All-state quarterback Nic Baker proved to be as good as advertised on Saturday at Rochester High School. And so were the Rochester Rockets.
Baker continued to add to his record-setting season by throwing a pair of touchdown passes and running for a third score — in the first half — as the top-seeded Rockets jumped out to a 21-0 lead and went on for a 31-14 win over Highland in a Class 4A semifinal showdown.
With winds howling and a light mist falling, Baker gave the Rockets the lead with a 2-yard touchdown run on their second possession of the game. And for the first time this season, the Highland offense had no answer.
The Rockets defense intercepted a pair of passes from quarterback Garrett Marti and held the Bulldogs scoreless until midway through the third quarter.
Highland running back Brady Feldmann scored a pair of second-half touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to rally his team from a 28-0 deficit.
“I thought the first quarter was huge a huge boost for us,” Rockets coach Derek Leonard said. ‘The wind is howling, and they (Highland) have it in the first quarter. But we were up 6-0 after 12 minutes. That was a turning point right there.”
The win lifts Rochester (13-0) into the Class 4A state title game on Friday at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The title game appearance will be the seventh in the past eight years for the defending state champions, who will take on Morris at 7 p.m. Morris (11-2) defeated Chicago Raby 43-8 in the other semifinal Saturday.
Highland, making its first semifinal appearance since 1989 — and the second in school history — ends its season at 12-1.
“It’s the way high school football is in Illinois. Only eight teams are going to be happy when its all said and done at the end of the season. Unfortunately we won’t be one of those eight,” Highland coach Jim Warnecke said. “We turn the football over on our second possession of the game, and they score to take the lead. They made plays on us.
“I said coming into the game that the team that made the most plays and did not turn the football over would win the football game. We’ve made plays all year, but tonight we made none in the first half. We turn the football over twice, and they (Rochester) score 13 points as a result.”
The Rockets increased their lead to 28-0 early in the third quarter. Junior defensive back Riley Lewis picked off a pass from Marti and returned it 60 yards to the Highland 10-yard line. On the next snap from scrimmage, senior running back Nick Capriotti scored to give his team a four-touchdown lead.
With Baker, who now has 52 touchdown passes and a school record 3,863 passing yards, directing the offense, Rochester was in control of the game.
“He (Baker) is simply the best ever here at Rochester,” Leonard said. “He’s a playmaker, and he made plays again today.”
The Bulldogs’ record-smashing offense, which rolled up 640 points this season and defeated Herscher 77-47 in the quarterfinals a week ago, never was able to get on track Saturday.
Bulldogs quarterback Garrett Marti, who like Baker was chosen to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association all-state team, appeared to have a tough time handling the football. The Bulldogs senior, who entered the game with more than 3,300 passing yards and 40 touchdown passes, was intercepted for just the second time all season on Highland’s second possession.
The turnover, Highland’s fourth all season, led to the Rockets’ first score as Baker tallied on a 2-yard run with 6:44 left in the first quarter.
Marti also lost the handle on three snaps from center in the first half.
Warnecke attempted to rally his team at halftime.
“I just told them that we needed to make some plays. I thought if we could come out and take the ball down the field, we could get back into it,” Warnecke said. “Instead, they get the interception and go up 28-0. That was another big play.
“We talked and worked all week on the way they (Rochester) blitzes. We didn’t pick them up times today.”
Baker, meanwhile, continued to shine. Unofficially, 12 of 18 for 160 yards in the first two quarters, Baker fired touchdown passes of 16 yards to Ben Chapman and 22 yards to Cade Eddington in a three-minute span midway in the second quarter to give the Rockets a 21-0 lead.
Marti finally got on track late in the first half. Completing a pair of passes each to Sam LaPorta, Highland marched deep into Rochester territory. LaPorta, a junior all-state wide receiver, finished the day with seven catches for 96 yards.
But on third and 13 from inside the Rockets’ 25-yard line, Marti was sacked by outside linebacker Ben Chapman for a 13-yard loss. A fourth-down pass fell incomplete, and time ran out in the half.