Zach Shostaka is a game changer

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ALLENDALE — Zach Shostaka was skeptical.

“Linebacker? he wondered. “Do you want me to play linebacker?”

Chostaka was in fifth grade, playing football for the first time in his life, when his youth coaches decided to move him from defensive end to linebacker. A big football fan, but admittedly not completely aware of the rules at the time, Shostaka wondered what was in store for him.

In reality, it was the adverse offenses that lent themselves to it. Chostaka, now a senior Northern Highlands ‘buck’ linebacker, is again among North Jersey‘s leaders in tackles and – if such a category existed – big plays.

The 8-3 Highlanders are back in Saturday’s North Group 4 final against North Hunterdon and no one is skeptical of their chances.

“I think our main advantage is that we play good teams every week,” Chostaka said on Thursday morning. “We are used to preparing for good teams and the experience we have from last year certainly helps, but I think the most important thing is that we have two more games to play here and it’s a big game. Saturday.”

Northern Highlands is experiencing a success the school has never had. He won section titles in 2019 and 2021, then dominated Ramapo last week in a match for the Nord 1, Group 4 title marred by drama and two freak blackouts.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Shostaka said of the lights out. “It was awkward.”

When the lights came back on, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Chostaka was in the middle of all the action, eventually forcing the game-changing fumble into overtime in the 49-42 win.

That kind of game-changing ability came as no surprise to Northern Highlands first-year coach Dave Cord, who knew from the moment he spoke to Shostaka that he was into it.

“He has to be a sure tackler and that’s exactly what he is,” Cord said. “The stuff on the pitch speaks for itself; it’s leadership and understanding what we’re doing, how to line up the guys. I even think I underestimated teaching a whole new offense and defense pattern, but Zach Chostaka was the one in June, July setting everyone up, and we had Zach Madison doing the same in attack.

Chostaka said the Linebacker Light continued for him when he came to Northern Highlands as a rookie. His role was to find the ball and knock the man down. And while quarterbacks remember big passes and running backs remember big runs, Chostaka remembers big hits, saying a blast against Wayne Hills was his personal favorite.

“I kind of read it, my teammate wrapped it up and I rushed in,” Chostaka said, not hiding a smile.

Although Shostaka has a thirst for contacts, he is also studious, thoughtful and intelligent. He talks about playing with his older brother Josh (an offensive lineman for the Highlanders) last year, being motivated by his family and trying to find a way forward in college.

Division I schools don’t usually jump on 5-foot-10 linebackers who play more with heart and desire than anything else, but Shostaka just wants a chance.

“Just a shot,” he said, smiling. “There’s a bunch of Division II and Division III schools that I’ve looked at, but I want to play at the highest level possible.”

“He will find a home,” Cord said. “Someone is going to have a good boy, a good football player and a good student. I think he will be an asset to any college football program.

The Highlanders were there last year, playing in last year’s Group 4 North final against Irvington. Shostaka remembers the pain of this 19-14 defeat. This year the Highlanders have come a long way from starting 1-2, but no one should doubt that now.

“It took a while,” Shostaka admits. “I think the reason we started 1-2 was that it took time to come together. We’ve had success with other coaches, but the reason we’re on this roll right now is because of our chemistry. It just took time. Now we have a lot of energy and great spirits on both sides of the ball.

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