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  • Greg Wille

AREA PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Belton meets No. 4 Duncanville; Salado, Academy, Rogers face first-round tests

BIG TEST FOR BELTON: Seniors Bryan "Itty" Henry (left) and Wriley Madden lead the Belton Tigers (6-4) into their Class 6A Division I bi-district playoff game against fourth-ranked Duncanville (8-1) at 7:30 tonight at Duncanville's Panther Stadium. It's the first postseason game since 2018 for Belton, which placed third in District 12-6A in coach Brett Sniffin's second season. (File photo by Greg Wille,


BELTON – As Belton makes its first playoff appearance since 2018, it’s definitely no easy assignment for the Tigers of second-year head coach Brett Sniffin.

Belton (6-4) will travel to Duncanville to battle the fourth-ranked, District 11-6A champion Panthers (8-1) in a Class 6A Division I bi-district playoff game at 7:30 tonight at Panther Stadium. The Tigers seek their first postseason victory since coach Bob Shipley’s 2016 team finished 8-4.

After standing 3-4 overall and 2-2 in 12-6A with three weeks remaining, Belton compiled consecutive wins over non-playoff qualifiers Killeen Ellison, Killeen Shoemaker and Killeen to secure a playoff berth and third place in the league behind champion Temple and runner-up Harker Heights.

The Tigers’ defense allowed a combined 44 points in those games, capped by last Friday’s 45-17 home victory over the last-place Kangaroos.

Belton must play its best football to have a shot to compete with Duncanville’s juggernaut program, which was the 6A Division I state runner-up in 2018 and 2019 and reached the 6A D-I state semifinals last season. This season the Panthers have outscored opponents 471-120, including 426-48 while going 7-0 in 11-6A against teams such as DeSoto and Cedar Hill.

Duncanville’s one defeat came in its season opener, 45-3 to Southern California private school power Santa Ana Mater Dei.

Entering its 76-0 win over Waco last week, Duncanville had gotten a combined 1,368 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns from running backs Malachi Medlock and Caden Durham, and the Panthers’ defense had allowed 218 yards per game.

Belton’s offense seeks production from sophomore quarterback Ty Brown (1,580 passing yards with 18 touchdowns), whose top targets are Seth Morgan with 48 catches for 612 yards and six touchdowns and fellow senior Bryan “Itty” Henry with 490 yards and six TDs on 35 receptions. The Tigers’ rushing attack features senior Elijah Warner (634 yards) and junior Slade LeBlanc (493 yards, four TDs).

Belton’s improving defense has been a strength, allowing 281.6 yards per game. Junior linebacker Donovan Thompson paces the Tigers with 72 tackles, followed by senior outside linebacker Wriley Madden with 65 stops and senior safety Aaron Bain with 61. Senior cornerback Kage Carmichael has made an area-leading six interceptions.

The Belton-Duncanville winner will advance to next week’s area round to play the victor of tonight’s game between Sachse (7-3) and Mesquite (6-4).

This could be Belton’s last playoff game in 6A for the foreseeable future. The Tigers will drop to 5A and likely Division II for the next two seasons in the University Interscholastic League’s upcoming reclassification and realignment.

Salado shoots to prolong success

in first-round battle against Rusk

SALADO – After registering back-to-back blowout wins to end the regular season, the Salado Eagles now aim to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year and the fifth time in head coach Alan Haire’s six seasons.

District 9-4A Division II runner-up Salado (7-3) challenges Rusk (8-2) in a Class 4A Division II bi-district playoff game at 7:30 tonight at Eagle Stadium in DeSoto.

Salado and Rusk were scheduled to clash in the first round a year ago, but Rusk had to forfeit the game because of factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eagles’ opportunity to repeat as district champions went away when they lost 48-7 at No. 5-ranked China Spring (10-0) on Oct. 22. However, Salado responded by blasting Jarrell 77-14 and Robinson 65-7 to lock up second place in the league and build momentum for postseason action. The Eagles have outscored opponents 446-168.

The Salado-Rusk winner will advance to the area round next week to play the survivor of tonight’s game between No. 6 Bellville (10-0) and Orangefield (7-3). Salado edged Bellville’s Brahmas 28-23 last year in an area-round showdown at Mary Hardin-Baylor’s Crusader Stadium in Belton before No. 1-ranked and eventual state champion Carthage beat the Eagles 35-7 in a Region III semifinal.

This season Rusk’s Eagles went 5-0 in non-district play, then finished third in 10-4A D-II with losses of 7-0 at runner-up Jasper and 35-14 at home to top-ranked Carthage three weeks ago. Rusk outdueled Center 48-45 last week to secure third place.

Rusk’s prolific passing attack is led by senior left-handed quarterback Owen McCown, son of former NFL QB Josh McCown. McCown, a Colorado commitment, is 198-of-304 passing for 2,677 yards and 29 touchdowns against three interceptions. He’s also rushed for nine TDs. Senior receiver Heston Kelly has 100 receptions for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns.

Rusk’s defense will contend with the relentless rushing attack of Salado’s traditional Slot-T offense. Senior fullback Aidan Wilson has racked up 1,252 yards and 22 touchdowns, while junior Seth Reavis has averaged 10 yards per carry while compiling 761 yards and seven TDs to complement his team-best 13 catches for 262 yards.

