The Highland High School football team had a far from pretty performance and got even more banged up on a rainy and muddy Friday night, but the Bulldogs clawed out a 26-21 victory over the pesky Civic Memorial Eagles to wrap up the week of homecoming festivities.
Highland never trailed but the Bulldogs could also never put CM away and feel comfortable, until sophomore strong safety Jack Etter intercepted Eagle quarterback Brayden Pierce near midfield with just under a minute to play.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said after his team won its fifth consecutive game to improve to 5-1 and 3-0 in the Mississippi Valley Conference. “It wasn’t pretty with some of the stuff we need to do better at and it wasn’t pretty with the weather, obviously. But the bottom line is we got a win. This team is starting to create an identity for themselves of grinding it out and winning those tight football games and stepping up and next man up. That shows a strong team with guys that are buying in and being ready for the opportunity when it is presented to them.”
Highland was already without junior quarterback Garrett Marti for the second straight game and then the Bulldogs suffered another huge loss when senior running back/inside linebacker Trent Rakers suffered a season-ending injury to his right ankle in the first quarter. An MRI after the game revealed a broken fibula so Rakers’ Highland football career is over. The senior will now work to get back in time for wrestling, where he will be a contender for a state title in Class 2A after finishing fourth in the state at 160 pounds last year.
Not long after, Highland lost senior defensive end Cauy Hartlieb for the rest of the game to a high ankle sprain.
HHS sophomore quarterback Sam LaPorta, filling in for Marti for the second game in a row, completed 5-of-10 passes for 127 yards and one touchdown pass. Sophomore receiver Jacob Willis caught two passes for 93 yards, including making a nice over-the-shoulder grab of a beautiful throw from LaPorta for a 77-yard TD reception which put Highland back on top 14-7 with 6 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the first half.
Highland’s rushing totals were not gaudy at 120 yards on 38 carries, but the blocking got enough of a push all night to keep drives alive and help the Bulldogs taste victory again.
The blocking unit was Trent Langhauser at left tight end, Jacob Fenton at left tackle, Colton Knebel at left guard, Dylan Knebel at center, Cory Michaels at right guard, Wade Clarkin at right tackle, Jack Etter at right tight end and Brayton Moss at fullback.
LaPorta rushed 14 times for 59 yards. Sophomore running back Brady Feldman’s numbers were not pretty as he only gained 61 yards on 24 carries but he took it to the house three times on runs of 3, 1 and 2 yards.
Leading the way on defense for Highland were junior linebacker Kyle Lane with 14 total tackles (10 solos) and sophomore strong safety Jack Etter with seven tackles (six solos) and an interception
Also stepping up for the Bulldogs defensively were LaPorta with four tackles and one interception, sophomore defensive end Drew Hulvey with six tackles and Moss with five tackles.
But Highland’s defense was gouged by the Eagles’ ground game, which amassed 288 yards on 42 rushes.
Civic Memorial’s Camryn Gerhardt was the game’s leading runner after toting the ball nine times for 135 yards , highlighted by second-half touchdown rumbles of 55 and 40 yards. Also for CM (4-2, 2-1), Corey Price also carried the ball 15 times for 86 yards and one TD.
The Bulldogs took their opening drive 76 yards to draw first blood. A big play came on a third-down-and-6 from CM’s 22-yard line when LaPorta hit Willis on a hitch route and it went for 16 yards to make it first-and-goal from the 6. Feldman rushed it twice to hit pay dirt to make it 7-0 with 4:44 left in the first quarter.
Highland was forcing the Eagles to punt on their first two possessions, but a bad roughing-the-kicker peronsl foul called on HHS resulted in an automatic first down for CM. The Eagles capitalized and drove 73 yards to tie the game on Price’s 1-yard TD run with 7:50 to go in the second quarter.
It took the Bulldogs just two plays and 55 seconds to reclaim the lead for good as LaPorta launched the bomb to Willis in stride for a 77-yard TD strike to Willis with 6:55 to play in the opening half.
“Sophomore to sophomore, and another example of a man stepping up,” Warnecke said of Willis. “I thought Jacob Willis had been blocking great all year long, but he had a big hitch in our first series that helped lead to a touchdown. Then that catch on that bomb for the touchdown was an incredible catch. Great throw by Sam and a great catch That was a big play all around and a big play in the game.”
Highland took what appeared to be a commanding lead when it took the opening possession of the second half and marched 55 yards to take a 20-7 advantage on Feldman’s 1-yard plunge almost at the halfway point of the third quarter.
But CM needed only five plays and less than three minutes to cut it back to one score on Gerhardt’s 55-yard gallop with 3:21 left in the third.
Both teams answered again on their next possessions. The Bulldogs first traveled 70 yards and scored on Feldman’s 2-yard lunge with 10:03 to play to go back up by two scores at 26-13, only to see CM respond on Gerhardt’s 40-yard TD scamper with 6:28 to play. The Eagles also got a succesful 2-point coversion to make it 26-21.
CM then got the ball back with 2:53 left but Etter’s diving interception put an end to the Eagles’ hopes of an upset.
“He is a ball hawk back there,” Warnecke said of Etter. “That was a big play, I don’t know if they get any bigger than that — shutting their drive down to end the game. “It is a team thing but it is good to see so many sophomores step up like that and it is a very promising thing for the future,” Warnecke said.
Highland hosts arch rival Triad (5-1 overall, 2-1 MVC) which is fresh off piling up 425 yards rushing on 42 carries in a 54-7 rout of Mascoutah on Friday night. Tommy Bauer put on a highlight-reel performance with 300 yards and five touchdowns (68, 42, 2, 21 and 40 yards) on 19 rushes.
“Triad is Triad and you know they are going to do what they do,” Warnecke said of Triad’s vaunted triple-option offense. “They are a well-coached team and they have a great program, and always have. The game is on our field and we had an unbelievable game two years ago on our field. And I don’t expect anything different Friday night.”