Neither a roster dotted with players fighting upset stomachs nor the Effingham Flaming Hearts were going to slow the Highland Bulldogs on Saturday.
Propelled by an eye-popping performance from quarterback Garrett Marti, the Bulldogs breezed into the quarterfinals of the IHSA Class 4A playoffs with a 57-14 demolition of the Flaming Hearts.
How dominant was Highland?
When Marti hooked up with Dylan Shaw on a 45-yard touchdown pass on just the fifth play from scrimmage in the second half, the game reverted to a running clock with the Bulldogs up by 43 points.
That TD pass was one of six thrown by Marti. The senior finished the game 15 of 21 for 360 yards. He also provided the game’s first points when he scored on a 5-yard run just 90 seconds into the opening quarter.
Marti, who has passed for 2,676 yards and 36 TDs this season, was quick to deflect the credit.
“I would not have been able to do it without my teammates, all the receivers, my linemen,” said Marti. “They go up and get the ball, and the line makes good blocks every play.”
He also said it was important the Bulldogs gained control early. The score stood at 14-7 after Effingham’s Terrence Hill scored on an 80-yard run with 2:52 left in the first quarter.
Over the remainder of the first half, Highland outscored the Flaming Hearts 36-7.
“Once you get up on someone, the other team might look at it as ‘man, they’re pretty good,’” said Marti. “That makes it hard for them to come back because we just keep on fighting and fighting.”
The victory advances the unbeaten Bulldogs (11-0) into a quarterfinal next weekend at home against Herscher. Herscher (10-1) advanced with a 43-6 home win over Taylorville. Game day and time will be announced later by the IHSA.
“This is a great feeling,” said Highland coach Jim Warnecke Jr. “But nothing changes. We’re going to go back to work and do what we always do.”
Unlike some of his teammates, Marti did not eat pasta at the team’s Friday night dinner.
On Saturday morning, when the Bulldogs came together for a yoga session, perhaps a dozen or so were under the weather either because of what they ate or a flu bug that has been running through the school.
Standout receiver Sam LaPorta was among the ailing Bulldogs, but that didn’t prevent the junior from hooking up with Marti on TD receptions of 54 and 26 yards.
“We just had to push through that (the flu),” said LaPorta, “Make sure we had each others backs. We pushed each other and got the results we wanted.”
Bulldogs senior running back Brady Feldman found the end zone three times — twice through the air and once on the ground — while accounting for 192 total yards.
The trip to the quarterfinals is the first since 2013 for Highland. The Bulldogs have reached the semifinals only once, in 1989, where they lost to Morris.
“We break from the huddle on 14,” said LaPorta. “That means 14 games for the state championship.
“We’re getting closer and closer every week.”
Effingham’s Hill came into the contest with 2,021 rushing yards for the season, and while he gained 168 on 21 carries against the Bulldogs, 80 of them came on his lone touchdown run.
The Flaming Hearts bow out at 9-2.