BELTON — The road to the playoffs already had its obstacles. There aren’t any less this week, and time is running out.
The Belton Tigers (2-5, 2-3 District 12-6A) didn’t do themselves a favor last Thursday by losing to Killeen by 27 points, a third straight district defeat of 19 points or more. If that wasn’t a tough enough pill to swallow for a program currently on a run of playoff appearances that dates to 2014, Harker Heights went ahead and added salt to the freshly stinging wound the following night.
The Knights (4-4, 4-2), who were 0-4 overall a month ago, won their fourth straight in stunning fashion, 17-14, over Hewitt Midway — its first district loss since 2013 that snapped a string of 37 consecutive victories. The result essentially shrank the margin for error in Belton’s case to next to nothing with three games remaining in the regular season, including Friday night’s homecoming bout against Killeen Ellison (2-6, 2-4) at Tiger Field.
With the Knights reaching four district wins, it appears the probability of Belton’s magic number being five was increased, meaning the Tigers must win out for their best chance of qualifying for the postseason.
“We had our life in our hands. Now, losing to Killeen, we have to win and hope certain things shake out our way,” said Belton head coach Sam Skidmore, whose team is the last to knock off the surging Knights, 21-14 on Sept. 20. “I think four (wins) is a possibility but I think five is what you have to shoot for at this point.”
The situation will become clearer following this Friday’s slate, which also includes Midway (4-3, 4-1) at Shoemaker (5-2, 4-1), Copperas Cove (2-5, 1-4) at Heights, and Waco (0-7, 0-5) at Temple (6-1, 5-0).
The motive can’t be any more concrete.
“To have a shot at the playoffs, you have to win,” Skidmore said. “There is no more rope to grasp for. You have to win right now.”
With all that’s at stake in a season that’s been partly defined by weekly dilemmas of which Tigers can play and which can’t, Belton’s stretch of absolute-must win contests will begin without starting quarterback Ruben Jimenez, who will serve a two-game suspension starting Friday night, Skidmore said.
“He’s not playing because of a violation of Belton ISD athletic policy,” Skidmore said of his junior signal-caller, who’s rushed for a team-high 763 yards, passed for 1,159 yards, has a combined 20 touchdowns and can return for the regular-season finale at home versus Midway.
Sophomore Wriley Madden will make his first varsity start at quarterback Friday, and Josiah Thomas is the backup. Madden has appeared in all seven games for the Tigers at receiver, accumulating 11 receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown. He’ll now slide behind center with his team’s back against the wall.
“He’s been doing second-string reps since camp and I think it’s been invaluable that he’s been playing a lot of receiver and getting into varsity speed and doing a really good job of being physical,” Skidmore said. “He doesn’t shy down from contact, so I’m excited to see what he can do.”
Ellison up next
Coming off its first loss to Killeen since 2013 while yielding at least 40 points for the sixth time this season, Belton braces for an Ellison team that has the league’s third-most productive offense in terms of yards per game at 457.5 and the stingiest defense (304.9 allowed) with little to show for those numbers.
In a span of four games, the Eagles lost twice by three in overtime — to Midway and Harker Heights — and dropped another by a point to Shoemaker. Their tough string of four losses in five games continued last week when they ran into league-leader Temple, which put up a 64-38 win.
Quarterback Breezion Spiller, the district’s co-offensive player of the year last season, is second in 12-6A with 1,011 yards rushing and second with 1,276 passing. Running backs Damashja Harris and Ezekiel Sheridan have combined for 1,331 yards on the ground. Where Ellison struggles is finishing drives. The Eagles have scored 151 points this season, just less than 19 a night.
Still, with Spiller manning the offense and a defense that Skidmore said boasts a top-tier front seven, the challenge is sturdy in front of the Tigers, who’ve averaged 26.7 points while giving up 42.2 through seven games.
“It’s a week our offensive line will have to step up and play their best game yet and our defense is going to have to get some turnovers,” Skidmore said.
Belton receiver recovering
after late-game injury
Junior wide receiver Luke Bramlett — taken off the field on a stretcher late in Thursday’s game against Killeen after taking a hard hit at the end of a 14-yard catch — is doing well, Skidmore said.
Bramlett was evaluated at the hospital late Thursday night and later released. Skidmore said his team’s leading pass catcher (20 for 297 yards, two TDs) attended practice and school Tuesday but remains in concussion protocol this week and will not play Friday.
Skidmore also commended the training staffs from Belton and Killeen that took all the necessary precautionary actions while tending to Bramlett.
“They did a fantastic job,” Skidmore said.