HIGHLAND — Highland scored on its first three possessions Saturday and rolled to a 36-14 victory over Bartonville Limestone in a Class 5A second-round playoff game.
The Bulldogs advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003. They were 0-9 just two years ago.
"I took the job to make this football program better, and to do everything I could to give back to the program and the community that did so much for me," said third-year Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke. "We're extremely excited that we can give this to our town and school. This has been a long time coming from the conference championship to the undefeated season to now advancing to the third round of the playoffs."
The Bulldogs' defense did its part as well, holding Limestone to just four gains of more than 25 yards on 12 drives.
A touchdown pulled the Rockets to within 19-14 with 4 minutes left in the first half, but they were blanked the rest of the game.
The Bulldogs intercepted Limestone quarterback Adam Schmitt twice and gave up just 106 yards of offense after the score.
Schmitt completed 11-of-22 passes, and the Rockets rushed for 93 yards after relying on their running game during its 9-2 season.
"If we don't have our run game going, they can tee off on him," Limestone coach Darin Driscoll said. "Their offensive and defensive line did a good job."
The Bulldogs used a balanced offensive attack to roll over the Rockets.
"We won it by taking what the defense gave us," Highland senior quarterback Mack Waldman said. "When they put seven in the box, we threw it, and whenever they let us run, we ran."
Waldman completed 10 of his first 11 passes and finished 21-of-28 with 217 yards and three touchdowns.
Sophomore Andrew Winning led Highland's ground game with 166 yards on 18 carries. Senior Gage Geiger played sparingly because of an ankle injury.
"Him and Gage have been going back-and-forth all year. He's had big games three weeks in a row, and this is two big playoff games for Andrew," Warnecke said.
Highland gained 275 of its 397 yards in the first half.
Waldman found senior wide receiver Blake Hustedde down the middle of the field for the Bulldogs' first score with 5:55 left in the first quarter.
"That's the best offense we have played all year," Driscoll said. "Their offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, and when you can do that you are hard to beat. They did it all night."
Limestone tied the game 7-7 two minutes later on a 57-yard pass by Schmitt to senior Cody Rupp.
Geiger scored Highland's second touchdown on a 1-yard run to culminate a 76-yard drive.
Highland scored again on a Waldman screen pass to junior Brandon Sands for a 10-yard score, set up by a 40-yard run by Winning on the previous play, to make it 19-7.
After a Limestone touchdown, Highland stretched its lead to 22-14 on a 42-yard field goal by sophomore Zeke Kaufman with 11 seconds left in the half.
"The field goal kick was huge," Warnecke said. "It's amazing how important three points can be."
With both offenses sputtering in the second half, Highland senior Tyler VonderHaar swung the momentum to the Bulldogs with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown on Limestone's first offensive play of the fourth quarter.
"Tyler is a kid who hasn't started until this year," Warnecke said. "Even this year, he's had to battle adversity with possibly not seeing the field at times. I'm extremely proud of him and our whole team."
A 20-yard touchdown pass Waldman to senior Caleb McKee clinched the win with three minutes left.
Next for Highland is a rematch with (Springfield) Sacred Heart-Griffin, who beat the Bulldogs in the first round last year.
"It's redemption," Warnecke said. "To win a state championship is going to be a tough task, and it's coming through SH-G. I'm sure they'll be ready, and we'll be ready."