SPARTA — As Highland has found success on the football field over the past few years, it’s been the running game that’s been the spark.
This year is no different as the Scots have advanced to the state playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The running game, led by senior Justin Staton, has been the foundation of that success.
The Scots have rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a team, but it’s been Staton that’s been the workhorse. He’s picked up 1,559 of those yards and has scored 22 rushing touchdowns in leading the Scots to an 8-2 record and a playoff date with Ironton on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“Justin works real hard. He wants what’s best for the team. He’s not a me-type guy,” said Highland coach Chad Carpenter. “He’s strong and works real hard at what he does. He plays with a lot of passion.”
This is Staton’s second straight season with more than 1,000 yards, but this year he was able to gain 500 more yards on a lot less carries. He credits that to his line of Jacob Weaver, Jacob Beltz, Mike Reid, Ethan Zuber, Massey Fowler and tight ends Adam Spearman and Matt Stooksbury.
“The line has been awesome and the holes unbelievable. Every play they bust their butts to make it better for me,” Staton said.
One other key for the Scots has been the emergence of junior running back Artie McAndrew and senior running back Matt Young. McAndrew has picked up 550 yards on the ground, while Young has added 462. That’s kept opposing defenses from keying on Staton, and also kept his legs fresher as the games wore on.
“I carried the ball way more last year. This year it’s only been 20 times a game. The other running backs do a great job. If other team’s shut me out, I know I’ve got two other running backs that have my back. That’s kept me fresh, too, so I think it’s had a lot to with me being able to get more yards,” Staton said.
It hasn’t been all the result of others, though, that’s helped Staton rush for such big numbers his senior year. He also put in quite an off-season program, working with former Highland standout Taylor Harris.
“I worked hard in the off-season with Taylor Harris. We worked a lot,” Staton said. “I knew it was my senior year. I just busted my butt. Everybody knew we were going to have good team if we worked real hard at it. Everybody on the football team busted their butt all year and this is what’s happened. It all happened in the off-season when we started lifting real hard. ... Coach told us we’ve worked the hardest of any team he’s had in the off-season. It paid off.”
Part of that off-season program included a team trip to Muskingum College. The Scots work on football, but it’s also a big builder of team chemistry.
“We take the whole team down there and practice three times a day. We go down there to get away, for team chemistry. We get in dorms and stay together so it builds team chemistry. It’s pretty sweet,” Staton said.
Staton is hoping to continue his football playing days next year. He’s visited Otterbein College and received recruiting letters from coaches at Muskingum, Ohio Wesleyan and Bluffton.
“I really like Otterbein, but I’m going to wait until after the season,” said Staton. He said he’d like to go into the medical field in the future.
Until then, he’s got Ironton and the state playoffs on his mind.
“They’ve (Ironton) got some big guys, but we’re a small team and play real fast. I feel extremely confident going into this game,” Staton said. “I’ve been talking to some of my buddies. We feel extremely confident going into this game that we can take home a win.”