KNIGHTS' TIME: Rushers Sanford, Carter, defense push Heights past Belton for last 12-6A playoff bid
IRRESISTIBLE FORCE: Harker Heights quarterback Terrance Carter, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior, rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries to help the Knights beat host Belton 42-20 on Thursday night at Tiger Field. Heights sophomore running back Re'Shaun Sanford exploded for 327 yards on 35 carries, highlighted by a 75-yard TD sprint, as the Knights (7-3, 5-2) pulled away from Belton (3-7, 3-4) in a clash that determined District 12-6A's fourth and final berth in the Class 6A state playoffs. Heights will play a Division I bi-district game at second-ranked Duncanville (6-1) at 7 p.m. next Thursday. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – Junior receiver Seth Morgan sprinted in motion to his left, caught a pass from senior quarterback Ruben Jimenez and cruised into the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown as Belton cut Harker Heights' lead to 21-20 with 3:53 remaining in the third quarter.
With the host Tigers battling the Knights for District 12-6A's fourth and final playoff berth on a cold, breezy Thursday night at Tiger Field, at that point the game was there for the taking.
Harker Heights took it.
Explosive sophomore running back Re'Shaun Sanford sprinted up the middle for a 75-yard touchdown run on the next play from scrimmage to recapture positive momentum for the Knights, and they never relinquished it.
Heights rode Sanford's sensational 327-yard performance, the 143-yard, three-TD rushing output by punishing junior QB Terrance Carter and smothering second-half defense to a runaway 42-20 win that propelled Heights into the playoffs and stopped Belton's season at 3-7.
“I think that long touchdown run they had, that one-play drive, kind of took the wind out of our sails. And then on offense we tried to do too much, and obviously it didn't work,” said Belton first-year head coach Brett Sniffin, whose Tigers finished 3-4 in 12-6A with consecutive home losses to Killeen Shoemaker (27-21 in overtime) and Harker Heights. “We still needed to drive the ball, and we weren't as patient as we needed to be. But we've got to give (Heights) credit.”
Powered by the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Sanford and the 6-5, 240-pound Carter, the Knights (7-3, 5-2) of eighth-year head coach Jerry Edwards compiled 489 rushing yards behind stellar line play. Meanwhile, the Heights defense limited the Tigers' potent attack to 111 yards and seven points in the second half.
“I thought that we could do some things in the run game, and we rushed for (almost) 500 yards. We felt we could run the ball on (Belton), and we did,” said Edwards, who also got two touchdown runs from sophomore Aimeer Washington. “Defensively, we knew we were going to have to adjust to what they did, and they came out and got two (touchdowns) on us early. We were frantic on the sideline making adjustments, and we got the adjustments we needed to shut them down the rest of the game.”
Heights averaged 46.8 points while winning its final four district games to share second place with Shoemaker and Bryan at 5-2, two games behind 7-0 league champion Temple. Edwards has guided the Knights to back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since they advanced in 2005 and '06 under their original coach Ross Rogers, now Bryan's head coach.
“Seven wins for the first time in 17 years at Harker Heights, so do I feel like we've broken through? Yeah, absolutely,” Edwards said. “I'm super proud of our kids, and moreso in the middle of the (COVID-19) pandemic. We played all 10 games, the only 12-6A team that can say we played all 10 games. We've battled some injuries and we lost our starting quarterback (senior Shaun West to a season-ending knee injury Nov. 20 vs. Killeen), so we've had our adversity. Our kids play tough.”
The Knights' reward for advancing to the Class 6A Division I state playoffs is a bi-district matchup on the road against second-ranked Duncanville (6-1) at 7 p.m. next Thursday at Panther Stadium. The Panthers have reached the last two 6A D-I state championship games, losing close battles with Galena Park North Shore each time.
Said Carter about the challenge of playing at powerhouse Duncanville: “They're a good team, but we're coming.”
Jimenez, Belton's starting quarterback for two-plus seasons, was 17-of-29 passing for 230 yards in his high school finale. With Heights shading a safety toward junior tight end and Tigers leading receiver Bryan “Itty” Henry to help limit him to one catch for 10 yards, Morgan found enough operating space to snare eight Jimenez passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns – a 44-yard strike 3 minutes into the game and the 5-yard score late in the third quarter to cut Belton's deficit to 21-20.
But Jimenez also threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, and the usually dangerous running QB rushed eight times for 0 yards against the swarming Heights defense. Tigers senior running back Maurice Reed – who finished the season with 1,169 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns – was limited to 5 yards on eight second-half carries after running 14 times for 74 yards with a 1-yard TD in a productive first half.
“We've played good run defense all year, and so we talked to our kids about what looks (Belton was) giving us and how we needed to line up to it. When we came out in the second half and were able to go up by (eight points), then that kind of put them in a different mode,” Edwards said. “We knew we just needed to get one more stop, and if we could go up by two scores we felt really confident.”
