NEW OPPORTUNITY: After meeting playoff goal, Sniffin, Belton pursue great success in 5A Division II
READY TO WIN RIGHT NOW: Center Zachary Erickson (left) and outside linebacker Donovan Thompson helped Belton win its final three District 12-6A games last season to earn a berth in the Class 6A Division I playoffs. This year, the two senior standouts are aiming to lead the Tigers to a district championship and a deeper postseason run in 5A Division II, their new classification. Belton's season opener is against Pflugerville Hendrickson at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Tiger Field. The Tigers of third-year head coach Brett Sniffin start their six-game District 11-5A D-II schedule against Pflugerville at home on Sept. 23. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – In 2021, the Belton Tigers had one major goal in their second football season with head coach Brett Sniffin: to make the playoffs.
Thanks to three consecutive wins against Killeen ISD opponents to finish the District 12-6A schedule, they accomplished their mission by advancing Belton – which went 3-7 in 2020 -- into postseason play for the first time since 2018.
The fact that perennial powerhouse and eventual Class 6A Division I state runner-up Duncanville dominated visiting Belton 63-7 in a bi-district game didn’t really take much of the shine off a momentum-generating 6-5 season for the Tigers.
While Belton’s improved defense featured 10 senior starters, its offense lost running back LJ Underwood to a torn ACL in the season opener and remained a work in progress with talented-but-inexperienced sophomore Ty Brown starting at quarterback.
“That’s your goal as a coach, is to get better each week, and we definitely did that last year,” said Sniffin, who arrived in Belton early in 2020 after a successful run at Fort Bend Ridge Point in greater Houston. “When you’re playing a sophomore at quarterback, we had to rely on those seniors on defense and they did a great job. And Ty grew up through the season and got better and better and we were able to get in.”
Belton’s official University Interscholastic League enrollment for the 2020 and 2021 football seasons was 2,937, but that was a snapshot number taken in the fall of 2019, before new Lake Belton High School opened its doors in August 2020 and took away a large amount of would-be Belton sophomores and freshmen.
Because of that situation-altering shift, Belton essentially was a 6A member in name only – not exactly ideal for challenging a Duncanville machine that had an enrollment of 4,529, the state’s fifth largest.
“You’re kind of playing with one arm tied behind your back when you’re playing 6A football and you’ve been split, so you’ve got less (athletes) to choose from down there. I would say (we were) 5A and a half,” Sniffin said with a chuckle Monday morning after his squad finished practice at Tiger Field. “But they did a great job and I’m really proud of them for getting into the playoffs. It’s just unfortunate that we matched up with a mega-school.”
Said Thompson: “We got a feel of what the next level’s like. We were playing the best.”
For Belton, a new season brings fresh circumstances and a very different feeling.
With an enrollment figure of 1,917 taken last fall, the Tigers dropped to 5A in all sports in February’s UIL realignment and to 5A Division II in football for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
In football Belton will compete in the seven-team District 11-5A D-II – in Region III – along with first-year Killeen Chaparral, Elgin, No. 8-ranked Leander Rouse, Pflugerville, Pflugerville Connally and Waco University.
Having absorbed playoff experience last November, the Tigers believe now it’s time for them to do some damage.
“I feel like we can compete deep in the playoffs now. We’ve got a chance,” said senior outside linebacker Donovan Thompson, who made a team-high 80 tackles last season as the Belton defense’s only non-senior starter.
Added senior center Zachary Erickson, who anchors the offensive line: “I feel great with it, honestly. We’ve got guys who bought in to the process over the offseason, and I really think we’ve got something special working now.”
Although Lake Belton’s arrival might have put Belton in a difficult predicament numbers-wise the last two seasons, Sniffin said the Tigers have moved past that and are glad to be competing in 5A Division II.
“I just think it’s (Lake Belton) opening and the growth on our side’s not quite there yet. But our freshman class is big. We have 76 or 77 freshmen, so it’s coming,” Sniffin said. “It’s just going to take some time to get back. And it can take its time. I’m good in 5A D-II.
“If you’re in 6A D-I, there’s only six or seven teams that have got a chance to win (the state championship),” he added. “In 6A D-II it’s a little bit more, but I would like to think 5A is a little more wide-open, especially D-II. I think D-II changes so much from year to year. Anybody’s got a chance if they get on a roll.”
