Note: Highland finished with a 7-4 overall record in 2013 and was third in Region 6 with a 4-2 record. It lost to Sky View in the first round of the 4A playoffs.
SALT LAKE CITY — Senior Alassane Niang feels like the Highland Rams are being underestimated.
But the wide receiver and corner doesn’t actually mind. In fact, he said, those doubts about how the Rams will do this season only motivate him.
“I expect everyone to think we’re the underdogs this year, which I honestly like being,” Niang said. “That way, we come out, hit people in the mouth and shut them up for the rest of the game. I do like being underestimated.”
Actually, Niang may be one of the few who actually sees the Rams as underdogs. The perennial contenders were picked to finish second in their region in the coaches poll and third in the Deseret News rankings. So expectations for the Rams are actually pretty high, especially in light of what the team lost to graduation last season.
A year ago, the team had some superstars, including highly recruited Bryan Mone, who earned a scholarship with Michigan. Not having a go-to guy is fine with Rams head coach Brody Benson, however.
“I don’t really see a whole lot of standout kids, kids who are getting a lot of publicity,” Benson said. “This is just a blue-collar group. And that’s what I’ve kind of always pictured and always wanted Highland to be. We’re going to outwork you, we’re going to outhit you, we’re going to be more physical than you. It’s what I love about Highland, and it’s what I love about this group.”
So far, Benson has asked a lot of his 2014 team, and so far, players have responded with the kind of enthusiasm that promises to make for a successful season.
“I just love the way the kids are working,” Benson said. “I’m loving how they show up, they shut up and they work. There is no whining, no moaning. It’s just let’s go to work.”
The reality is that while a few positions have been earned, most are still up for grabs.
“We don’t have a lot of returning players,” Benson said. “So I think there are a lot of guys who are hungry. We don’t have a lot of positions sewn up. We have a lot of guys fighting for playing time right now, which is always good as far as competition.”
Senior running back and strong safety Thomas Pembroke agrees with his coach.
“This is a hungry team,” he said. “Going out in the first round last year was not what we expected.”
How will the team make up for the talented seniors lost to graduation?
“We’ll make up for that with hard work,” Pembroke said. “Just everybody doing what’s necessary to win the game or fight to be the best team out there.”
He said last year’s group, especially the team leaders, taught them how to work hard. The one thing he sees in his current teammates is a better ability to finish games.
“I think our problem was more not taking advantage of our opportunity when it presented itself,” Pembroke said. “So this year, we’re going to try to seize the opportunities more.”
Being one of the smallest 4A schools means most of the team’s players will compete on both sides of the ball.
Benson said Palauni started to show flashes of his potential near the end of his sophomore season.