Said Sniffin about the Belton offense's second-half struggles: “I just think we were trying to score 14 points in one play instead of just taking what the play gave. When they had that long (Sanford touchdown) run, we kind of panicked and our kids tried to match it when we didn't need to.”
The game's biggest star was Sanford, one of the smallest players on the field. The sophomore combined quick-shifting cuts, surprising power and an impressive unwillingness to be tackled easily. He churned out nine runs of 12-plus yards and was dropped for a loss only one time in 35 carries. After rushing just six times for 8 yards in a 38-36 home loss to Temple, Sanford produced four straight games with 160-plus yards on the ground, highlighted by his tour de force against Belton.
“The key is the offensive line, but he's just a natural running back and he's just hard to tackle. He's strong for a little body,” Edwards said of Sanford, who's rushed for 1,363 yards. “One of the biggest things is he's had zero fumbles this year. For a sophomore to come in and rush for over 1,000 yards and go over 320 in a game we've got to win, that speaks volumes. He's going to be something special.”
Said Carter about Sanford, who racked up 208 yards after halftime: “He's a hard worker in the weight room, on the field, off the field. He's just a great person.”
Although Sanford's statistics were staggering, Carter's rushing exploits were similarly damaging to Belton's defense. He played quarterback last year but moved to receiver this season and had 34 receptions for 555 yards and six touchdowns before West's season-ending knee injury on Nov. 20 necessitated Carter's return to QB.
Against the Tigers, the physically imposing Carter repeatedly got around and/or through defenders as he compiled seven rushes of 12-plus yards and never gained less than 3 yards on 14 carries. His touchdowns came from 13 yards late in the opening quarter, 6 yards early in the third and 17 yards 3 minutes into the fourth for a 35-20 Knights advantage.
“They're two different kinds of runners, so it was pick your poison there and I didn't like either (option),” Sniffin said of Carter and Sanford. “They had a good game plan coming in. We left some stuff out there in the first half. We let the quarterback escape a couple times when we could have had him. That led to where I think we should have had the lead but it ended up being a one-point game (14-13 Heights at halftime).”
Carter credited his coaches' game plan and overpowering play by his linemen for allowing him and Sanford to have so much success against the Tigers.
“We knew they were going to focus on me a lot because of last week when we played (Copperas) Cove,” said Carter, who passed for 129 yards and rushed for 123 yards and two TDs in that 42-20 Heights win over the Bulldawgs. “Really all we had to do was get some passes in to open up the running game. And once (Belton) started crashing in and crowding the box, I started to pull it more (for quarterbacks runs). It was just a great game plan all around. The line blocked amazing tonight. It's the best I've ever seen. I love 'em.”
Belton had no problems on the game's first possession. The Tigers drove into Heights territory before Jimenez scrambled to his right and then back to his left before pointing at Morgan and lofting a pass that Morgan caught in stride near the 20 en route to a 44-yard touchdown. Zach White's extra point gave Belton a 7-0 lead 3:20 into the game.
Sanford's first three rushes were an omen of things to come: 14, 15 and 9 yards. A pair of 6-yard rushes by Carter kept Heights' opening 86-yard drive alive before he ran off left tackle, lowered his shoulder and crashed in for a 13-yard TD. The first of six extra points by Diego Fierro created a 7-7 tie with 2:51 left in the first quarter.
Belton's offense kept its early roll going on its ensuing possession. Jimenez hit Kanyn Utley for 12 yards and Mason Munz for 20, then Reed's 14-yard run set up Reed's 1-yard touchdown rumble 40 seconds into the second period. An errant snap spoiled the would-be extra-point try, leaving the Tigers with a 13-7 edge and eventually allowing Heights to seize the lead for good after its next touchdown.
Carter's 40-yard pass to Adam Foulk helped the Knights reach the Belton 8, but on fourth-and-5 Tigers junior safety Aaron Bain broke up Marcus Maple's rollout pass at the goal line for a turnover on downs.
Maple's 31-yard punt return to the Belton 44 midway through the second quarter set up Carter's heroics. On third-and-16 from the 37, the hulking QB escaped defenders for a 12-yard run. Then on fourth-and-4, he eluded several Tigers on a 24-yard charge to the 1. Washington then scored up the gut, and Fierro's PAT put the Knights ahead to stay at 14-13 with 3:08 left before halftime.
Sanford's dashes of 12, 11 and 24 yards on the second half's first possession helped Heights drive to Belton's 6 before Carter followed blockers off right tackle for his second touchdown, extending the Knights' advantage to 21-13 3:26 into the third.
The Tigers got a much-needed spark when Morgan hauled in Jimenez's bomb down the middle for a 53-yard gain to the 29. Reed picked up 1 yard and fourth-and-1 at the 20, then on third-and-goal from the 5 Belton sent Morgan in motion to the left and Jimenez found him open for their second TD connection. Sniffin decided against going for a 2-point conversion and a potential tie with 16 minutes remaining, and White's extra point brought the Tigers within a point at 21-20.