Belton begins its season Friday with a 7 p.m. home clash against Pflugerville Hendrickson at Tiger Field. The Tigers’ four-game non-district slate includes a Sept. 9 home duel with Huntsville – guided by Rodney Southern, Belton’s head coach from 2007-13 – and road tests against Brenham (Sept. 2) and 6A San Angelo Central (Sept. 16).
“All the non-district games we’re playing are what I would call toss-ups. Nobody should dominate anybody,” said Sniffin, whose team will play eight straight Fridays – Belton's coach is a longtime proponent of Thursday games – before its open date.
Sniffin said he’s particularly looking forward to the Tigers’ long trek west to San Angelo, which will take more than 3 hours each way.
“I coached at Ridge Point for 10 years and we only played in two stadiums forever, so this is fun for me,” said Sniffin, who started Ridge Point’s program from scratch and coached the Panthers to a 75-22 record and eight playoff berths in their first eight varsity seasons before coming to Belton. “I like to get on the bus and bond a little bit and make memories for those kids. I think it’s cool.”
Belton begins its six-game 11-5A Division II schedule Sept. 23 at home against Pflugerville. The Tigers have a home showdown Oct. 17 with Rouse, which went 7-0 in 13-5A D-II last year and won two playoff games before losing 56-33 to eventual state runner-up Liberty Hill in a Region IV semifinal.
Belton’s other league home game is Oct. 28 against new program Chaparral, whose head coach Alan Haire arrived after a successful stint at Salado. The Tigers’ district road games are against Elgin (Sept. 30), Connally (Oct. 14) and University in the Nov. 4 regular-season finale.
After Belton allowed a combined 107 points in back-to-back losses to 12-6A runner-up Harker Heights and champion Temple, the Tigers’ defense responded by permitting only 44 points total in consecutive wins over Killeen Ellison, Killeen Shoemaker and Killeen. That streak pushed Belton to third place and into the playoffs.
But as the Tigers start a new season, Thompson is the lone returning starter on a mostly young, unproven defense for coordinator Chris Harbin. Both Thompson and Sniffin liked what they saw in Belton’s home scrimmage with Georgetown East View.
“I feel confident because we only gave up one touchdown last week,” said Thompson, who’s fine with his coaches urging him to increase his leadership this season. “I’ve got to do more, telling the young people what to do and what not to do.”
Said Sniffin: “East View is rebuilding, but when you play teams like that you have to execute, and we executed. On defense we got to one part where we made mistakes with penalties that put us in a hole. Those are things you have to learn to overcome, but after that they were three-and-out the rest of the night, so that felt good.”
After pacing Belton with 80 tackles (63 solo) and five sacks last year, the 5-11, 198-pound Thompson said his goals as a senior include 100-plus tackles and more than five sacks.
Sniffin projects a strong season for the aggressive, sure-tackling Thompson, who earned second-team all-district status.
“Donovan was a lot like Ty last year. He was a running back and we moved him to outside linebacker, so at the beginning he was tentative and hesitant,” Sniffin said. “But then he got going and he’s really playing with a lot of confidence now. He’s really a Lawrence Taylor type who can get off the edge and go get it. We try to send him quite a bit.”
Belton’s only other returning defender who has significant varsity experience is senior safety Sam Babcock, who collected 30 tackles in reserve duty. Linebacker Wyatt Butler and defensive back Giani Zecca got some playing time as sophomores last season.
Sniffin’s son Joe Sniffin (now playing for Trinity Valley Community College in Athens) was Belton’s top tackler in 2020 from his linebacker position, and the coach likes the ability of the Tigers’ new middle linebacker, Dante Martinez.
“Dante’s done some good things,” Sniffin said. “He just has to get under the lights a little bit and get some more experience, but he has potential to be pretty good.”
Sniffin said senior Aidan Stock (6-3, 212), a junior varsity player last year, leads a defensive line that’s “pretty much all retooled with new guys there.”
AREA OF NEED: Belton cornerback Kage Carmichael (right), shown trying to tackle Temple receiver Mikal Harrison-Pilot, was one of 10 senior starters on the Tigers' defense last season. The only returning starter this year is senior outside linebacker Donovan Thompson, who paced Belton with 80 tackles and five sacks. The Tigers allowed only 44 total points in their final three District 12-6A games as they earned a playoff trip. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Belton is optimistic about its talent in the secondary, which lost playmakers such as Aaron Bain, Kage Carmichael and Trent West to graduation. Babcock and junior Angel Guerrero are the starting safeties, and Sniffin said junior cornerback Alton McCallum (6-0, 166), whose father played fullback at Army, is a potential major college recruit.
