Led by the all-state passing combination of quarterback Garrett Marti and wide receiver Sam LaPorta along with a solid running attack, the Highland Bulldogs reached the IHSA state football semifinals for just the second time in school history during the 2017 football season.
But losing to eventual Class 4A state champion Rochester on a frigid Saturday night in central Illinos didn’t sit well with many Bulldogs players. Especially LaPorta.
“This past January when we started working out and getting ready for this season, losing in the state semifinals still left a bad taste in our mouths,’’ LaPorta recalled recently. “We had a goal in mind which was to win the state championship. We wanted to do something this town had never seen before. We came up short and we knew that as seniors that me had one more chance this season to do something special.’’
It didn’t happen in 2018 either. The Bulldogs fell to the eventual state champion for the second year in row. This time, it was Joliet Catholic in the Class 5A quarterfinals.
The run was no less special for Highland. With the 6-4, 215-pound LaPorta hauling in 68 receptions for 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns to lead the way, the Bulldogs finished 11-1 and won its third straight Mississippi Valley Conference championship.
Chosen as the Belleville News-Democrat large school offensive player of the year, LaPorta’s exceptional senior season put the finishing touch on a career which saw him nab 182 passes for over 3,400 yards and 46 touchdowns.
LaPorta did more than set records, said head coach Jim Warnecke. He left a legacy.
And while a 23-2 mark the past two seasons doesn’t equal a state title, LaPorta will always remember his days as a Bulldogs athlete.
“My senior year... was a good year. We came up short in the quarterfinals, losing to the state champions for the second straight year,” LaPorta said. “But I had the opportunity to play with my buddies one last year. We’ve been together for a long time. I started playing football when I was in the fourth grade and so I’ve been together since then.
“We’re all pretty close. When you build that special brotherhood with your teammates and you are all willing to make that extra special effort each night out, it makes your accomplishments that much more special. We had that bond.’’
The third oldest of Joe and Staci LaPorta’s four children, LaPorta grew up with a ball in his hands.
His parents both were college athletes, older sister Olivia recently played her final year of college volleyball at Fordham University in New York City and another sister Alex, is playing college basketball at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Youngest sister Bella is a sophomore at Highland where she is a standout in both volleyball and basketball.
A two-time first team all-state wide receiver, the LaPorta’s only son has signed his national letter of intent to play college football at the University of Iowa beginning this summer.
But his athletic career started with soccer — “I would probably be one of the bigger soccer players if I would have stayed with the sport,’’ he said with a laugh — but found football in the fourth grade.
“A lot of the seniors this year grew up together and have been playing together all this time,” he said. “My sophomore year there were like seven or eight of us who started. Out of 22 players, that’s a lot.’’
Over that time, he built an on-field report with quarterback Garrett Marti, who graduated last spring as the BND’s reigning offensive player of the year. For the first time in years, LaPorta had to get used to a new quarterback.
There were some growing pains with Jack Etter, but not many and not for long.
“When you’ve been catching passes for three years from the same quarterback and then your senior year you have a new quarterback, of course there is an adjustment and it takes time,” he said. “Garrett was more of a player who threw on the run whereas Jack is more of a pocket passer. Jack’s a great player and his football IQ is off the chart. He’s super intelligent.
“Then we had Brady (Feldmann) who is a stud and our offensive line was just so good. The intensity we played with I think is what sets us apart. It would be Monday and we’d be out there in full pads really going at it.”
LaPorta is currently playing basketball for the Bulldogs and will spend the spring working out as he prepares for his freshman year with the Hawkeyes.