After falling short in their season opener at Cahokia a week earlier, the Highland football Bulldogs faced adversity again but passed the test in their home opener after pulling off a come-from-behind 28-21 victory over the visiting Mount Zion Braves for their first win of the season.
Highland (1-1) trailed 13-7 and it could have been worse after giving up 287 yards to Mount Zion (1-1) in the first half. A lot of the damage came from Braves 6-foot-5, 195-pound senior quarterback Brandon Price, a dual threat who is an Illinois State University recruit, and senior wide receiver Charles Kuhle.
But the Bulldogs bounced back as the offense found its groove with three second-half touchdowns and the defense did not allow a point after halftime — the Braves did score on special teams on a kickoff return.
Mount Zion also shot itself in the foot with three turnovers, penalties and some costly dropped passes and it all added up to Highland overcoming a 21-14 third-quarter deficit to score a much-needed come-from-behind win.
“We haven’t had a whole lot of that the last three years and I am so proud of these boys for the way they stepped up and they competed out here very hard tonight,” Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke said. “We thought we made some mistakes last week and it was a game we should have won, but we just shot ourselves in the foot. But they came back here tonight and played disciplined football. We had some mistakes but the defense came through with three big turnovers.”
Offensively, Highland’s three-pronged attack of junior quarterback Garrett Marti, sophomore receiver Sam Laporta and senior running back Trent Rakers provided plenty of firepower.
Marti completed 19 of 29 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 34 yards. Both of Marti’s TD tosses went to LaPorta, who finished with eight receptions for 167 yards.
Rakers rushed for 90 yards and the other two scores on 15 carries, including the game-winning TD. He also added four catches for 32 yards.
“What can you say about Sam LaPorta and Garrett Marti and the performances that those two guys had,” Warnecke said. “LaPorta is a force and he’s just 15. I like having him on my team. I thought Trent Rakers ran hard towards at the end of the game. We really started hitting that zone real good against them. And up front, the big boys really took over in the third and fourth quarters. We have a lot of sophomores on this team that stepped up.”
Defensively, Highland had three interceptions that came from three different sophomores — LaPorta, Jack Etter and Jacob Kruse — and all three killed key drives for Mount Zion. LaPorta, who doubles as the free safety, also racked up a team-high nine solo tackles.
Rakers rung up six solo tackles and two assists, while junior linebacker Kyle Lane chipped in four solos and one assist, and senior Ian Fraser had a quarterback sack.
In addition, junior placekicker Elliott Prott converted all four extra points and punted the ball very well while sophomore running back Brady Feldman added five rushes for 41 yards and junior receiver Cameron Altadonna caught three passes for 34 yards.
Highland took the opening drive of the second half 73 yards which was capped off by a highlight-reel play. On fourth-down-and-5 at the Braves’ 31-yard line, Marti scrambled for his life against the grain to his left before unleashing a bomb to a leaping LaPorta inside the near pylon to put the Bulldogs on top 14-13 just 2 1/2 minutes into the third quarter.
After the Braves deflated the home crowd by reclaiming the lead on the ensuing kickoff a scant 15 seconds later when Kuhle returned it 85 yards.
But Highland had the answers.
A facemask penalty gave the Bulldogs the ball at midfield on their ensuing possession. After Rakers’ six-yard run and Marti’s 24-yard connection to Altadonna on a slant route, Marti found LaPorta for a 20-yard touchdown strike in the left side of the end zone to deadlock the game at 21-21 with 8:15 left in the third quarter.
After Mount Zion stalled out on its next three possessions and Highland mustered little on back-to-back possessions, the Bulldogs marched 77 yards in nine plays. Rakers and Feldman had back-to-back 12-yard runs to precede a 25-yard hook-up from Mati to LaPorta before Rakers punctuated the game-winning drive with a four-yard touchdown plow with 5:42 to play.
“Our motto is that no matter what happens on offense, defense or special teams, it should not affect how that next unit goes out on the field and does their job,” Warnecke said. “And I think that is something that we’ve tried to hammer home to these boys the last couple of years. I am proud of all the players and coaches. It’s nice to have a reward for all the hard work we all put in.
“But we’ve got a lot of things to clean up on both sides of the ball and special teams.”
Highland travels to take on Effingham next Friday night after the Flaming Hearts (1-1) edged Jerseyville 35-34 this past Friday. Then the Bulldogs will return home to host Mascoutah (1-1) on Sept. 16 in both teams’ Mississippi Valley Conference opener.