“Alton is the real deal, in my opinion. He probably would’ve played last year if we didn’t have all those seniors,” Sniffin said. “In today’s world, your secondary has to be on top of it, because most teams can chunk it, or at least try to. We feel good about McCallum and senior Desmond Adams. He’s the other corner right now, and senior D’Anthony Jackson is pushing him. All three of them are very athletic.”
Belton won its 2021 season opener 35-31 at Georgetown, but that victory came at a heavy cost as productive running back Underwood suffered a season-ending knee injury.
“LJ had 95 yards and then in the fourth quarter he tore his ACL, which was quite devastating,” Sniffin said. “He’s back and he ran all over East View in the scrimmage.”
Underwood (5-8, 184) will be joined in a potentially stellar backfield by promising sophomore Shaun Snapp (6-0, 208).
“Shaun’s a big, strapping kid and he’s got some wheels on him. He’s going to be a D-I prospect for sure. Those two will share the load,” said Sniffin, whose offensive coordinator and assistant head coach is Barry Campbell.
The guy who will hand the ball off to Underwood and Snapp is very important to Belton’s fortunes, too.
Starting at quarterback as a tall, lanky sophomore, Brown passed for 1,603 yards and 18 touchdowns on 115-of-211 accuracy en route to second-team all-district honors. But he also threw 16 interceptions and totaled minus-94 yards on 36 rushing attempts – typical growing pains for a young QB playing against 6A defenses.
By all accounts, the 6-4 Brown looks like a different player now, starting with the fact that he’s packed on approximately 25 pounds since last season to reach his current 200.
“Ty made it a goal to be over 200 pounds when we started the season, and he did. His dad played defensive end at Ohio State, so he’s got the genes,” Sniffin said.
Erickson, Brown’s center, said he’s impressed with Brown’s improvement.
“It’s the confidence in him. He’s got a lot more confidence,” Erickson said. “You can just tell he’s a lot more confident in the receivers he’s got, the O-line and just in general.”
Sniffin echoed that statement.
“Confidence. Ty understands the offense,” he said. “He thinks he can make every throw.”
But is the tall, strong-armed junior correct?
“Not always. He’s still got some of that,” Sniffin said with a grin. “(But) his decision-making is (greatly improved). He threw quite a few interceptions early in the year last year and I think we’ll cut those down and that will help out tremendously.”
The coach said he considers Thompson, Erickson and Brown to be Belton’s top team leaders. Brown has come a long way in that department since trying to fit in and get his feet wet last season.
“Last year, being a young kid with all the seniors we had, Ty kind of sat back and let those guys take over. He’s definitely showing more of his personality, knowing that this is his team,” Sniffin said. “Football is a quarterback-driven sport, and he knows that. He’s kind of goofy, he’s got a pretty good sense of humor and he smiles a lot, which is good.
“He’s got such a great personality to play quarterback. He’s perfect for me to coach him, because I can jump all over him and he’s still going to have the same personality. He doesn’t take it personal. I’ve had some good quarterbacks and he’s right up there.”
Sniffin expects Brown’s overall performance to improve because his season of varsity experience should lead to making better decisions.
“Ty’s impressed me. Hopefully his decision making improves this year, and I think it will. I expect a big year out of him and his name should be tossed around quite a bit (with college recruiting),” Sniffin said.
Better decision making should open up the running dimension for Brown, who is a mobile athlete, after that was a weakness as a sophomore.
“Some of it was poor decisions and holding the ball, or scrambling when he should have thrown it away. But he can get downfield now. We haven’t shown it yet because we don’t want to,” Sniffin said. “He’s going to surprise some people because he can run a little bit more. I’m sure he can take a few more hits.
“One thing that I tried to instill in him today was, ‘We didn’t hit you in the spring. We didn’t let you get hit in (preseason camp) and you didn’t get hit in the scrimmage. But you’re going to get hit on Friday night, so you need to start playing with that mentality.’”
Sniffin described Belton’s receiving corps last season as “a two-man game.” Receiver Seth Morgan and tight end Bryan “Itty” Henry (Houston) made a combined 86 receptions for 1,201 yards and 13 touchdowns, a huge chunk of the Tigers’ total production.
