BELTON — It was clear in August, well before autumn rolled around, that Belton had its sights set on this week. Each senior, one after the next, nearly three months ago preached of making the playoffs as a team goal.
It’s something Belton head coach Brett Sniffin likes to refer to as the third season, the other two being non-district games and district games.
Just as the weather has relaxed and fall is now in the air, the Tigers — for the first time since 2018 — are officially in their third season, after finishing third in District 12-6A and ending the regular season on a three-game winning streak.
This week, Belton (6-4) is now enjoying the fruits of that labor, which will culminate in a Class 6A Division I bi-district match with state-ranked and District 11-6A champ Duncanville (8-1), which owns a 15-2 playoff record the last three years.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Duncanville’s Panther Stadium.
Although the task at hand is large, the Tigers are making it a point to have fun and enjoy the experience of getting to play some extra football.
“It’s been loose and fun,” Sniffin said. “There’s no stress involved. We have nothing to lose, so the kids have been having fun and getting after it. We have the young kids up here practicing a little bit and they get to scrimmage some. So it’s nice to watch that. It’s just been a fun atmosphere and we want to continue to do it.”
The Tigers arrived here on the strength of a hard-nosed defense that ended up as the top-ranked passing unit in district and second-best overall, and an offense that started to find its footing as their young line began to gel the last three weeks.
Belton produced 30 tackles for loss in its season-best three-game stretch, during which it swept the Killeen schools. The Tigers forced a season-high seven turnovers in last week’s 45-17 win over Killeen, which also marked its top point output of the year.
As it stands, Belton is arguably playing its best football of the year heading into the playoffs.
“That’s what we want,” said Sniffin, in his second year as Belton’s head coach. “We have a lot of positive momentum. The problem is we have this giant looking at us that we have in the first round, so it’ll take everything we have. But to see the kids improve and stick with it and to keep believing in each other and to get better each week, and then to finish on a high note, it’s great to see as a coach.”
With the loaded Panthers next on the docket, the Tigers will need to remain in top form in order to stay in the game.
Duncanville, a school that boasts an enrollment figure more than twice as high as Belton’s, has qualified for the 6A-I state title game in two of the last three years, winning it all in 2018. It was eliminated in the semifinals last year.
While averaging 52 points per game and limiting district foes to 6.8 points per contest, the Panthers have won eight in a row and have shown no signs of slowing down again this year.
“So, if you take all the Killeen kids, put them together, and then let them grow a little bit more,” Sniffin said in describing Duncanville, which features nine players with multiple NCAA Division I scholarship offers, including defensive end Omari Abor (6-4, 270) and offensive lineman Jaylen Early (6-4, 320) with about 30 apiece.
“They’re big, they’re fast, they’re strong,” Sniffin said. “They’re not real fancy on offense or defense, but they do what they do well. They run to the ball tremendously well on defense. They haven’t given up many scores to Texas high school teams. Offensively, once again, they can score at any time. Their offensive line is straight monsters, probably bigger than most college teams. It’s ‘David versus Goliath’ and we have our slingshot ready and we’re going to go out there and have some fun.”
Offensively, Belton had one of its most balanced attacks of the year last week with 227 yards rushing and 225 yards passing, including a breakout performance from Slade LeBlanc on the ground — with 19 carries for 170 yards — and three touchdown passes from Ty Brown to Bryan Henry.
The Tigers’ defense also did its part, limiting Killeen to just 155 yards, 31 of which were rushing, for an average of 3.4 yards per play.
To continue that against Duncanville, the key will be in sticking to assignments and making plays when they come, Sniffin said.
“We look for dents in the armor, so to speak, that we can maybe take advantage of, and that’s what we’ve been working on all week,” the coach said. “Be patient, and do what we can, and hopefully the defense plays well and makes them drive the ball and we’ll see what happens at the end.”
An ideal game for the Tigers, Sniffin said, would include managing the clock with long drives on offense and being able to force some turnovers and frustrate the Panthers on defense, each of which Belton managed to do last week against Killeen.
Duncanville, however, will present a much stiffer challenge, but not one from which the Tigers are willing to back down.
“That’s the goal of this,” Sniffin said. “For the young kids, it’s to get a taste of this and make them hungrier and for them to want more of it as we progress through their years of high school. And for the seniors, it’s that they haven’t been here for two years. So now, they get a taste, too, before they leave. And I just hope they go out and have fun and play their hearts out. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Notes: Belton’s Kage Carmichael had two interceptions and one fumble recovery among last week’s seven turnovers, giving him a team-high six picks on the season. … Also accounting for turnovers were Aaron Bain, Connor Whitman and Sam Ramirez with fumble recoveries and Noah Newman with an interception. … Donovan Thompson, meanwhile, had a pair of sacks to go along with a team-best seven tackles, giving him team highs of 72 stops and five sacks on the year. … Senior Zach White nailed a 44-yard field goal last week, giving him four field goals on the season to go with a perfect 30-for-30 conversion rate on PATs.