Highland football coach focuses on next playoff game
Putting points on the scoreboard hasn’t been a problem for the Highland Bulldogs during the 2017 football season.
Led by the all-state passing combination of senior quarterback Garrett Marti and junior wide receiver Sam LaPorta, the Bulldogs record-smashing offense has put up 640 points. That includes a 77-47 win over Herscher in a Class 4A quarterfinal.
With 588 points, the Rochester Rockets offense has been almost as dominant.
Saturday at Rochester High School, the two top-scoring Class 4A teams in the state will collide when the top-seeded Rockets meet second-seeded Highland in a semifinal showdown. Both teams are 12-0.
“I think every team, when you start summer practices in June, is playing for the opportunity to play for a state championship. This is a step you have to get to and pass to have that chance,” Highland coach Jim Warnecke said. “This is a big state semifinal game and obviously the stakes are a little higher, but we’re going to treat it like just another game.
“In one respect it’s no different than round one, round two or round three. One team is going to win and move on, while the other is going to lose and go home. That’s the way we’re going to look at it.”
At stake for the winner is a trip to the Class 4A state championship contest Nov. 24 at Huskie Stadium on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Morris (10-2) is playing Chicago Raby (11-1) at Hanson Stadium in Chicago on Saturday in the other semifinal.
The game could be decided by the team that makes the most plays on defense.
Marti has completed 167 of 249 attempts for 3,051 yards with 42 touchdown passes and one interception. Rochester quarterback Nic Baker is 209-of-275 for 3,491 yards with 50 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
“We also have to establish a running game as does Rochester. I think that will be a key as well,” Warnecke said. “But as it usually does, its going to come down to execution and turnovers. The team that executes and doesn’t run the football over usually comes out on top.”
While Rochester is no stranger to the IHSA Class 4A semifinals, Highland is making only its second appearance in the IHSA semifinals. The last time the Buldogs reached this point was 1989 when it lost to Morris 40-14.
Since taking over the Rockets program in 2005, Derek Leonard has led his team to a record of 119-29. Since 2009, Rochester has been the dominant Class 4A program in the state. The Rockets are 111-10 in the last nine years.
“This is a good group of kids that have played better as we’ve gone this season,” Leonard said earlier this week. “Some of these kids played and got a taste of what it takes to get there (the state championship). But every year is a new team and they have played well as a team.”
Rochester won five straight Class 4A state championships from 2010 to 2014 and was 54-6 during that stretch. After finishing 10-2 in 2015, Rochester was 13-1 a year ago and put the finishing touch on a sixth state championship with a 38-14 win over Johnsburg at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
LaPorta, along with Marti and Baker, were named to the Illinois High School Coaches Association Class 4A all-state team on Thursday, has caught 58 passes for 1,191 yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Junior running back Brady Feldman has caught 32 passes for 548 yards and nine touchdowns. Feldman has also gained 1,111 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.
On defense, senior linebacker Kyle Lane has 123 tackles to lead a strong Bulldogs unit. Lane has 104 solos tackles.
“Watching them on film, they are a very solid football team,” Leonard said. “The defense is quick and on offense, they have have a very balanced attack. They have an excellent quarterback in Marti, a big play receiver and a good running back in Feldman who can hurt you either running or catching the football. The quarterback also is mobile and can hurt you with his legs.”
Baker has rushed for 503 yards and 11 touchdowns while senior Nick Capriotti (5-11, 195) is the Rockets’ top running back with 543 yards and seven scores. But, the Rockets like to put the ball in the air.
Junior Cade Eddington has 72 receptions for 1,374 yards and 17 touchdowns while senior Jayden Reed has 45 catches for 830 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Warnecke does not expect his team to get caught up in the Rochester playoff aura.
“This is a very confident group of kids who have competed at a high level across the board in several sports over the years. In the past and with a lot of teams going up against Rochester, coaches have spent a lot of time getting their teams to believe they can win the football game. Getting over the mental aspect of it.
“But I haven’t had to do that with this group. I’ve had some very, very good football teams over the years. But this group has been very loose all week. It all comes down to executing in all areas of the game, but mentally their will to succeed overcomes alot of obstacles.’’