By Josh Shreckengost
Freeport junior forward Cole Charlton knocks down a three-pointer in the first quarter of the Yellowjackets' 71-32 loss to Highlands on Thursday night. Charlton hit two longballs in the contest and finished with a team-high nine points in the contest.
Natrona Heights, Pa. -- As if COVID-19 practice restrictions and multiple shutdowns so far this winter season weren't enough to stack the deck against the Freeport boys varsity basketball team, the first three games on the 2021 schedule certainly put the Yellowjackets in an unenviable position.
Freeport opened the season with an 83-57 loss on the road to North Catholic, a team which many pundits predicted to finish at the top of the WPIAL 4A Section 1 standings. The Yellowjackets then dropped a tough, 79-63 decision to Knoch at home, another team picked to finish near the top of the section.
It didn't get easier on Thursday night as Freeport traveled to Highlands, the outgoing WPIAL Class 4A champions. This season, the Golden Rams jumped up to Class 5A and despite the losses of stars Johnny Crise and Luke Cochran, Highlands looked like a reloaded squad in a 71-32 victory over the Yellowjackets.
"We told [the players] that these three opponents would help us get ready for our section games and that's what we were looking forward to," Freeport head coach Wayne Greiser said. "We wanted to try some things tonight that we worked on in practice and we just wanted to see what it looked like in the game, getting ready for the section run here that's coming up starting with [Keystone Oaks] on Saturday. We're just trying to build each day, improve and get one percent better each day to get ready for the rest of the season."
Highlands jumped out to an 8-0 lead to start the game and after Greiser took a full timeout early in the first quarter, the Yellowjackets responded to tie the game at 8-8 after a pair of Cole Charlton three-pointers and a bucket by Ben Lane. Highlands went on a 12-0 run to end the first quarter and led, 20-8 at the end of one.
Freeport played its best quarter of the game in the second and actually outscored the Rams, 15-14 in the frame. With senior guard and team captain Christian Waronsky sidelined due to injury, the Yellowjackets started two sophomores and three juniors. The youthful lineup put together a solid effort for eight minutes and at the end of the first half, trailed only by 11 points, 34-23.
"We dug ourselves a hole a couple of different times and we battled back and that's what we liked to see in the first half," Greiser said. "We talked at halftime about coming out with intensity and we just didn't match theirs and [Highlands] and they made some buckets and it just kind of snowballed from there. We just couldn't make that run like we did in the first half."
The third quarter, and ultimately most of the second half, was a nightmare for Freeport and Highlands seemed to knock down every shot on the offensive end while forcing the Yellowjackets into mistakes with relentless defense. Highlands went on a 21-0 run to start the third quarter and Freeport scored its first bucket of the second half with just 46 seconds remaining in the frame. By that point, the Golden Rams led, 57-25 and activated the mercy rule running clock for the remainder of the game.
The Golden Rams continued to pour it on in the fourth quarter and outscored the Yellowjackets, 15-6 in the period and 38-8 in the second half. Highlands was led by sophomore point guard Jimmy Kunst -- a starter on last year's WPIAL championship squad -- who poured in a game-high 21 points and played an excellent all-around game as he showcased excellent defense and a knack for distributing the ball. Junior big man Wakheem Roman had 13 points, was a terror on the boards and either blocked or altered several Freeport shot attempts. Antoine McDaniel added 14 points for Highlands, which raised its record to 3-0 on the season.
Freeport will have little time to regroup as Keystone Oaks comes to town for a rescheduled game on Saturday. That begins a stretch of four games in six days and will feature games against Deer Lakes, Shady Side Academy and Burrell, teams against which Greiser believes his squad can match up with more productively. With a strong week against their four upcoming opponents, Freeport can easily turn the season around in a hurry.
"With the COVID situation and the shutdowns, we just so happened to match up against three quality opponents at the beginning of the season. That's just the way the cookie crumbles and that's fine," Greiser said. "I told our guys before and after the game that I don't necessarily think these teams are unbeatable and I think that we can be more competitive against them in the future, but I think we match up a little bit better against our upcoming opponents."
To watch a complete re-broadcast of Highlands' 71-32 win over Freeport, please click the link below: