The Highland Bulldogs did not let some queasy stomachs slow them down as they clicked on all cylinders en route to extinguishing the visiting Effingham Flaming Hearts 57-14 in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs Saturday afternoon at Highland High School.
Junior Sam LaPorta helped get the Bulldogs off and running as he intercepted two passes to help set up two first-quarter touchdowns. Highland’s offense exploded for 36 points in the second quarter to take a commanding 50-14 lead at halftime.
The Bulldogs needed just one minute, 13 seconds to travel 65 yards and score on the first possession of the second half to get the running clock with still 10:47 remaining in the third quarter.
Senior quarterback Garrett Mart completed 15 of 21 passes for 358 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He has thrown 35 TDs with just one interception this season. Marti also had 5-yard TD run to open the scoring.
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Effingham had come into Saturday’s riding a nine-game winning. The Flaming Hearts finished the season at 9-2 following the loss to HHS.
Highland remained undefeated and is now 11-0. The Bulldogs advance to the quarterfinals, where they will play host to Herscher (10-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Elite Eight. The Tigers mauled Taylorville 43-6 on Saturday. The last time Highland reached the quarterfinals was four years ago.
With a win over Herscher, the Bulldogs would tie the school record set by the 1989 squad by going to 12-0 and clinching a berth in the state semifinals — also known as the Final Four.
“That would feel really good for all of us and most of all this town,” Marti said. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without all of the fans and support, and it’s a great team. Guys are working hard, and I think we keep getting better every week, and that’s what we need to keep doing.”
After Highland went up 8-0 just 3:58 into the game on a 5-yard run from Marti and the 2-point conversion from junior running back Brady Feldmann, the Bulldogs forced a three-and-out, but then had one of their own. Then a miscommunication led to a failed fake punt, and Effingham took over at Highland’s 25-yard line.
But LaPorta bailed the Bulldogs out with his second interception.
“The quarterback tried to look down his receiver, and I tried to bait him a little bit, and I jumped the route,” LaPorta said.
Three plays later, Marti fired a 54-yard bomb to LaPorta, who made a juggling grab to put Highland up 14-0.
Effingham senior all-state running back Terrence Hill had a highlight-reel, 80-yard TD gallop to cut the Bulldogs’ lead in half.
Hill came into the contest with 2,021 rushing yards for the season, and while he gained 168 on 21 carries against the Bulldogs, almost half of them came on his lone touchdown run.
But after Highland had a three-and-out, the Bulldogs’ defense forced the Flaming Hearts to go three-and-out.
Highland’s defense remained stout the rest of the game, allowing just one more score, but only after going up 29-7, while the Bulldogs’ offense shifted into high gear and the rout was on.
“We knew we weren’t going to let off the gas peddle and our ‘D’ was going to keep bringing it hard, so that’s what our philosophy was,” said LaPorta, who had three receptions for 92 yards and touchdown grabs of 54 and 27 yards. “Things were clicking for us, and everything was working. All 11 men were doing their job, and you see the results on the scoreboard. It’s a lot of fun when we’re clicking like that.”
Feldmann toted the ball 10 times for 96 yards and two TD scampers of 46 and 50 yards. He also caught three passes for 88 yards, including a 35-yard score. Feldmann also added a pair of 2-point conversions.
Also getting in on the fun on offense were senior Dylan Shaw with three receptions for 61 yards and 45-yard touchdown, junior Jack Etter added a 64-yard reception, senior Cameron Altadonna had three catches for 28 yards, and junior Jacob Willis had two catches for 25 yards.
“We have been talking about our offense, and we have been clicking unbelievably here in the last four or five weeks,” said Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke. “At some point, you’re going to hit that chink where everything is not going to execute just the right way. I think we hit that early on, and I think it was very important for our defense to come out and get them on a three-and-out and get our offense back out there and redeem themselves.”
As is usually the case, the defense was led by senior linebacker Kyle Lane, who notched 10 total tackles on nine solos and one assist.
Also stepping up on defense were junior linebacker Brayton Moss with eight total tackles (five solos and three assists) and senior defensive lineman Josh Burke with four solos, three of them for loss.
“We set a goal at the beginning of the year to get to plus-23 in turnover ratio, and we achieved that last week,” Warnecke said. “That is a tremendous feeling for us to achieve a goal like that. These boys weren’t going to stop there, and they are plus-25 now, and that is a big deal.”