• Greg Wille

BATTLE AT BUCKLEY: Champ Temple expects another challenge from Sanford, Harker Heights in 12-6A bout


GETTING PHYSICAL: Temple cornerback Kaiden Anderson (19) tackles a Hutto player as fellow senior defenders Naeten Mitchell (4) and Taurean York close in during the Wildcats' 31-27 comeback win over the Hippos last Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. Defending District 12-6A champion Temple (6-2, 4-0) battles Harker Heights (6-1, 3-0) at 7:30 Friday night at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium, where the Wildcats have won 19 straight games. Heights built three-touchdown first-half leads against Temple in 2020 and 2021, but the Wildcats charged back to win 38-36 and 44-34, respectively. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE

TempleBeltonSports.com

gwille2@hot.rr.com


KILLEEN – Temple’s football program has a 19-game winning streak in District 12-6A dating to 2019. The Wildcats have won 19 consecutive games at Leo Buckley Stadium going back to 2008. And Temple has defeated Harker Heights seven straight times – by an average score of 43-17 – since the Knights’ last victory in the series, in 2012.

Those are the facts.

History aside, however, there are plenty of reasons why Harker Heights is capable of ending all those streaks when the Wildcats (6-2 overall, 4-0 in district) and the Knights (6-1, 3-0) clash in a highly anticipated showdown at 7:30 Friday night in what should be a charged-up atmosphere at The Buck.

With its 10th consecutive playoff berth already secured after a 31-27 comeback victory over Hutto last Friday at Wildcat Stadium, Temple can clinch at least a share of its fourth straight 12-6A championship with a win at Harker Heights.

But the teams’ classic matchups in 2020 and 2021 demonstrated that the Knights of 10th-year head coach Jerry Edwards have the talent and competitiveness to pose major problems for the Wildcats of seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart.

Two years ago at Buckley, Heights jumped out to a 20-0 lead before Temple got off the mat and charged back to earn a 38-36 victory. Last Oct. 1 at Wildcat Stadium, the fast-starting Knights seized a 21-0 first-half advantage before the resilient Wildcats woke up and rallied to prevail 44-34.

However, a new year brings different circumstances. If Heights – 13-1 in district play since its 2020 loss to the Wildcats – beats Temple, the Knights will clinch their fourth straight playoff berth and gain the inside track toward winning their first district championship since 2003.

Heights has one of the best running backs in recent Central Texas history in speedy senior star Re’Shaun Sanford II, the Houston-committed playmaker and reigning 12-6A MVP who’s rushed for 5,100 yards and 43 touchdowns in three years.

The Knights possess a fast, physical, experienced defense that has allowed only 17 points and 259.3 yards per game this season.

And Heights should be a refreshed squad after getting its open date on the schedule last week, while Temple will be playing for the ninth straight week – the Wildcats are off next week – as it tries to overcome key injuries on defense.

With all those factors in play, Temple isn’t expecting anything other than another stern challenge from a hungry, motivated Heights squad in the de facto 12-6A championship game in front of a large, raucous crowd at Buckley.

“I’m sure it’ll be hopping. We’re going to get their best shot. Jerry Edwards does a great job,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats got a go-ahead 2-yard touchdown pass from junior Reese Rumfield to senior Taurean York with 42 seconds remaining and a game-ending interception from senior defensive back Naeten Mitchell to stave off upset-minded Hutto for the dramatic win on homecoming.

Stewart said Harker Heights probably turned its attention toward beating Temple as soon as the Knights ended their last game, a 42-24 win at Hutto two weeks ago.

“I don’t know what they’ve been (saying) leading up to this point, but as soon as that clock hit 0:00 against Hutto I’m sure they were on the bus ride talking about being ready to do something in two weeks,” Stewart said Tuesday afternoon. “That’s up to them. We’re going to get everybody’s best effort. When you’re the defending district champion, you’re going to get a little more oomph.

“I’m not suggesting that they are doing that, but (the reason) we don’t do that is because that doesn’t last. You may start out of the gates fast, but if you play the way you play simply because of who’s on the other sideline, you can’t sustain that. I want to play because of who we are, not because of who’s on the other sideline.”

