The Highland Bulldogs and Triad Knights square off Friday each with perfect records and with the Mississippi Valley Conference championship on the line.
Neither coach can remember when a Week 7 game meant so much.
"We've had some good football teams in this conference, but I can't remember a time that we've arrived to this point in the season with so much on the line in one game," said Triad coach Paul Bassler.
What a time for a freshman to be making his first varsity start — at quarterback no less.
Sam Laporta has been pressed into action by an injury to starter Garrett Marti, who had to be carted off the field in the fourth quarter at Civic Memorial last week in an ambulance. The sophomore was initially diagnosed with a neck strain after taking a late hit, but as persistent headaches lingered into the middle of the week, concerns about a concussion forced him to the bench.
Marti has been an efficient as a passer, completing 39 of 70 attempts for 55 yards and five touchdowns. He's even more dangerous, however, running out of the Bulldog's read option. He had 122 yards rushing in a big 35-27 conference win at previously unbeaten Civic Memorial last week.
His loss comes just a week after Highland learned senior running back Andrew Winning will be gone the remainder of the year with a torn ACL.
“We have not been tested with this kind of adversity through the last few years, but here we are,” said Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke. “Hey, I’m really impressed with the way the guys responded to it last week though and I like the way they’ve practiced this week.”
Laporta has yet to take snaps under center in a game, but has caught seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown and carried twice for 19 yards and another score. He’s listed on the Bulldogs’ roster at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds.
“Sam is not the typical freshman,” said Highland coach Jimmy Warnecke. “If any freshman can stand in on this kind of a stage, it’s Sam Laporta. We have total faith in him and in his ability.”
Triad is ranked No. 6 in the state and Highland is right behind at No. 7. Both teams moved up two spots after Week 6 wins.
FRIDAY'S GAME: Highland (6-0) at Triad (6-0), 7 p.m.
LAST WEEK: The Bulldogs knocked off previously unbeaten Civic Memorial, 35-27. The Knights were 49-7 winners over Mascoutah.
LAST MEETING: Highland handed Triad its first loss of the season in Week 5 last year, 31-28, to set off a three-game Knights' slide.
There's no question what Triad wants to do offensively. They like to run, run, run. Quarterback Tommy Bauer, in fact, has thrown the all just 11 times all year.
Senior Adam Nelson, the top scorer and No. 2 rusher in the metro-east, shoulders a bulk of the work load. He's carried 88 times for 983 yards and 20 touchdowns. He needs 378 yards to break Adam Weeks’ school’s single-season rushing record. Three other Triad ball carriers, Bauer included, have more than 230 yards rushing as well.
"It'll be an interesting match because they like to run and we like to run," Bassler said. "With all that running we might be out of there by 8:30."
Defensively, the Knights can be physical. Nathan Funk leads the team with 47 tackles, seven sacks and a pair of pass interceptions. Clayton Nickerson also has seven quarterback sacks.
Even with Winning out, Highland can still run the ball effectively behind Trent Rakers, who ran for 134 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win at Civic Memorial. With that in mind, Bassler doesn’t expect the absence of Winning or Marti to make that big a difference in the Bulldogs’ attack.
“I wish they were fully loaded because then were wouldn’t be the potential for any excuses and it would make the game all the more interesting," he said. "But it all starts up front anyway, and they'll have their full line in the game. I expect them to be as competitive as ever.”
Warnecke agrees, even with a freshman running his offense.
“It takes great players to make it work, but we bring these guys in through a system and we’ve got a great staff that coaches them up in it,” Warnecke said. “Without getting into detail, we’ll make a few adjustments that play to Sam’s unique skills. At the end of the day, we have a system that works and, just like it’s worked with Trent, Sam is the next man up. He’ll do fine.”