Highland High School had no answer for Joliet Catholic’s potent rushing attack as the Hilltoppers defeated the Bulldogs 55-21 Saturday ending their playoff run in the quarterfinals.
Joliet Catholic senior running backs Keenan Hailey and Nick Iannantone combined to rush for 526 yards and eight touchdowns as the Hilltoppers (8-4) earned a spot in the 5A semi-finals against Country Club Hills Hillcrest next Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished the season 11-1.
“Our offensive game plan was just to be more physical than them and faster than them. Period,” said Hailey who rushed for 318 yards on 32 carries and five touchdowns. “We had no idea (if JCA would be able to run on Highland). We just played it out. Our first drive of running plays was successful so we just kept on running the ball.”
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Hailey scored on runs of 16 yards, 57 yards, 3 yards, 4 yards and 1-yard, respectively, as the Hilltoppers ran a total of 57 running plays. JCA only ran 61 plays total. Iannantone rushed for 208 yards on 17 carries. He scored on runs of 54 yards, 59 yards and 25 yards, respectively. JCA finished with 595 yards rushing and 636 yards of total offense.
The Hilltoppers led 7-0 and were driving for another score when quarterback Jordan Alvarez fumbled at the 1-yard-line, and the Bulldogs recovered the football. Two plays later, Highland was at its own 35. JCA’s defense held the Bulldogs and forced a punt.
JCA drove 88 yards in eight plays to take a 14-0 lead on Hailey’s 16-yard touchdown run. The Bulldogs were chasing two scores the rest of the game.
Highland, which came into the game with a high-powered offense behind quarterback Jack Etter (219 yards passing and one rushing touchdown), running back Brady Feldmann and Division I receiver recruit Sam LaPorta, managed to collect 388 yards of total offense.
No sooner had the Bulldogs cut the JCA lead to 21-14 with 57 seconds to play in the second quarter on a two-yard touchdown run by Feldmann, the Hilltoppers answered. JCA drove 65 yards in five plays and punched in a score with five seconds left in the first half on a Hailey 3-yard run to make it 28-14.
JCA received the second-half kickoff and drove it 61 yards in eight plays. Hailey scored on a 4-yard-run to make it 35-14 with 8:16 to play in the third quarter.
“You can’t play from behind against a team like this,” Highland coach Jim Warnecke Jr. said. “They are going to stay in their element and do their thing. Ultimately, we weren’t able to slow down their running game. You tip your hat to them. We had no answer.”
Feldmann, a senior, rushed for 102 yards on 17 carries and caught four passes for 74 yards. He scored two rushing touchdowns. LaPorta, a Division I wide receiver recruit, also caught four passes for 74 yards. Their play earned the praise of Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski.
“That’s a heck of a receiver. He’s one of the best I’ve coached against and played against. I’d put him right up there with that D-I kid from (Chicago) Marist right now. His size, his length. He’s put together. He made some plays,” Jaworski said.
“Brady’s a heckuva player. He’s a physical kid. A tough runner. He’s fast. And then you see him playing middle linebacker on defense. He’s a hard-nosed kid. He’s the kind of guy you would want on your team,” Jaworski said.
Warnecke reflected on what his senior class had meant to the rise of Highland football.
“This senior class. A lot of them started as sophomores. They went to the second round of the playoffs their sophomore year. They have won three straight conference championships. They’ve been to a semi-final. They’ve been to a quarterfinal. They have raised the bar for Highland football to a level it has not been raised to before.
“Brady Feldmann, Jack Etter, Sam LaPorta, I’ve been around a lot of football players in my life, and I try not to have a short-term memory, but I don’t recall three young men that compete at a level in which those three guys do. They were our leaders. They were our captains. They were guys we know we could follow in any situation,” Warnecke said.
Playoff Football Scores
8A: Lincoln-Way East 50, Edwardsville 14
7A: Mount Carmel 29, East St. Louis 19
5A: Joliet Catholic 55, Highland 21
5A: Hillcrest 27, Cahokia 0