BELTON — It’s all just getting started, but Belton already is thinking about when the clock strikes zero. More specifically, shutting the door on opponents and locking up victories when the opportunities present themselves.
“When you get your chances, we have to be closers,” third-year head coach Sam Skidmore said. “We have to finish.”
And that’s essentially where it all begins for the Tigers in 2019.
Game 1 is Friday night at Austin Westlake.
The emphasis on finishing likely stems from recent history, as recent as last October and the Tigers’ 58-55 three-overtime loss to Temple. That defeat was one of four setbacks decided by five points or less under Skidmore’s watch. (Belton lost three games by three or less in 2017.)
“Sometimes you learn more in your losses than you do your wins. And there are a lot of lessons learned,” Skidmore said.
Fixes have been implemented. What that translates to remains to be seen.
“We have meetings as leaders, as a team, and we talk about it all the time, finishing through a game,” offensive lineman Thomas Bowman said. “You know, sometimes we’ll be up two, three touchdowns and let them come back. We don’t want to do that anymore. We want to stay up and keep them down.”
Belton, which was 7-4 with a program-best fifth straight playoff appearance in 2018, waltzes into one of the more wonderful times of the high school sports year — so much wide-eyed hope and limitless possibility — with a mixture of returning starters and fresh faces. That’s no different than any other August. What is slightly askew compared with this time last year is where the experience lies and those newbies have filled in.
On offense, a brand-new batch of receivers will line up wide of a veteran offensive line that will protect a quarterback entering his first full season as a starter and open lanes for what Skidmore hopes is an improved rushing attack.
Defensively, the Tigers have two new starting cornerbacks paired with veteran safeties and will boast depth on the line while plugging in a handful of linebackers with potential.
“The thing we keep talking about, like always, is being 1-0 in everything, but also rise as one. Last year, you had a really good senior class that really was together and had good leaders. Whenever you have a good leadership group depart, you always worry about struggling in that department,” said Skidmore, who has a 13-9 record as Belton’s coach following three years as offensive coordinator. “So that’s one thing we talked to the kids about is rising as one group, not individuals, and you saw it a lot through our progress during the offseason. We saw improvements in all facets. I’m excited about this year’s group.”
Junior Ruben Jimenez is back under center after a sophomore campaign that he spent, at first, catching passes and doubling as Connor Carothers’ backup. That was until a shoulder injury sidelined Carothers at halftime of a record-setting 86-55 win over Killeen Ellison in Week 9 and sent Jimenez into the spotlight.
Jimenez certainly took the bull by the horns against Ellison, completing nine of 10 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns. He led a rout of Waco the following week before running into Hewitt Midway in the regular-season finale and Rockwall in the Class 6A Division I bi-district round of the playoffs, finishing 1-2 as the starter while demonstrating a promising skill set.
“His talent level is through the roof,” Skidmore said of Jimenez, who threw for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns on 71-of-109 passing last season.
Primary targets for the right-hander will be all first-year offensive starters — Gunner Garrett, who is the team’s lone returner with varsity experience, Kanyn Utley, Keagan Wolfe and Kabyl Utley.
The Tigers, who averaged 408.2 yards per game last year to rank second in the area behind Temple, return senior D’emante Smith in the backfield, and the senior will share reps with Mike Davis.
Leading the charge will be any combination of veteran linemen among a slew of returners including seniors Chris Brown, Elijah Washington, Tim Apodaca, Jacob Sinkwich, Chase McLaughlin and Logan Rodefer, and Bowman, a junior.
“Last year, we had to throw the ball around a lot because we had really talented receivers and we had a great quarterback who could do a good job dissecting defenses, but our offensive line struggled at times,” Skidmore said. “This year, I expect our offensive linemen and our run game to be big strengths. Our receivers are inexperienced but I expect them to take great strides as the season goes.
“I’m an offensive line person so I want to run the ball, but that’s not who we were last year. This year, that might be who we are. But we just have to put our kids in the right positions, and our kids understand that the identity of last year’s team might not be the identity of this year’s. We have to play to our kids’ strengths and do a good job as coaches to put our kids in situations to be successful.”
Safeties Jason Stephens and Tanner Holman are the only two returning full-time starters for a defense that is led by newly hired coach Ty Pattrick. Malik Jackson, Bryan Luna, JJ Bowers and Derrance Daniels are projected to anchor the defensive line. Edrick Holcombe, Jeremiah Wade, Grant Milligan and Coby Trovinger, who returns to football after a couple years off, are the Tigers’ linebackers. Jonah Jimenez and Trent West will be first-year starters at cornerback.
Logan Smith, who shares the program’s record for longest field goal at 51 yards, is back to handle all the kicking duties.
“I think it’s always been important to finish through a game. Even if you’re up by a mile, you have to keep going. You have to keep pushing because the other team, all they need is one play and they can turn the tide of the game,” Milligan said. “It’s always been important and the coaches have done a good job of enforcing that on us.”