HIGHLAND – Players on the Highland High School football team believe they can build off last year’s Section 9 playoff appearance, but doing so may be challenging due to a new divisional realignment.
There are now two divisions in Section 9 Class B with the four schools with the highest enrollments — Highland, Marlboro, Red Hook and Rondout Valley — in Division 1. All four schools qualified for sectionals last year, when there was only one division.
This year, Spackenkill, Dover, James I. O’Neill, Ellenville and John S. Burke Catholic are in the second division of Class B schools.
“You can build on (last year). A lot of these guys were on the team and have the taste of going to the playoffs,” Highland head coach Carl Relyea said. “The division is very competitive. I know Marlboro is solid, I know Red Hook lost only three starters total from both sides of the ball, and Rondout was a playoff team last year.
“You have four teams and only two of them can go to the playoffs. That’s a tough bracket.”
The Huskies are optimistic, though, based on what they have in camp this year. Highland returns several starters on both sides of the ball including senior offensive linemen Alex Oliver, Dom Bellacicco and Vinnie Valentino. Quarterback Brandon Mack, wide receiver Travis Marnell and running back Isiah Daubon are back as well. Teddy Mapes was a part-time starter on the offensive line in 2013, and seniors Michael Weed and Cory Garcia are expected to fill the second wide-receiver spot. Senior Tom Hollway is the fullback.
The two key losses for Highland are Poughkeepsie Journal First-Team All-Star split end Ryan Merget and Poughkeepsie Journal Defensive Player of the Year A.J. Buchanan. Merget caught 49 passes for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Buchanan set a school record with 131 tackles.
“I think the team is coming along pretty strong so far,” Bellacicco said. “We lost a couple of key players, but we’re returning a lot of solid seniors, which is really good. I really have high hopes for this season. I hope we stay healthy for the season and really work for that title.”
The Huskies open the regular season with a non-league game on Sept. 5 against rival New Paltz and travel to play three-time defending sectional champ Marlboro in the regular-season finale on Oct. 24.
“We’re not looking ahead,” Marnell said. “It’s one game at a time. If you look forward to Marlboro in the last game of the season instead of the first against New Paltz, you’re taking your mind off the game plan. If you take your mind off the game plan, you’re going to lose.
“So you have to take it one game at a time, and that’s how you win games.”
Dan Pietrafesa: email@example.com, 845-437-4849, Twitter: @PJDanPietrafesa