BELTON — To say the least, the last three weeks have been an uphill climb for the Belton Tigers.
After leading by five with less than 30 seconds to play at Bryan on Oct. 30, the Tigers allowed the Vikings to score the game-winning touchdown in a 34-33 loss that snapped Belton’s two-game winning streak to start District 12-6A competition.
Things didn’t get any better for the Tigers from there.
The following week saw Belton postponing its game against Harker Heights — a contest that now will be played Dec. 3 — because of positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing quarantining. The downward spiral continued and ultimately culminated when the Tigers’ showdown at Temple last week was canceled.
All the while, Belton players, both healthy and those in quarantine, wondered what would become of the rest of their season.
After a lengthy and trying delay, and with enough Tigers cleared to resume football activities, Belton is set to resume its adjusted schedule — three weeks since it last played.
“It almost felt like the first week of practice again with all the guys returning this week. It feels good. It feels like it’s been a long time since we played a game,” first-year Belton head coach Brett Sniffin said. “We’re trying to make sure the guys who have been out are back in shape and ready to go.”
Belton (2-5, 2-2) makes its return with three straight home games to conclude the regular season. The first of those contests at Tiger Field will be against Killeen Ellison (2-6, 1-4) on Friday. The Eagles were idle last week as well, after their district contest against Copperas Cove was called off because of the Bulldawgs’ COVID-19 issues. Unlike Belton, Ellison had its entire team available to practice last week, but head coach Todd Wright said his players and coaching staff still treaded cautiously.
“We didn’t really do a whole lot because we wanted to limit the possible spread from happening. We did some work in small groups, but we didn’t get everyone together,” Wright said. “We focused on some individual groups like the secondary. We play so many young kids on defense, so it was important for us to take that week and focus on growth and communication. Belton does a good job of passing the ball, so our secondary will truly be tested.”
Rust likely will be an obstacle for Belton. Sniffin said the Tigers spent most of this week getting players — who have spent most of the last few weeks cooped up in their homes — back into football shape by “running them a little more than usual to open up their lungs.”
Still, there’s really no way to replicate game experience, which is something the Tigers lack as of late.
“I think it hurts when you’re not playing. You’re rested, but you’re not playing,” Sniffin said. “There’s no substitute for playing games and for kids to play at that speed against that level of competition, there’s no substitute. So even though (Ellison) had to miss a game, I’d say they have the leg up because we’ve missed two games.”
Ellison enters Friday’s contest averaging 20 points and 398 yards per game on offense, compared to Belton’s 28 points and 416 yards. Senior quarterback Faleifa Mauga has thrown for 1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns, and senior Trejon Spiller leads a talented group of receivers for Ellison with team-highs in receptions (40), yards receiving (766) and touchdowns (eight).
Senior Damashja Harris leads the ground attack for the Eagles with 702 yards and five scores on 98 carries.
“We feel really good about our quarterback and wide receivers,” Wright said. “We feel like we have some advantages in that they can make big plays every game. We’ll need that because that will just help our run game.”
Though winless in district before Copperas Cove’s cancellation last week, Ellison found itself on the doorstep of victory in three of its four league games. The Eagles committed four turnovers in their 21-17 district-opening loss to Killeen Shoemaker, failed to get off a potential game-winning, 31-yard field goal attempt as time expired in a 35-34 loss against Harker Heights and couldn’t convert on fourth-and-1 from inside the red zone during the final minutes of a 27-20 defeat vs. Killeen.
Ellison also fell to Temple, 39-15.
“By far, they’re better than what their record shows,” Sniffin said. “They’re got some big dudes and have some speed. They have some skill kids who can really go get it and it’s scary to look at them on film. At the same time, they’ve made some mistakes and their opponents have been able to capitalize on them. That’s what we want to do.”
Belton is tied with Harker Heights for fourth place in 12-6A entering Week 9. After beating Killeen (33-26) and Copperas Cove (26-14) to begin league play, Belton has been handed two consecutive losses. The Knights (4-3, 2-2) play Killeen this week, followed by Copperas Cove. After playing Ellison, Belton hosts Shoemaker, then the aforementioned Knights in the regular-season finale, which could have playoff implications.
Temple (7-1, 5-0) leads the district and secured a postseason berth. Shoemaker (6-1, 4-1) is second and Bryan (5-2, 4-2) stands at third.
“Big picture, we want our kids to play as many games as possible and to have fun, especially when all around us it’s getting worse as far as numbers across the state,” Sniffin said. “We don’t take anything for granted because we’ve already had stuff taken away. Of course we want to make playoffs and win games, but we also want the kids to focus on playing, having fun and enjoying their teammates.”
By the numbers
Senior quarterback Ruben Jimenez has 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns passing, has completed 70 of 123 pass attempts and has run for 504 yards and seven scores. Senior receiver Kanyn Utley has a team-high 29 catches for 396 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Junior tight end Bryan Henry has 25 receptions for 383 yards and four scores.
Senior running back Maurice Reed has 776 yards and five touchdowns rushing on 163 carries.
On defense, senior linebacker Joe Sniffin leads Belton with 39 tackles. Junior defensive back Aaron Bain has 35 tackles and two interceptions. Junior linebacker Sam Ramirez has 29 tackles. Senior defensive end Malik Jackson also has 29 tackles, including a team-high six for losses, and 2½ sacks.
Junior defensive lineman Braxton Haynes leads Belton with 3½ sacks and junior defensive back Trent West has two interceptions on the year.