A win’s a win, but the Highland Bulldogs’ season-opening win over Alton last weekend was something less than what head coach Jimmy Warnecke expected.
For one, it told him his new quarterback, senior Jack Etter — the replacement for graduated all-stater Garrett Marti — still had some growing to do at his new position.
“We won last week, but it was a rough Saturday morning meeting room. We turned the ball over five times and that’s not what we do in Highland,” Warnecke said. “Jack is a third-year starter, but he found out that starting at quarterback at the varsity level isn’t the same as starting at strong safety and tight end like he’s been used to.”
The Bulldogs picked up another win Friday, a 35-7 defeat of Belleville East. It was the Bulldogs’ 19th regular-season victory in a row.
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It also was a coming out for Etter.
Putting in some double-duty at his old position in the defensive backfield, he returned an interception 45 yards for a back-breaking touchdown. But it was his efficient 8-of-9 passing for 159 yards and three touchdowns to senior wide receiver Sam LaPorta that will make a more pleasant atmosphere at Saturday morning’s team debriefing.
“Jack is extremely confident and we really thought he’d come back and be the player he can be,” Warnecke said. “I’m proud of what he did tonight across the board.”
Etter, for his part, says he wasn’t shaken by his three intercepted passes in week 1. Still, he gave credit for his personal turnaround to the system Warnecke has implemented and the teammates stacked around him.
LaPorta, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound all-stater, finished four catches for 105 yards, while senior running back Brady Feldmann carried for 89 hard yards on just 12 carries.
It was Etter’s job to sell the play-action fakes to keep the Lancers’ defense guessing run or pass.
“That play action can get sold only as well as Brady can run the ball and he did a fantastic job running the ball,” Etter said. “When they have to respect the run game, we can take those shots over the top to Sam.
“They don’t like it when we are running the ball like that, so they bring a safety down ... and boom. When you execute like we were able to, it can be demoralizing to a team.”
The class 5A Bulldogs didn’t pull away from the 8A Lancers until late in the third quarter.
East scored on a 3-yard run by senior quarterback Kienen Waller to make it a 14-7 game with 20 seconds left before the half. The Lancers got the ball back at the 20 on the ensuring kickoff, but couldn’t punch it into the endzone thanks, in part, to an athletic play by LaPorta on a Waller pass into the endzone.
The Lancers had other opportunities to tie the game in the third quarter, but were held in check by Highland’s defense, which knocked Waller out of the game with an injury to his left shoulder. East coach Kris Stephens said the injury will be assessed Saturday.
Wide receiver Jaylon Ford also struggled with cramping and a bruised knee.
“We’re in favor of not having halftime, because our third quarters have been garbage the couple games,” Stephens siad. “They did some things with the tight end and the running back and got us out-numbered on the edge and our guys were physically getting overwhelmed up front.
“We lost the battle up front on both sides of the ball.”
Etter and LaPorta connected for a third score, this time from 55 yards, to stretch the Highland lead to 21-7 with 2:15 left in the third quarter. Etter’s pick-6 came widened that distance with 30 seconds left.
“It was 3rd-and-6 and they’d been running that snag concept all day,” Etter said of the play. “My outside lineback told me ‘watch the snag,’ and I said ‘I’ve got you if it’s there.’ Sure enough, it was.”
Dylan Apken capped the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 19-yard run for the Bulldogs.
Highland (2-0) plays at home for the first time in 2018 next Friday against Marion. Belleville East (0-2) plays host to Quincy.