From the Heights perspective, Edwards said Thursday morning that the long-awaited showdown with Temple is more about striving to earn one high-stakes win than it is about gaining revenge for the Knights’ close-call losses to the Wildcats the past two years.

“I just think it’s two Central Texas heavyweights who are undefeated in district and playing in a meaningful game,” said Edwards, whose team has beaten Pflugerville Weiss (21-14), Waco Midway (24-13) and Hutto in district. “That’s the reason the players play, the coaches coach and the fans love to watch the game.

“Obviously the concern about Temple is they’ve already clinched a playoff spot and they’re the two-time defending (outright) district champion,” he added. “They know how to win, and that’s a testament to Coach Stewart and his program. We’ve got to make sure we don’t let the moment get too big, and to seize the opportunity.”

Then-junior Mitchell made 12 tackles a year ago to help Temple overcome Harker Heights for the hard-earned comeback victory that propelled the Wildcats to their second straight perfect district season. With the Knights surging since their 28-27 loss at Odessa Permian (a game Heights led 27-7 at halftime) five weeks ago, Mitchell said Temple is eagerly embracing another important battle against skilled, athletic Heights.

“I’m very excited. We know they have a lot of good, fast players and it’s always a competition when we play against them,” said Mitchell, the New Mexico State commitment who leads Temple with four interceptions and ranks third with 36 tackles. “We’ve seen a lot of good teams, but I don’t think there’s going to be a team as fast as them. We have a great scheme going into it, so I believe in our guys.

“We’re going into this week very confident. I know that they’re very confident, so it’s two confident teams going against each other. It’s going to be a great game.”

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Temple’s defense must stop Sanford to beat Harker Heights. It wouldn’t be realistic, either, because the fleet-footed, hard-to-tackle back has averaged 175.9 rushing yards per game in his career and 189.4 yards this season.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Sanford rushed for 219 yards against Temple a year ago, highlighted by a 76-yard touchdown sprint that gave Heights a 21-0 lead 8½ minutes before halftime and a 24-yard scoring scamper that pushed the Knights back into the lead at 34-29 with 8½ minutes left in the fourth before the Wildcats scored 15 unanswered points to win it.

When discussing what makes Sanford special, Stewart showed a recent video highlight in which two Hutto defenders are in position to stop Sanford about 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, only for Sanford to break their tackles and shed three more would-be tacklers en route to a long-range touchdown run.

“He’s just very elusive and dismissive. That clip I showed you, nobody hits him clean. He just does that little move and he goes through it like a turnstile,” said Stewart, whose defense limited Sanford to six carries for 8 yards as a sophomore. “Normally I would say get on his tracks and get in his gears early. Usually when people are successful against him, they get someone in front of him and they have somebody wrap him up. You can’t just knock him (down), because he’s too strong and he’s got too much balance.”

Two years ago Sanford rushed for 333 yards at Belton as Harker Heights clinched a 12-6A playoff berth in the regular-season finale. Last year he followed the Temple game with consecutive outbursts of 257 yards against Belton, 366 against Killeen Shoemaker and 330 against Killeen, totaling 11 touchdowns in those three games.

Including 2,330 yards and 27 touchdowns from his monstrous 2021 season, he’s accumulated 5,100 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns in 29 career games.

Edwards praised Sanford for what he means to Heights as a player and as a person.

“Re’Shaun’s a great kid, a great teammate and a coach’s dream. He’s a 3.8 GPA kid and equally talented on the field and off,” Edwards said. “He’s an electrifying player with what he can do with the ball in his hands. It never ceases to amaze me how fast he is. And he has a great will to win.”


KEY MATCHUP: Temple nose tackle Ayden Brown grabs ahold of Harker Heights running back Re'Shaun Sanford II during the Wildcats' 44-34 comeback win over the Knights last Oct. 1 at Wildcat Stadium in a showdown between District 12-6A's best two teams. Sanford rushed for 200-plus yards and two touchdowns, but Heights lost three fumbles during the game's final 6 minutes and Temple linebacker Taurean York returned one 76 yards for the clinching TD with 1:11 remaining. Sanford, the reigning district MVP, is verbally committed to Houston. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)



Sanford benefits from the blocking of a sturdy offensive line, paced by two hulking seniors in four-star national recruit Jaydon Chatman (6-4, 300) and Etueni Ropati (6-5, 295), Chatman is verbally committed to Texas and Ropati is a Texas-San Antonio pledge.