The beginning of Belton's downfall came immediately, courtesy of Sanford. On the next snap, the dynamic sophomore ripped through a hole in the middle of the line and had enough speed to narrowly outrun two defenders for a 75-yard touchdown and a 28-20 Heights lead.
The Tigers responded with a sharp drive to reach the Knights' 29, but the next three plays went nowhere before Christian Wooden came off the edge to sack Jimenez for an 8-yard loss and a vital turnover on downs with 1 minute left in the third.
Desperately needing a defensive stand to keep it a one-possession game, Belton was unable to get it. Sanford and Carter took turns carving through the Tigers' tiring defense. Sanford rushed for 9 yards to the 17, then Carter used strong blocking to race off left tackle for his third touchdown and a 35-20 game with 9 minutes remaining.
Belton wasn't yet out of contention, but Heights sophomore Deaubry Hood intercepted Jimenez's deep pass at the 10 with 7:26 left. After one 18-yard run each by Sanford and Carter, Washington's 13-yard touchdown surge made it 42-20 with 3:20 left and sealed the Knights' impressive, must-have road win.
After making five straight playoff trips from 2014-18, Belton will miss postseason competition for the second straight year. It will be a rare absence for Sniffin, who coached Fort Bend Ridge Point to playoff berths in its first eight seasons before Belton hired him in January.
After consoling the Tigers' players in the locker room after their season-ending defeat, Sniffin reflected on his first year in Belton and the challenges his team dealt with, including not having a full offseason program or getting to conduct spring practice because of the pandemic.
“You worry about the seniors first, because in football it's the finality. You don't put the pads on again unless you're going on to (play in) college. When it's over it's over, and it's crushing,” Sniffin said. “You just want to tell those seniors you're proud of them and proud of the work they put in for you, especially being a new guy coming in. They trusted us and they gave it their all. I can't fault any effort whatsoever.
“It's just going to take a full year, hopefully with no COVID, and we can get our systems down and everybody swimming in the right direction. The younger classes, we'll worry about them starting Monday. You always tell them to remember this taste in your mouth and let that drive you to improve upon it next year.'
Sniffin revealed afterward that senior linebacker Joe Sniffin, his son and the Tigers' leading tackler, suffered a torn ACL in the mid-September scrimmage against Hutto and, after missing Belton's opener, played the remainder of the season despite the serious knee injury. He's scheduled for surgery Dec. 16.
“He braced it up and played the rest of the year with a torn ACL. And I'm not just saying this because he's my son, but I'm very proud of the effort that kid made,” Brett Sniffin said. “If he was healthy, he would have made about twice as many tackles. I'm proud of him for gutting up. He made that choice on his own that he wanted to go out his senior year and give it all he had. As a dad I'm proud and as a coach I'm even prouder."
HARKER HEIGHTS 42, BELTON 20
Heights 7 7 14 14 – 42
Belton 7 6 7 0 – 20
Belton – Seth Morgan 44 pass from Ruben Jimenez (Zach White kick), 8:40.
Harker Heights – Terrance Carter 13 run (Diego Fierro kick), 2:51.
Belton – Maurice Reed 1 run (run failed), 11:20.
Harker Heights – Aimeer Washington 1 run (Fierro kick), 3:08.
Harker Heights – Carter 6 run (Fierro kick), 8:34.
Belton – Morgan 5 pass from Jimenez (White kick), 3:53.
Harker Heights – Re'Shaun Sanford 75 run (Fierro kick), 3:41.
Harker Heights – Carter 17 run (Fierro kick), 9:03.
Harker Heights – Washington 13 run (Fierro kick), 3:20.
First downs: Harker Heights 25; Belton 18.
Rushes-yards: Harker Heights 57-489; Belton 31-90.
Passing yards: Harker Heights 54; Belton 230.
Completions-attempts-interceptions: Harker Heights 3-5-0; Belton 17-29-2.
Offensive plays-total yards: Harker Heights 62-543; Belton 60-320.
Punts-average: Harker Heights 1-33; Belton 2-52.
Fumbles-lost: Harker Heights 1-1; Belton 1-1.
Penalties-yards: Harker Heights 7-55; Belton 3-15.
Rushing – Harker Heights: Sanford 35-327, Carter 14-143, Washington 4-17, Tyree Trammel 1-4, Marcus Maple 1-0, team 2-(-2); Belton: Reed 22-79, Slade LeBlanc 1-11, Jimenez 8-0.
Passing – Harker Heights: Carter 3-4-0-54, Maple 0-1-0-0; Belton: Jimenez 17-29-2-230.
Receiving – Harker Heights: Adam Foulk 1-40, Maple 2-14; Belton: Morgan 8-157, Kanyn Utley 4-36, Mason Munz 2-21, Bryan “Itty” Henry 1-10, Keagan Wolfe 1-6, Wriley Madden 1-0.