LOCKED-IN WILDCATS: First-place Temple leans on focused approach entering test at last-place Killeen
NEXT STOP, END ZONE: Temple senior running back Samari Howard outruns a defender to score a 1-yard touchdown during the Wildcats' 60-15 victory over Killeen Shoemaker last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. When District 12-6A leader Temple (6-2, 5-0) plays last-place Killeen (2-6, 0-5) at 7:30 Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium, The Air Force-committed Howard needs seven points to surpass Lache Seastrunk (312 points from 2007-09) as the Wildcats' all-time leading scorer. Temple has averaged 53.2 points during its six-game winning streak. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
KILLEEN – The Temple Wildcats have won 13 consecutive District 12-6A games dating to the final week of the 2019 regular season, and not by accident.
They don’t get too hyped up before so-called showdown games against formidable foes, nor do they come out flat by underestimating opponents with lesser credentials.
From the district opener at then-winless Bryan to home battles against dangerous Harker Heights and Killeen Shoemaker squads to the rivalry clash at Belton, Temple has continued its dominance of 12-6A by playing the kind of football it wants and expects to play, without much regard for the team on the opposite sideline.
That’s how sixth-year head coach Scott Stewart wants it.
Having already clinched their ninth straight playoff berth, the first-place Wildcats (6-2, 5-0) will secure at least a share of their third 12-6A championship in a row and a first-round home game in the Class 6A Division II playoffs if they defeat last-place Killeen (2-6, 0-5) at 7:30 Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium.
It would be easy to classify the matchup with the struggling Kangaroos as a “trap game” for Temple, which is riding a six-game winning streak and averaging 53.2 points per game during that run. However, to do so would be to miss the point of how the Wildcats operate.
“We might go out and get our tail whipped, because Killeen is athletic enough to beat our butt,” Stewart said matter-of-factly.
There definitely will be another team across the way from Temple on Friday evening, and the Wildcats will formulate their best gameplan based on what they want to do against Killeen and what they expect head coach Neil Searcy’s Roos to try to do to them. But other than that, the only trap the Wildcats could fall into would come from failing to prepare like they always do against any opponent.
“Again, that comes down to how we prepare for a game. I don’t believe in ‘trap games,’ because ‘trap games’ suggest that you’re worried about the other team. Take the logo off the helmet. It does not matter,” said Stewart, whose Wildcats followed their 50-15 victory at playoff-bound Belton two weeks ago by overwhelming Shoemaker 60-15 last Friday at Wildcat Stadium.
“I always say, ‘If your hay’s in the barn, where do you bale your hay? Are you playing at a level because of who’s on the other sideline, or are you playing at a level because of who you are and what you expect of yourself and your teammates?’ That’s the motto I’ve always used.”
To extend that thought process one step further, Stewart believes that hype is the enemy of focus when it comes to striving for sustained excellence. In other words, Temple didn’t defeat second-place Harker Heights (7-1, 4-1) because it “got up” for that important game; the Wildcats prevailed by sticking to their proverbial guns as they rallied from a 21-0 first-half deficit to defeat the Knights 44-34 in a classic.
“We tend to handle distractions and hype. Our players have heard me say it a thousand times: hype is just B.S. Hype is for people who can’t do it for real, so they’ve got to juice themselves up,” Stewart said. “(It’s about) confidence and enthusiasm. We have a deal around here that says, ‘Execution fuels emotion.’ That’s the kind of emotion we need, not the reverse of that. If you have to listen to a song to get ready to play a game, that’s hype and there’s nothing at the end of that. That’s an empty bag.”
Killeen, whose only playoff berth in Searcy’s seven seasons came in 2016, entered district play with a 2-1 record after consecutive wins against Pflugerville Hendrickson and Waco. However, success has eluded the Roos against 12-6A competition. They were edged 28-23 by rival Killeen Ellison to drop to 0-2 in the league, and they’ve lost to Copperas Cove, Bryan and Harker Heights by 16 points or more in their last three.
In last Friday’s 52-17 loss to Heights, Killeen allowed 330 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Knights star junior running back Re’Shaun Sanford II.
Knowing that Killeen is out of playoff contention and that Thursday games at Buckley often lack a lively atmosphere, Temple junior safety Naeten Mitchell said the Wildcats must concentrate on keeping their guard up against the Kangaroos, who lost 49-6 last Nov. 27 in Temple’s regular-season finale at Wildcat Stadium.
“Those are the most worrying games, when the (other) team isn’t (high in the standings). You know, we’ve got to bring the energy ourselves. I feel like we’re a very upbeat team,” Mitchell said. “I know our offense will come out and make big plays and our defense will do the same. We have fans out there all the time making noise.”
Temple’s fans certainly will make noise in support of senior Samari Howard, who has 86 points this season and needs seven more to surpass fellow running back Lache Seastrunk (312 points from 2007-09) as the leading scorer in Wildcats history. Howard rushed for a touchdown and a 2-point conversion against Shoemaker, overtaking former kicker and teammate Aaron Wagaman (303 points from 2017-20) for second place on Temple’s all-time list.