Three-year stalwart running back/fullback Aimeer Washington is a key blocker for Sanford and also can do damage on his own. He rushed for 100-plus yards and three touchdowns against Temple as a sophomore, and this year he’s rushed for 236 yards and four touchdowns and caught 12 passes for 101 yards and a score.

Last year, quarterback Dylan Plake had an outstanding sophomore season for Heights. The 12-6A Offensive Newcomer of the Year completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 1,923 yards and 30 touchdowns against eight interceptions while throwing to two talented senior targets in tall, burly Terrance Carter – whose two TD grabs put Temple in a 21-0 hole – and small-but-speedy Marcus Maple.

Plake hasn’t been nearly as productive or efficient as a junior, competing 51.3 percent of his throws for 845 yards and seven TDs against seven INTs. His leading receiver is sophomore Tyler Johnson with 20 catches for 239 yards and three TDs.

“I promise you, Plake can throw it as well as anybody in this district. I think he’s very accurate,” Stewart said. “(The Heights passing game) is there; it’s just a matter of whether they need to use it or not.”

Said Temple defensive coordinator Dexter Knox about the Knights’ offense: “Last year they had Carter and Maple and I think they tried to spread it around more than they do this year. We’re going to try to piece a defense together and keep Sanford bottled up. I’m sure he’s going to get some. The dude is a stud. You can draw up the best fit and you can fit it all correctly, and then Sanford just breaks tackles and squirms out of there. You just have to limit him as much as possible. We’re going to have to be great tacklers.”

Added Mitchell about defending Sanford: “I mean, you just have to beat him to the spot he’s going to. We have a great defensive front and multiple great linebackers, so I’m excited.”

Temple’s injury-depleted defense will be without two starting safeties against Harker Heights. Stewart said sophomore O’Ryan Peoples will miss his third straight game because of a separated shoulder. Temple has its open date next week and hopes Peoples can return for the Nov. 4 regular-season finale at home against Copperas Cove.

Junior Damarion Willis suffered a broken right collarbone in the first half against Hutto and won’t return this season unless Temple makes an extended run in the playoffs. Willis has scored four 2-point conversions on runs out of the swinging gate formation and he’s also the Wildcats’ holder on kicks.

Senior Jaylon Hall and sophomore Deavonte Carr are getting the most playing time with Peoples and Willis sidelined, and senior standout wide receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot figures also to play a large amount of defensive snaps at safety against Heights. Temple first-team all-district safety/outside linebacker Zion Moore has missed the entire season because of a broken ankle.

“It’s definitely a concern if you lose top players, but we have a player lined up any time someone gets hurt,” Mitchell said. “It’s going to be a little bit of a different scene, but we still have a great scheme and great players behind them.”

Speaking of great players, the skilled and experienced Harker Heights defense has them in droves. As such, Temple likely will need to be much more secure with the ball against the fast, sure-tackling Knights after two interceptions and two lost fumbles hindered the Wildcats against Hutto.

Senior linebacker Jeremy Jennings leads Heights with 81 tackles, speedy senior cornerback Deaubry Hood (42 tackles) returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown against Midway and 6-foot, 315-pound senior nose tackle Lamarian Hatcher has racked up 5½ sacks. Senior end Christopher Robinson has 16 tackles for loss among his 51 stops.

Temple offensive coordinator Robby Case said Hatcher is “a Casey Hampton type who eats up double-teams" but added that he feels confident in the middle of the Wildcats' offensive line.

The Knights’ other leading defenders include senior strong safety Marcus Moultrie (60 tackles), senior cornerback King White (34 tackles, one interception) and junior outside linebacker Kabriel Anderson-Dale (58 tackles, three sacks).

“Their defensive speed is scary,” Stewart said. “They don’t give up much.”

Case said the Wildcats must devise and execute an effective plan against an athletic, disciplined Heights group that has allowed 14 points or fewer in four games this season.

“They’re really fast, and the strength of their defense is they get to the ball quickly and they tackle well. The overall speed is their strength,” said Case, whose offense got 175 rushing yards from senior workhorse Deshaun Brundage against Hutto. “They’re very simple and they’ve been doing the same thing for four years. They run a simplistic defense and just try to keep everything in front of them and not give up the big play and keep the score manageable. We have to have a good plan for them.”

Trailing Heights 21-0 last year, Temple moved Harrison-Pilot from receiver to quarterback and the four-star recruit sparked the Wildcats with a touchdown pass and two TD runs before Rumfield came back in and threw a fourth-quarter TD pass to Devan Williams.

Edwards said the key to a successful season for the Heights defense has been its active, all-senior group of linemen: Hatcher, Robinson, Evan Collazo, Evan Kime and Jamorion Stanford.

“I think on defense it all starts with the experience of our defensive line and all of those guys being back as seniors,” Edwards said. “We emphasize track really hard and they’re playing like veterans and buying into the physicality.”

Stewart gave full credit to Harker Heights for how well it played while putting Temple in three-touchdown deficits in the first half of each of the past two meetings.

“I give credit to Heights. I don’t know how to duplicate those angles and that speed,” Stewart said. “I don’t have anybody who’s trying to do what 72 (Chatman) will try to do to our defensive ends. So there’s learning curve that goes with that.”

Said Mitchell about Temple’s comeback win over Heights last year: “We really locked in (after falling behind 21-0), because at first we weren’t used to that speed. We hadn’t seen that much speed in a game yet. One of the plays that flipped it was in the third quarter when I forced a fumble on the quarterback and it ended up with us getting a touchdown. That was a really big moment, and we locked in. Hopefully it won’t be that close this week.”

Temple’s big comeback last year was aided by Heights mishandling the football. After lineman Tommy Torres blocked a field goal starting the fourth quarter to keep the Wildcats within one score, Temple took the lead for good at 37-34 on then-senior Samari Howard’s 55-yard touchdown sprint and 2-point run with 7½ minutes remaining.

The Knights proceeded to lose three fumbles in the final 6 minutes, with two-time 12-6A Defensive MVP York recovering the ball on a botched handoff and returning it 76 yards for the win-sealing touchdown with 1:11 left as the home side of Wildcat Stadium erupted in celebration.

“Any time you play a good team, you can’t make mistakes like losing three fumbles in the fourth quarter and getting a field goal blocked. That was the difference in that game. Good teams find a way to win, and you have to take care of your own business,” said Edwards, who added that he believes last week’s open date last week provided a much-needed physical and mental respite for the Knights after they played seven straight games.

York played a huge role in Temple’s comeback win against Hutto a week ago. Along with making 17 tackles and forcing a fumble on a Hippos punt return, the Baylor-committed four-year starter rushed for two 2-yard touchdowns and caught the winning 2-yard TD pass from Rumfield in the final minute.

And just to illustrate his well-rounded profile, York also was announced as Temple’s homecoming king at halftime. Knox said he sought out York’s father, former Wildcats player Robert York, after the game to tell him, “It’s been truly awesome to coach that kid.”

The Wildcats know they are going to the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season, matching the postseason streak of Temple’s Bob McQueen-coached 1976-85 teams. However, Temple doesn’t yet know whether it will be competing in Division I or Division II, or whether it will host a bi-district game for the third straight season – the Wildcats beat Waxahachie in Division II first-round duels in 2020 and 2021 – or have to hit the road.

Temple has the fourth-largest enrollment in seven-member 12-6A, making it a so-called “swing school” for the postseason picture. If any two teams out of Midway, Hutto and Bryan qualify for the playoffs, the Wildcats will compete in Division II – most likely with Harker Heights, which has the league’s smallest enrollment.

But if both Heights and Weiss earn playoff spots, Temple will be forced into the Division I bracket. If the Wildcats lose their showdown with the Knights and enter the D-II bracket, Temple could face a first-round road game against No. 11-ranked DeSoto (6-1), which shares the 11-6A lead with No. 3-ranked and D-I-bound Duncanville (7-0).

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