Reavis and seniors Josh Huckabee and Gavyn Keyser have three touchdown receptions each from senior quarterback Hutton Haire, who’s thrown for 679 yards and 10 TDs against two interceptions. The head coach’s son also has six TD runs.

Nolan Miller paces Salado’s stubborn defense (245.8 yards per game) with 85 tackles, followed by Huckabee with 80 stops, Nic Bates with 76 and Braydon Sumners with 67.

Surging Academy takes 9-1 record

into bi-district clash with Yoakum

LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – The Academy Bumblebees have produced an outstanding season, compiling a 9-1 record for their first nine-win output since 1991. They can make it even better by recording their first playoff victory since 2014 and achieving their first 10-win season since 1962.

District 11-3A Division I runner-up Academy carries a five-game winning streak into its Class 3A Division I bi-district clash with Yoakum (7-3) at 7:30 tonight at Waller ISD Stadium.

The Academy-Yoakum winner will advance to next week’s area round against Winnie East Chambers (8-3), which beat Huntington 59-14 on Thursday.

After a 34-17 home loss to back-to-back district champion and now-fifth-ranked Lorena in the league opener, the Bees of second-year head coach Chris Lancaster won several close games to earn the runner-up position after placing fourth in 2020 before a 61-26 first-round playoff loss to eventual state runner-up Hallettsville.

Academy prevailed 21-13 at McGregor, rallied in the fourth quarter to edge Cameron Yoe 32-28 and got past Rockdale 21-14 before closing district with a 30-17 win at Troy last week.

It’s a challenging first-round matchup for the Bumblebees against Yoakum, the third-place team from 12-3A D-I. The Bulldogs have outscored opponents 327-160, and their only district losses were 35-28 at champion, No. 6-ranked Columbus and 21-14 at home to runner-up, No. 7 Hallettsville, which knocked Cameron Yoe out of the playoffs Thursday. Yoakum finished with two straight wins, 37-20 over fourth-place Hitchcock and 54-0 against Hempstead.

Yoakum’s rushing-heavy offense is powered by junior running back Jayden Jones, who’s racked up 1,592 yards and 22 touchdowns on 155 carries.

Sophomore left-hander Kasey Mraz has been productive and effective in his first season as Academy’s quarterback. He's completed 68.1 percernt of his passes for 2,154 yards and 23 touchdowns against six interceptions.

Mraz has two featured targets in junior Scout Brazeal with 53 catches for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns and senior Darion Franklin with 569 yards and seven TDs on 44 grabs. Running backs Brayden Bartlett and Zane Clark have rushed for a combined 780 yards and nine TDs.

Junior linebacker Clayton Lawson leads a sturdy Bees defense (281.6 yards per game) with 85 tackles, senior safety Blake Bundy has 80 stops and safety Brazeal has 72. Junior linebacker Lane Ward had a team-leading 71 tackles through seven games before missing the last three games because of injury. Bundy has three interceptions and Brazeal, Franklin and junior cornerback Alex Lawton have two picks apiece.

Hot Rogers aims to extend season

in opening rematch vs. Tidehaven

ROGERS – The Rogers Eagles (7-3) might experience some déjà vu tonight when they take on El Maton Tidehaven (5-4) in a Class 3A Division II bi-district playoff game at Navasota’s Rattler Stadium. The same schools met in the same round at the same venue one year ago.

Coach Charlie Roten and Rogers wouldn’t mind the same result, too, because the Eagles defeated the Tigers 41-34 in last year’s clash thanks to a 74-yard touchdown pass from Riley Dolgener to Christian Riley with less than 2 minutes remaining to break a 34-34 deadlock.

After finishing as the District 13-3A Division II runner-up to No. 1-ranked Franklin (11-0), Rogers now seeks to advance past the first round for the third straight year. Roten’s Eagles were regional semifinalists in 2019 and 2020.

The Rogers-Tidehaven winner will move into next week’s area round against the victor of tonight’s game between 10th-ranked Odem (10-0) and Karnes City (4-6).

Since a 56-7 loss to 2020 state runner-up Franklin on Oct. 8, Rogers has ripped off three consecutive wins – against Lexington, Riesel and Florence – while scoring a combined 130 points. The Eagles have outscored opponents 390-284 overall this season.

Now seniors, Dolgener and Riley have been outstanding for Rogers again this year. Dolgener has passed for 988 yards and 12 touchdowns against one interception and has rushed for 425 yards and 10 TDs. Riley has 930 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground and 11 TDs overall for an attack that’s recorded 352 yards per game. Senior Ivan Lopez, junior Zach Davis and sophomore Karsen Gomez also are reliable rushers for the Eagles.

The Rogers defense permitted a combined 33 points in its final two district games. Leading the Eagles in tackles are junior Brice Lisenbe with 95, senior Jordan Werner with 84 and junior Jackson Landeros with 59.

Tidehaven has averaged 32.7 points and allowed 21.7 per outing in nine games. The Tigers rebounded from consecutive losses of 20-plus points to Van Vleck and East Bernard by hammering Danbury 49-8 in the regular-season finale.

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