Highland High School
Conference: 5A District 5-6 Conference
Head Coach: Gino Mariani
Years as Head Coach: 14th Season / 25th Overall
Previous Experience: Pocatello HS
Record Last Year: 12-0
Conference Record Last Year: 5-0
State Titles: 10 total (84, 88, 93, 95, 97, 98, 00, 02, 08, 14)
Wayne Kirby, DT, 12
Tommy Togiai, DT, 10
Hunter Eborn, DE, 12
Greg Gwinn, DB, 12 (Missed junior season with knee injury)
Mason Foltz, FS, 12
Brittan Bell, SS, 12
Jaden Miller, DB, 12
Aren Manu, ILB, 11
Kaden Buttars, RB, 12
Connor Harding, QB, 12 (Moving over from WR)
Returning Players with Honors:
Wayne Kirby: 1st Team All-State (BYU Commit)
Greg Gwinn: 1st Team All-Conference as sophomore
Brittan Bell 1st Team All-Conference
Photo By: Brad Barlow - #64 Wayne Kirby
“Key Players” lost from last year:
Tristen Hoge, OL – physical player in the middle
Dakota Tillotson, QB – play maker
T. Campbell, WR/KR – big play ability
Kyler Manu, OLB – defensive hitter
James Ryan, ILB – plugged the middle
Incoming “impact” players:
Aisa Kelemete, DE, 11
Cal Norby, WR, 12
Dylan Mangum, OLB, 11
Aren Manu, ILB, 11
Drew Pettit, WR, 12
Chase Mitton, WR, 12
RJ Palmer, RB, 11
Jake Sorenson, RB, 11
Written by: Matt Harris (@IdahoSportsMatt)
When some teams graduate a large amount of senior talent, the term ‘rebuilding’ is often thrown around in the conversations surrounding those teams.
However, the Highland Rams use a different ‘R’ word: Reload.
Everyone in the state of Idaho knows of the talent and rich history of football success at Highland. They know of the 10 state championship banners the Rams have raised at the school on the hill in Pocatello. They know of the quality of student-athletes that have moved on to reputable college programs.
And they know that the Rams are chasing after another ‘R’ word: Repeat.
It’s been 17 years since Highland won back-to-back state championships. They would love to end that streak this season… and the Rams certainly have the talent and direction to do it.
Gino Mariani returns for his 14th season at the helm of the Rams. His squad also returns a plethora of talent to defend their 5A state championship.
Taking the lead under center this year will be 6’5” Connor Harding, who replaces the now-graduated Dakota Tillotson. Remember that name – you may hear a lot from Harding on the hardcourt this winter and beyond. The incoming senior has committed to play basketball at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT and is an ESPN Top 100 recruit.
“Connor is an extremely athletic quarterback who can run or pass,” said Mariani. “He moves over to that position from wide receiver, but he saw time under center last year as our backup.”
While the supporting cast on offense may be young, Mariani believes his players will step up to fill the voids left due to graduation.
“We have enough quality playmakers on offense that we can continue to be successful,” he said. “We are a balanced team and hope to continue to be balanced.”
Helping to achieve that balance will be senior running back Kaden Buttars. He will be joined in the backfield by incoming juniors RJ Palmer and Jake Sorenson. Seniors Cal Norby, Drew Pettit, and Chase Mitton will spread the field from the wide receiver position.
While the skill positions have depth and experience, Mariani said there is one aspect on offense that will need more attention than others.
“Our offensive line will be a work in progress,” he said. “I would love to repeat what we accomplished on offense last year. The bar was set high with our group from last season. If we stay healthy and keep Connor healthy, we’ll be just fine.”
The bar set by last year’s Highland defense was just as high. Can the Rams achieve that high level of play again this year? The answer: Absolutely.
Highland returns seven starters from last season, including some non-starters who saw significant action in 2014. Also returning to the field this year is senior Greg Gwinn, an All-State cornerback as a sophomore who missed all of last year with a torn ACL.
“With Greg’s return at corner and our big and physical defensive front, we will lean on them early in the year,” Mariani said. “If we can repeat the physicality we played with last year, teams will have problems keeping our guys out of their backfield.”
Leading the charge up front is senior defensive tackle Wayne Kirby, who recently committed to play football for Brigham Young University. Sophomore Tommy Togiai (who started as a freshman), along with senior Hunter Eborn and junior Aisa Kelemete round out the defensive line.
Junior Aren Manu will lead the linebackers, along with fellow junior Dylan Mangum. The secondary will have plenty of experience with Gwinn at corner, senior Mason Foltz at free safety, senior Brittan Bell at strong safety, and senior Jaden Miller at the other cornerback position.
“Our defense is strong, physical, and experienced,” Mariani said. “It should be fun to watch them perform on the field.”
When it comes to fun on the field for the fans, Mariani points to one game on the regular season schedule as the one that fans cannot miss.
“The Coeur d’Alene game,” he said. “Our last three meetings with the Vikings have been decided by three points each time. This game has turned into a rivalry with a lot of respect on both sides.”
While the Sept. 25 matchup at Holt Arena with Coeur d’Alene is one of the most anticipated games of the season, Mariani knows that his team has a target on their back in every game this season.
“Highland is all about winning,” he said. “We step on the field and are instantly hated. We get everyone’s ‘A’ game week in and week out. But we like that.”
Mariani and the Rams have achieved much success on the field. But what satisfies him the most is watching the kids enjoy the success they’ve worked so hard for – both on and off the field.
“There is no greater feeling than watching a team successfully run the schemes you work so hard to implement and to see the excitement of these young men when they are on target,” he said. “Football turns kids into men. They live a life through football. When these players return ten years later and come back and thank the coaches for what they helped do for them in life… it’s incredibly satisfying.”
Highland opens up the season against the defending Utah 5A state runner-up American Fork at Holt Arena on Aug. 29 in the Rocky Mountain Rumble. You can watch this game LIVE on IdahoSports.com.