Air Force commitment Howard has scored 48 touchdowns in his three-year varsity career and needs four more TDs to match Seastrunk’s Temple record of 52.
“The pride I have in the young man Samari’s become and the man he’s becoming far overshadows any records that he has,” Stewart said about Howard, the reigning 12-6A co-MVP who’s rushed for 1,100 yards this season and has 3,327 for his career. “What I love about that kid is he probably cares (about records) less than anybody. If you stick a microphone in his face, I’m going to say that he’s going to give all the credit to his teammates, his current offensive line, his O-line before them and the coaches. That’s just who he is.”
Although Killeen has struggled to put all aspects of its game together during district play, Stewart does have concerns about facing a fast, balanced Roos offense that’s produced 334.1 yards per game, even after the Wildcats’ fierce defense allowed only 244 yards against speedy Shoemaker.
Killeen sophomore quarterback Roderick Norman has passed for 828 yards and three touchdowns, senior running back Emory Arthur has 476 rushing yards with eight TDs and junior De’Van’Te Johnson has 433 yards and three TDs on the ground. The leading receiver is 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior Jacobia Thomas with 470 yards and four TDs on 24 catches.
“We’ve got to go play assignment football on defense,” said Stewart, whose Dexter Knox-coordinated defense recovered four Shoemaker fumbles last week and has feasted on turnovers throughout district play. “Any time you talk about a triple option, there’s a reason that was the predominant offense (in the past).
"If you’ve got a quarterback that can run, even in the RPO (run/pass option) system like when we had Chad President (at QB), that’s a triple option and (defensively) you better shore up all three phases. So we’ve got to play assignment football.”
Killeen’s defense has allowed almost twice as many yards against the run than it has against the pass while permitting 339.5 yards per game. However, Stewart was impressed with one specific element of the Roos’ defense as it tried to contain Heights’ dynamic runner Sanford a week ago.
“Team speed. Any team in Killeen ISD, at least in my experience, has got phenomenal team speed. I mean, they can absolutely fly,” Stewart said. “I’ll tell you, the first time I’ve ever seen Sanford get run down from behind (was against Killeen last week). So when I say they can run, I’m not overexaggerating it. He did chunk some off, but those 60- and 70-yard runs turned into 15- and 20-yard runs.”
Killeen has gotten 76 and 64 tackles from junior linebackers Aaron Barnwell and Cameron Gee, respectively. Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler is especially wary of Roos sophomore strong safety Jaeshaun Peyton.
“He is really good and very impressive. We’re going to have to know where he is,” Sadler said. “I watched him run down the Sanford kid from Harker Heights, so he can roll.”
Said Stewart about Temple’s offensive plan of attack at Killeen: “We’ve got to take care of the football. You can’t just think you’re going to show up and somebody’s going to bow down. They play hard.”
Killeen senior linebacker Marshall Grays has a team-high 84 tackles after being a valuable defender for Temple’s 10-2 district championship team in 2020. However, Grays did not play last week against Heights. Stewart said he saw him on the field after Temple’s win over Shoemaker and that his understanding is Grays no longer is with Killeen’s program.
LET IT FLY: Well-protected Temple sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield throws a deep pass during the Wildcats' 50-15 win at rival Belton on Oct. 15. Rumfield, a first-year starter, has passed for 358 yards and four touchdowns without any interceptions in the last two games for playoff-bound Temple and has thrown for 18 TDs overall. The first-place Wildcats can clinch at least a share of their third straight District 12-6A championship with a road win against Killeen on Friday night. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
After struggling against Harker Heights and throwing two interceptions in Temple’s 56-27 win at Ellison on Oct. 7, sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield has been very sharp and efficient in the Wildcats’ last two victories. The first-year starter was a combined 22-for-36 passing for 358 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions against Belton and Shoemaker.
“He’s not going to extend plays a ton (as a runner). Not that he’s a bad athlete; it’s just not part of his repertoire right now,” Stewart said about Rumfield, who’s targeted seniors Devan Williams and Tr’Darius Taylor and junior Mikal Harrison-Pilot heavily while throwing for 1,439 yards and 18 touchdowns. “So it’s just him being able to recognize, ‘Let’s get out of the pocket, hit the lady in the third row with the nachos and live to fight another play.’ You don’t have to go win the game; just don’t go lose the game.”
Temple scored a combined 27 points as it began the season with home losses to top-ranked Austin Westlake and Magnolia West, teams that now are a combined 16-0. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have turned into a powerful all-around product thanks to their every-game-is-important approach that keeps paying dividends.
“I really feel it’s just trust. We had a little struggle coming out to start, but our coaches trusted in us and we stayed together as a team,” said Mitchell, whose Wildcats will complete the regular season next Friday at home against seventh-place Copperas Cove before postseason competition begins the following week. "We believed in each other and we knew it was going to come together at some point, and it just happened to be in district. It’s a blessing to be first in district. It’s awesome and we’re going to keep it going.”