The end of the road came two games two early for the Highland Bulldogs, but the journey to the end created more memories of another stellar season.
Highland finished the 2018 campaign at 11-1 after falling to perennial Class 4A power Joliet Catholic Joliet Catholic in the IHSA playoff quarterfinals on Nov. 10 in Joliet.
It was not the end envisioned by the Bulldogs, who had their sights set on the school’s first state championship.
“I think our goal was very clearly going in to win a state championship and anytime that you fall short of your goal that you feel you can attain, it’s a toug h thing for players, coaches, parents, fans,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said. “It was disappointing, there’s no doubt about it. You aim for perfection and a lot of times you get excellence.”
The Bulldogs, for the second straight season went through the regular season undefeated, going 9-0 and claiming the Mississippi Valley Conference championship for the third straight season.
The run anchored by this core group of athletes includes a Class 5A semifinal appearance last season and a second round playoff finish in 2016.
“I think it felt great,” Warnecke said. “I think this group of seniors wanted to leave their mark and I think we proved ourselves as a program to another extent. Last year’s headline was Highland’s dream season ends but that’s what we’re trying to work toward every year. But it felt good to establish ourselves as a program. I’m extremely proud of this group. They are warriors.”
Highland was stacked with big-time playmakers in senior quarterback Jack Etter, senior running back Brady Feldmann, and senior wide receiver Sam LaPorta.
The big three for the Bulldogs had plenty of bite game after game. Etter riddled defenses throwing for 2,880 passing yards and 37 touchdowns and running for another 440 yards and 6 TD’s on the ground. The rangy 6-4 LaPorta was a matchup nightmare as he hauled in 68 catches for 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns. Feldmann pounded defense in the run game, rushing for 1216 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Feldmann also set a new school career rushing record as he went over 3,000 yards for his career with 94 yards on the ground in the loss to Joliet Catholic.
That trio and the Bulldogs senior class leaves a legacy of success for Highland that will be felt for a long time to come.
“What the memory of those three guys, along with the other seniors gave this team, the fans, everyone there is incredible,” Warnecke said. “Them showing our underclassmen, eighth graders and the Quarterback Club kids, these were three guys that came out to their practices at least once a week. Showing all those kids underneath them what it takes to shoot for a high goal like that all that stuff is a blueprint (for success).”
Warnecke said the team will relax until after the holidays and then will begin offseason conditioning in January with an eye toward another big season like the one that ended just 10 days ago.
“The boys are going to take a couple of weeks off and the underclassmen, they’re excited like we all are and after the break it’s the torch has been passed and what are you doing to make yourself better and make the team better,” Warnecke said.
Seniors from the team who will graduate ahead of next year’s fun include Dylan Apken, Etter, Feldmann, Anthony Finley, Mitchell Focht, Ryan Hacke, Drew Hulvey, Jacob Kruse, Tyler Langendorf, LaPorta, Reese May, Brayton Moss, Clayton Rieke, Bailey Trame, Jacob Willis and Devin Wills.