak started. Highland also owns 10 state titles. The saying heard over and over again is ‘The Rams don’t rebuild – they reload’. That phrase certainly applies to the upcoming season.
While Highland loses the skills and services of players like wide receiver Connor Harding (BYU basketball), defensive tackle Wayne Kirby (Oregon football) and defensive end Hunter Eborn (Idaho State football), the Rams returns numerous players with experience from last season’s 9-2 campaign and state semi-finals appearance.
Leading the way on offense is senior quarterback Payton McCarthy, who took over the starting quarterback duties from Connor Harding midway through last season. He will have plenty of weapons to work with this season, including senior running backs Jake Sorenson and RJ Palmer. They will be joined in the backfield by junior Kyle Taylor, who will see reps also at wide receiver. Junior tight end Sam Liday also returns and will be joined by senior CC Burrup at that position. On the outside, McCarthy will be able to throw to the likes of senior wide receivers Landon Huff, Cameron Cook, and Bryce Johnson.
“We have possession-type receivers and a few with decent speed. Those guys will be our focus,” said Mariani, now in his 15th season leading the Rams. “McCarthy is a quarterback that has a tremendous arm and can get them the ball. Taylor, Palmer, Cook, Huff, Sorenson, Liday and Burrup will all see the ball a lot.”
Mariani said that summer workouts have really improved the cohesiveness of the skill position players.
“We made strides all summer in 7-on-7 competitions and were able to get timing down with our receivers and quarterbacks,” he said. Highland’s offense averaged 30.5 points per game in 2015.
If there is an area of weakness for the Rams to start the season, it will be the rebuilding of the unit up front.
“We need to improve our offensive line protection and run blocking. No question, they are going to have to grow up fast,” said Mariani. “Their growth is our ‘X-Factor’ this season. Bringing those guys together to mesh into a working, cohesive group.”
While the offense looks to gel and find their groove, the defense is ready to wreak havoc much like they did last season. The Rams return arguably the best defensive front in Idaho with junior defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, senior defensive end Aisa Kelemete, and senior defensive tackle Vince Kelemete. All three players are Division-I caliber or have already received offers to Division-I schools, according to Mariani.
“Tommy, Aisa, and Vince are big, strong, fast and physical. I’m tired of seeing them in my backfield during practice, I can’t wait to watch them in other backfields,” Mariani said with a smile.
Seniors Aren Manu and Dylan Mangum will lead out from the linebacker position. The secondary is anchored by senior cornerback Hayden Foltz and senior strong safety Karson Eborn.
Mariani felt that Highland has the pieces in place to be able to accomplish much of the same goals that they had for the defense last year.
“We want to repeat the pressure and physical play and keep generating turnovers,” he said. “We can be aggressive on defense. When you have a defense, you always have a chance.” The Rams gave up an average of 16.3 points per game last year.
Highland’s schedule doesn’t start out easy by any means. The Rams open up the season in the annual Rocky Mountain Rumble against Inland Empire League runner-up Lewiston at Holt Arena. The Rams then head westward for a date against the Eagle Mustangs, before returning home for a big-time home contest against the Capital Eagles. Arguably, Highland’s first three games are among the toughest for any team in Idaho.
The Rams then continue the homestand with games against cross-town rivals Century and Pocatello before opening up conference play on September 29th with a trip to Thunder Stadium to face Bonneville. Highland then plays two games at home as they welcome Madison and Rigby to the Dome, before finishing out the year on the road at Hillcrest.
“The Capital game is a must-see. It will feature a great offense from Capital against a great defense from Highland,” Mariani said. “And Madison too – enough said.”
The 5A District 5-6 conference is slightly different from what it was a year ago. Both Idaho Falls and Skyline dropped down to 4A while Rigby moved up to 5A. Mariani believes there is talent everywhere in the conference.
“I will always believe that the road goes through Highland, but I’m biased,” he said. “Madison, Rigby, and Hillcrest all have tremendous talent and experience. The coaches in our conference are intelligent and creative. Look at Madison last year, playing at Coeur d’Alene in the playoffs and Madison pulls the upset. That’s HUGE. Bonneville has a new coach and I don’t know how much they have at this point, but I know they are a hard working program. Yes, I believe our conference has the talent to get three teams again.”
Highland will certainly have the target on their back in eastern Idaho. It’s something they’ve come to expect. Mariani has said in recent seasons that the kids in the program know what to expect when they suit up in a Ram uniform. The expectations for on-field performance are high.
Part of those expectations is accountability in all facets of life, not just on the football field. It’s something that the coach has tried to instill in his players during his time at Highland.
“When you’re interested in doing something, you only do it when it’s convenient. But when you’re COMMITTED to something, you accept no excuses; only results,” he said. “We want to create an atmosphere of family – one that is tight knit with consequences for decisions. The bottom line is if you are committed to something, you are all in.”
Just like every team that gives their best effort when they play Highland, expect the Rams to be ‘all in’ trying to regain their perch atop the Idaho football world this fall.