One of Highland High School football coach Jimmy Warnecke’s favorite quotes comes from NFL icon and Green Bay Packers coaching legend Vince Lombardi: “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.”
“I truly believe that, and as a team, as a staff, we put a lot of work in, so I think it’s going to take a lot for these boys to wave that white flag,” said Warnecke, whose Bulldogs have only lost two games on over the past two seasons, sweeping their way to the Mississippi Valley Conference championship both times for the first time in school history. Highland has posted records of 11-1 (5-0 MVC) and 9-2 (5-0 MVC) the past two seasons. Last year’s lone regular-season loss was a forfeit to Mattoon, due to the teachers strike.
After losing a lot of key talent to graduation, there may be some holes to fill, but the Bulldogs have the reinforcements. HHS boasts nearly 100 players in the program, with 23 of them being seniors. In addition to sheer depth of numbers, old-fashioned hard work should also help to offset the losses.
“A lot of people are probably thinking that we graduated a lot talent and this and that, but I don’t put a lot of emphasis on talent,” Warnecke said. “There are a lot more important things than that, like hard work. I think this class and this team, this year, is ready to prove themselves and show what the 2015 Highland Bulldogs are all about.”
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Warnecke said the goal for the regular season is to try to make it a three-peat in the MVC.
“That’s the ultimate goal for everyone in conference, but we have to take it one game at a time, fixing our mistakes and getting better each day and each week,” he said.
But a test could come right out of the gate on the schedule as the Bulldogs open by hosting the Cahokia Comanches at 7 p.m. Friday.
“They have a lot of speed. They like to break tackles, and they’re gone,” Warnecke said of the Comanches. “And I know Triad is going to be a good football team. But we’re excited about our team and the work we have put in to prepare for the season.”
Senior running back Andrew Winning (5-foot-8, 170-pounds) comes back to be again be a threat. An elusive runner, Winning uses his quickness and shiftiness to shred opposing defenses whenever he touches the ball. While sharing the rushing chores with senior Gage Geiger the past two seasons, Winning has rolled up 2,068 yards and 26 touchdowns, including 667 yards and 13 TDs last year.
Now it’s Winning’s turn to be the primary workhorse, and Warnecke can hardly contain his excitement.
“He’s going to be our go-to man” Warnecke said. “He will be our feature back, and we’re going to try to get the ball to him as many times as we can. If somebody is going to beat us, they’re going to have to stop him, that’s the way we look at it. If you ask anyone on this team, we’re glad he’s on our side.”
Backing up Winning will be junior running track Trent Rakers (5-10, 170), who is a strong all-around athlete in his own right, as evidenced by him qualifying for the IHSA Class 2A State Wrestling Tournament in Champaign last year as a sophomore.
“Trent Rakers is no slouch either, and I think people are going to see that this year,” Warnecke said. “He’s a hard runner. I feel with those two that we are real strong in the backfield.”
Sophomore Garrett Marti (5-11, 175) takes over as the signal caller under center after filling in some last year when senior quarterback Logan Geiger was injured. Marti ended up rushing for 257 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a young kid, but he did get a lot of experience for a freshman, so I don’t think it is a typical sophomore situation for him,” Warnecke said. “Garrett has a strong arm, and he is a good athlete. The big thing about Garrett is that he’s pretty low key and doesn’t get too high or too low. He knows he has to protect the football and make good decisions.”
The offensive line has been a road grader the past two years, and it should be a strength again this season. Highland brings back two starters on the right side of the line and will rely on four seniors. Right tackle Austin Bush (6-4, 280) and right guard Brayden Menke (6-0, 255) return to anchor the offensive line and will also serve as two of the team’s captains, along with senior receiver/linebacker/kicker Zeke Kaufman (5-9, 185) and the junior Rakers (running back/safety).
Bush is huge and powerful. He and Menke can overpower their foes to open up gaping holes for Winning, Rakers and Marti in the running game, as well as provide reliable protection for Marti in the passing game.
Warnecke said Bush is getting some Division I-AA, Division II looks.
“He moves well. He’s a great team leader. He’s an Eagle Scout,” Warnecke said.
New starters on the offenisve line will be senior left guard Chris Beard (5-8, 260), senior center Sam Ahlmeyer (6-0, 200) and junior left tackle Wade Clarkin (5-10, 255). Warnecke said the the three of them have looked good this summer.
“As a five-man unit, we are pretty excited about that group,” he said. “We will be pretty big up front again, and I think that’s a testament to our work in the offseason, with what we do in the weight room and these guys pushing themselves.”
Warnecke admitted that his team is a little green at the skill positions, most notably the receiving corps, but there are some weapons out there that have the potential to inflict damage on rival defenses.
Senior slot receivers are Jimmie Smith (5-7, 170) and Sam Teipe (6-2, 195).
Warnecke said Smith could be a threat at receiver, particularly in the open field, where he can showcase his athleticism. Tiepe, who possesses 4.5 speed, is another receiver.
Also in the varsity rotation as receivers are Kaufman, senior Seth Levad (5-9, 190), Justin Twyford (6-0, 180) and Matt Kleinmann.
The backup quarterback will be freshman Sam LaPorta (6-1, 185), who also very well could make an impact as a receiver.
“We think Sam can be a contributor on the offensive side of the ball,” Warnecke said. “He is a great athlete and a smart kid, and he works really hard. And I think when you get a kid that is that good of an athlete and works as hard as he does, that is a good combination.”
Serving as the tight ends will be senior Austin Nix (6-0, 203) and sophomore Josh Burke (5-10, 230).
The team’s fullbacks are Levad and Burke.
“What it all comes down to us is 11 guys doing their job and taking care of the football, and if we do that, I like what we are going to do on Friday nights,” Warnecke said. “Our biggest thing is 11 guys doing their job in all three phases of the game.”
The defensive side of the ball will now be under the direction of a new coach in Jason Basso.
“He has done a great job since he has been here,” Warnecke said.
Basso will be assisted on defense by coaches Gary Kharibian and Derek Rolfingsmeier.
“Coach Kharibian and coach Rolf also have done a great job helping (Basso) out on defense and getting him acclimated to our program,” Warnecke said.
HHS should be just as strong up front on defense as it is on offense.
Coming back to the fold on defense are Highland’s top four tacklers from a year ago, including both inside linebackers, Kaufman and sophomore Kyle Lane (6-0, 204). Lane paced the Bulldogs with 66 total tackles to go along with one interception. Kaufman wrapped up with 58 total tackles and tied for second on the team with three quarterback sacks.
Last year as a defensive end, Teipe finished right on Lane’s heels with 65 total tackles while he also recovered two fumbles and had one sack.
Bush, Menke and Beard will rotate at nose guard.
Senior Justin Haase (5-10, 215), Burke, senior Cody Zobrist (5-9, 155) and Nix are all expected to rotate in at the other defense end spot.
In the secondary, the Bulldogs are stout at the safety positions, with Rakers and Smith serving as the playmakers on the defensive side. Last fall, Rakers was the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 45 total to go along with one interception. Smith will have an even bigger role this season after finishing with 15 total tackles and one fumble recovery last season.
Twins Colton and Paxton VonderHaar will man the cornerback spots.
“Those guys have played football since they were 5 years old, so they know football,” Warnecke said.
Kaufman will be the Bulldogs’ kicker and punter. Warnecke said Kaufman could be the area’s second-best kicker behind O’Fallon senior Tucker McCann, a Missouri recruit who blasted a state-record 60-yard field goal last season.