Highland High School football coach Jimmy Warnecke knew a couple of years ago that he would have a loaded team this season so he wanted to strengthen the schedule.
“Nothing against some of the teams we have played in the past but we’ve crushed some teams in the past and we felt that we haven’t tested ourselves, so we beefed (the schedule) up a little bit,” Warnecke said.
This season, Highland, which competes in Class 5A, opens with a pair of big-school Southwestern Conference opponents. First up is Alton, which is a 7A school, at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25. Next will be Belleville East, which is 8A, at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1.
In week 3 on Sept. 8, Highland travels to fellow 5A toughy Marion before tackling what Warnecke believes are the Bulldogs’ two toughest tests in the Mississippi Valley Conference. Highland will host Jerseyville on Sept. 15 and take the short bus ride to Triad on Sept. 22.
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“Those first five games, we’re going to find out where we’re at,” said Warnecke, whose team has went 11-1, 9-2, 8-2 and 9-2 the past four years, including winning the MVC crown in three of those seasons. “We play three out of the first five games at home, and I like that. I think the backbone of this team is a workman-like mentality, and I think our goals are high. Our expectations are high.
“We’re excited to represent this town and this school.”
Warnecke said the strength of the team is the skill on both offense and defense. He added that the team just needs to keep progressing up front on both sides of the ball to be a really good football team.
Senior quarterback Garrett Marti and junior wide receiver/free safety Sam LaPorta are two very instrumental returners to the team’s success.
Marti is the starting play caller for the third straight year. The 6-foot, 185-pound dual threat was named a captain this year for the way he leads by example.
“I get a little choked up talking about him,” Warnecke said of Marti. “Garrett is not a rah-rah guy. He is not a vocal leader. But if you know him, you know how much he has a passion for football, how much he has a passion for his teammates and his team. He never discludes anyone, and he’s an excellent young man. I couldn’t ask for anyone better in that realm, and he has blossomed.”
Last year through the air, Marti completed 128 of 206 passes for 1,849 yards and 15 touchdowns with only three interceptions. On the ground, he rushed 118 times for 757 yards and 10 TDs.
“This is his third year in the system, and things are going in slow motion,” Warnecke said. “We’re putting a lot on his plate — a lot of pre-snap decision-making and a lot of post-snap decision-making — and he’s flying through it.”
LaPorta, who has the rare combination of size (6-3, 210), speed and coordination, doubles as a wide receiver on offense and a free safety on defense.
LaPorta, was easily HHS’ top receiving threat last year as he ranked first in all three categories: receptions (50), yards (857) and TD receptions (seven).
“Sam (LaPorta) is a special kid, and I feel like I probably could talk about a half an hour on him,” Warnecke said. “He is a combination of size, genetics, athleticism, and, on top of all that, he competes harder than everyone else around him. He is the ultimate leader. He was a sophomore leader last year and a team captain. He was voted a team captain again this year.
“He expects the very best of himself and everyone around him.”
This summer in 7-on-7 passing league tournament, LaPorta led the Bulldogs to a 12-0 record and team titles at Missouri Baptist University and Carbondale. Warnecke said LaPorta took over at Carbondale.
“He did things at that tournament that even us coaches who have been watching him for the past couple of years and his teammates who have played with him since he was a little kid were in awe of him,” Warnecke said. “We went undefeated and won the tournament, and he was the man among boys that day.”
A good showing at a Rivals prospects camp over the summer earned him an invitation to the University of Nebraska top prospects workout. He also has drawn looks from Illinois, Illinois State, Iowa, Nebraska, Southern Illinois and others.
LaPorta tore his meniscus in July and may only play on offense early in the season.
Rest of offense also strong
After Trent Rakers suffered a season-ending knee injury about halfway through last season, junior Brady Feldmann (5-6, 180) took over as the workhorse tailback and ended up toting the ball 126 times for 620 yards and seven touchdowns. Feldmann also added 390 yards receiving and four more scores.
“He is the guy that comes to work every day and doesn’t say a word, does his job, and loves being out here,” Warnecke said. “As a coach, he is enthusiastic and refreshing to have. He truly has a passion for football and loves football … He knows his position front ways and back.
“We’re going to be moving him all over the place — at running back of course — but also in the slot, because he has some of the best hands on the team. He’s crafty.”
Other tailbacks in addition to Feldmann are junior Brayton Moss (5-10, 190), who is a powerful runner who runs more downhill than Feldmann; and senior Isaiah Harmon, who possesses good speed with his high-knee running style.
“We have a lot of depth at the tailback position so that is a position of strength for us,” Warnecke said. “You may some different looks throughout a game because we have some guys with different skill sets.”
Warnecke proudly boasted about the offensive line, “I like them bigs.”
With senior Dylan Knebel (5-6, 220) no longer playing center so he can instead focus on defensive tackle, Warnecke said senior Mitchel Widman (5-9, 185) earned the starting center position by having a great offseason in which he proved to be very trustworthy in the demanding role.
Senior Colten Knebel (5-6, 245), Dylan’s twin brother, returns at left guard and senior Corey Michaels (6-0, 275) comes back at right guard.
“I feel reel good from guard to guard,” Warnecke said about the trio. “Colten by far is our anchor there. He is our best guy up front, and he is guy that we really like to run behind. He and his brother Dylan are great guys to coach because they are very passionate and love playing the game and being with their teammates.”
After having a couple of potential starting tackles not come out for the team, Warnecke said he was forced to turn to a pair of sophomores, Trevor Zobrist (6-0, 215) at left tackle and Wes Schmollinger on the right side of the line.
“They are getting better every day, every week,” Warnecke said.
Joining LaPorta at wide out will be junior Jacob Willis (6-1, 180), who as a sophomore showed flashes of brilliance, including a highlight-reel 77-yard touchdown grab in the rain to put Highland ahead to stay in a 26-21 home victory over Civic Memorial.
At tight end will be junior Jack Etter and senior Josh Burke.
Highland returns a big core group to a defense built on speed, including the entire secondary.
Senior Kyle Lane (6-0, 225) is a four-year mainstay at middle linebacker and really controls the box by stuffing the run. Last year, Lane far and away led the Bulldogs in total tackles with 151, highlighted by 112 solos.
Outside linebackers are seniors Seby Wolf and Noah Schmitt and the junior Moss.
Etter comes back as the strong safety after doing an outstanding there as a sophomore.
“I can’t say enough about Jack Etter,” Warnecke said. “He is an extremely intelligent football player, maybe one of the smartest football players I’ve ever had. He has some things to work on, just like the rest of us, but he is our quarterback on the field defensively.”
Warnecke said senior cornerback Dylan Shaw (5-8, 145) had an unbelievable summer and teams make the mistake of thinking they can pick on him because he is not a tall cover man.
“Dylan Shaw has answered the bell every single time this summer,” Warnecke said. “He is our lock-down corner, and he is a big story in our secondary this year as far as his level of play and confidence. We have got ultimate trust as a team in him.”
In addition to LaPorta maybe not playing right away at free safety, Highland will most likely be without junior cornerback Jake Kruse on defense for at least the first game after he broke his collarbone.
Most likely, senior Cameron Altadonna will fill in for Kruse and do double duty as he also serves as the slot receiver on offense.
Up front on the defensive line will be junior Drew Hulvey at one defensive end and seniors Harmon and Derek Ahlmeyer splitting time on the other end.
At the tackle positions, Dylan Knebel will take one spot while senior Josh Burke and freshman Sam Buck will team up to fill the other spot.