Although Morgan and Henry graduated, Sniffin believes that Belton’s current group of receivers might actually become more effective because of its increased depth.
“We are eight-deep at receiver. That’s our deepest position by far,” he said. “In the scrimmage we distributed the ball amongst all of them and they all made plays, so it’s a really good thing to have.
Senior Mason Ramm is the top returning receiver with 10 catches for 153 yards and one touchdown, and Guerrero and senior Garrett Oliveira made six grabs each.
“Oliveira had a fantastic spring. (Juniors) Diego Coleman and Isaac Abel can do it and senior Karson Dunn caught two touchdowns in the scrimmage. We spread it around all over the place and they all performed really well.”
A skilled and intriguing all-around performer for Belton is senior Slade LeBlanc, a second-team all-district pick in 2021 as a utility player. LeBlanc played some at quarterback early last season and passed for 334 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 495 yards and four TDs and caught four passes for 108 yards and one TD.
Burly and athletic at 5-11 and 213 pounds, LeBlanc also could be the Tigers’ punter and field goal kicker.
“Slade’s starting at one of our outside receivers, and he’ll be playing some running back, some inside receiver and probably some Wildcat quarterback, too. And he kicks the ball all over the place,” said Sniffin, who’s looking at senior Cole Chrisman to kick extra points.
Sophomore receiver Rayshaun Peoples (6-3, 192), brother of former Belton standout Davion Peoples, is a potential difference maker for the Tigers’ offense.
“Rayshaun’s just a sophomore and we don’t have to throw him in the fire,” Sniffin said. “He’ll get slowly put out there and gain confidence. He’s got the ability to make some plays.”
Said Erickson about Peoples: “He’s going to make some noise for us.”
The 6-3, 296-pound Erickson said he benefited from the experience of competing against Duncanville’s hulking defensive line last November even though the score got out of hand.
“It kind of wakes you up to realize that these are the dudes in 6A, the guys who go to state every year. It was a good realization,” Belton’s center said, adding that he likes being able to touch the ball on every play. “They were pretty big, but I did all right. There wasn’t a play where I got straight-up bullied. I was very sore the next morning.”
Sniffin said Erickson, who has an offer to play for NCAA Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor, has continued to get better since last season ended and brings “steadiness” to the Tigers’ line.
“Zach’s improved a lot. He was a guy who snapped and kind of stood there last year,” Sniffin said. “Now he’s getting off the ball and getting into people. We need him to be the anchor and leader of those guys.”
Belton has a massive but athletic left guard in 6-5, 324-pound senior Robert Trent. The line also includes senior tackles Ethan Sandoval – who was at defensive line in spring practice – and Aidan King, a converted tight end. Sniffin and Erickson praised the competitiveness and grit of 5-10, 228-pound junior right guard John Roach.
“John’s the shortest one but may be the toughest one,” Sniffin said. “He’s fun to be around.”
Added Erickson: “Roach has got a lot of fight in him, a lot of heart.”
PUSHING FOR MORE: In 2021 Belton broke a two-year playoff drought by advancing to Class 6A Division I postseason play in Brett Sniffin's second season as its head coach. With the Tigers dropping into 5A Division II this year, Sniffin – who guided Fort Bend Ridge Point to eight straight playoff berths from 2012-19 – believes Belton can contend for its first outright district championship since 1999 and make an extended run in the playoffs. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Along with seeking Belton’s first playoff victory since 2016, Sniffin said winning a district championship is a major goal this season. The Tigers’ last shared league title came in 2009 and their most recent outright district crown was in 1999.
“They haven’t won a district title around here (in a long time),” Sniffin said. “That’s a tall task with Rouse and all their experience coming back, but that’s something we’d love to break here.”
Erickson and Thompson described Sniffin as an old-school, fundamentals-based coach who’s as quick to take returning starters to task as anybody else. That’s fine with Sniffin, who has certain unyielding standards that, if met, could propel the optimistic Tigers to a stellar season in their new world of 5A Division II.
“There’s two things that as a coach I stress. One, celebrate with your teammates. Don’t do something stupid to the other team. There’s no reason to do that,” said the 52-year-old Sniffin, a native of Waterloo, Iowa. “And the second thing is, you’re not going to win every play. How do you react after a bad play? And also, how do you react after a good play?
“You’ve got to try to stay even-keeled throughout. Don’t make it personal when you lose. Just suck it up and get after it on the next play. If you can do that and play at a high level, good things are going to happen.”
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