One win away from a trip to the Class 4A state title game a year ago, the Highland Bulldogs saw their dreams of a championship end on a brisk late November Saturday night in Rochester.
That 31-14 loss to the eventual state champion Rockets marked the end of the high school careers of several Bulldogs and served as proof of how difficult it is to win a state championship.
Now 10 months later, Highland coach Jim Warnecke is preparing his football team who he thinks has a legitimate chance at a state title.
“Barring injuries we feel this is a football team that can make a legitimate run at a state championship this year,’’ Warnecke said. “We’re trying to get these boys to realize that it’s not going to be an easy thing. That it is probably going to be one of hardest things they’ve done in their lives.
“This is a great group of kids. It truly is. But they have to realize that they’re going to be tested mentally. It’s our job as coaches to put them in different situations and see how they respond.’’
Highland, which finished 12-1 last fall, responded well all season. Led by a record-shattering offense which scored 40 or more points 11 times, Highland advanced to the state semifinal game for the second time in school history.
The player who helped lead Highland to the state semifinals, quarterback Garrett Marti, has graduated. But the Bulldogs offense still appears to be one of the best around as senior running back Brady Feldman and senior wide receiver Sam LaPorta should be among the best in the state at their positions.
An all-state player a year ago when he grabbed 64 receptions for 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns, LaPorta, along with Feldman and senior quarterback Jack Etter take over the leadership roles as the Bulldogs captains in 2018. LaPorta, who is being recruited by several NCAA Division I programs, likes what he sees from his team heading into its season opener at Alton on Friday.
“A week before the season I really like where are right now.. Everything is molding together,’’ LaPorta said. “Playmakers are making plays and the role players are doing their thing as well.
“It’s just a matter of everyone doing their jobs. From what I’ve seen from this offense when we’re rolling... we’re not going to get stopped. It’s just a matter of every player doing their jobs.’’
While Etter, LaPorta and Feldman will be keys on offense for Highland this fall, it all begins up front where the Bulldogs are big and powerful on the offensive line
Junior tackles Trevor Zobrist (6-2, 240) and Wes Schmollinger (6-foot, 240) should be among the best in the Mississippi Valley Conference. Junior Payton Cave (6-3, 280) and sophomore Sam Buck (6-2, 280) also return on the offensive line.
That foursome will have the job of protecting Etter (6-3, 190) who will lead the Bulldogs offense at quarterback. The Bulldogs starting tight end and safety the past two years, Etter is an athlete and a competitor.
“Jack, Sam (LaPorta) and Brady (Feldman) are three kids who compete harder than maybe any I’ve ever coached,’’ Warnecke said. “As for Jack, he’s a tremendous athlete and highly intelligent.
“He’s doing things as a first year quarterback that you usually see in a guy who is in his third year. But it’s nice to have the weapons that he’s got.’’
One of the Bulldogs top weapons is Feldman who was third in the St. Louis area a year ago with 33 touchdowns. A running back who can also catch the football, Feldman rushed for 1,209 yards and 23 touchdowns a year ago, while finishing the season with 36 receptions for 609 yards and nine scores.
Senior Brayton Moss also returns at fullback and is a two-way starter at inside linebacker.
LaPorta is among the best wide receivers in the state, but the Bulldogs also have seniors Jacob Willis (22 receptions, 364 yards, four touchdowns) and Jacob Kruse, among others to take pressure off LaPorta.
Kruse, LaPorta and Etter will also anchor a solid Highland secondary while Moss and Devin Willis will play linebacker.
Buck, Cave and Schmollinger are among three players will be in the rotation on the defensive line for the Bulldogs who should once again be among the top Class 4-5A teams in the state.
“For one thing you have to have the horses and I think we have the players who can compete with anybody,’’ Warnecke said. “What remains to be seen is how are these players going to respond in tough situations. A lot of these players compete at a high level and when the pressure is on, they respond well.’’