Highland made a statement in their first appearance in the IHSA Class 4A playoffs as the Bulldogs crushed the visiting Quincy Notre Dame Raiders 45-0 in the first round Friday night at HHS.
“We just wanted to come out and make a statement to the whole rest of the playoff bracket that we are the best in there and we wanted to show them that,” said junior running back Brady Feldmann who rushed 10 times for 80 and four touchdown trots of 26, 2, 2 and 2 yards.
In a rare move, Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke elected to receive the ball to open the game. It proved to be a smart decision as the Bulldogs needed just four plays and one minute, 54s seconds to march 70 yards to go up 7-0. The second play helped set up the score as senior Garrett Marti threw a 31-yard pass to junior wide receiver Sam LaPorta, who laid out and somehow caught it with arms stretched out without letting the ball touch the ground. Two plays later, Feldmann scampered to the house from 26 yards out.
Then after QND had a sustained drive of running the ball and took it 67 yards before Highland turned the Raiders over on downs at the Bulldogs’ 4-yard line.
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Highland then needed just two plays to cover the 96 yards. First, Marti faked a handoff to Feldmann and darted up the middle and cut it to the near sideline for a 67-yard keeper. The very next play, Marti tossed a perfect 29-yard touchdown strike to LaPorta on a hitch-and-go route and the Bulldogs led 14-0 with 3:16 left in the first quarter.
Highland never looked back and got a running clock in the third quarter with 3:29 remaining in the third quarter.
“Our three keys are coming out of the gate fast, keeping our poise and attitude, and I thought all three of them were on the mark tonight,” said Warnecke, whose team remained undefeated at 10-0 and will play host to No. 7 Effingham (9-1) at 3 p.m. on Saturday after the Flaming Hearts defeated No. 10 Manteno (6-4) 48-21 last Saturday.
“All around, it was a great team effort — offense, defense and special teams. I thought the coaching staff did a tremendous job and I just can’t enough good things.”
Marti only missed one completion all night, completing 11 of 12 passes for 228 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no interceptions. He now has a ridiculous 30 TD passes and only one interception. He also carried the ball five times for 96 yards.
LaPorta also had a monstrous night with five catches for 142 yards and his 16th TD of the campaign.
“Those kind of offenses, it’s good to get up on them early because it’s hard for them to come back, because they just pound the rock and run the clock down,” Marti said. “Our defense had a hell of a night and they didn’t let up. It was a complete game tonight — offense, defense and special teams.
“I feel like this game give us a boost of a lot of confidence and we all feel good.”
Highland’s defense pitched a shutout and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. The Bulldogs forced two turnovers on interceptions from LaPorta and fellow junior Dylan Apken. It was LaPorta’s fifth pick of the season.
Senior linebacker Seby Wolf led the defense after racking up nine solo tackles and one tackle assist.
Also stepping up on defense were junior linebacker Brayton Moss with eight solo tackles, senior linebacker Kyle Lane with six solos, senior defensive lineman Austin Hayes with five solos, and LaPorta with four solos and the interception which he returned for 27 yards.
No to be overlooked were junior receiver Jacob Willis, who hauled in 22-yard TD, and senior kicker Elliott Prott, who went 6 for 6 on extra points and also booted a 43-yard field goal.
Warnecke said the offensive line had one of their best games of the year and the great blocking extended to the wide receivers.
“They were unselfish and understood that it’s a team thing, making huge blocks down the field,” he said of the receivers. “The confidence that gives your tailback is huge when you have nine, 10 guys blocking for you.”
Feldmann agreed the offensive line and receivers were a big key to the team’s success.
“They (offensive line and receivers) were great and I can’t do anything without them; they’re the sole reason for this offense’s success,” said Feldmann, who has 25 TD on the season, 17 of them rushing.
Warnecke said this team gives the coaching staff kind of a luxury because they don’t have to worry about the being tight for a playoff game because they are so loose before the game.
“They are so confident in their themselves and their abilities and each other,” he said. “It gives you great confidence before you even kick off that great things are going to happen.”