READY TO WIN NOW: Hitting its stride in 5A D-II, Belton gets rematch vs. Brenham in Round 2 showdown
SENIOR SEASON SUCCESS: Running back LJ Underwood (left) and wide receiver Slade LeBlanc have overcome injuries to produce strong seasons for the Belton Tigers (9-2), who carry a seven-game winning streak into their Class 5A Division II area-round playoff game against Brenham (7-4) at 7:30 Friday night at Merrill Green Stadium in Bryan. Underwood has rushed for 624 yards and eight touchdowns as part of a potent tandem with sophomore Shaun Snapp, while LeBlanc has made 32 catches for 474 yards and six TDs and also recorded 10 touchbacks on kickoffs. Coach Brett Sniffin's Tigers blasted Austin Northeast Early College 56-0 at home in bi-district action last Friday, allowing only 37 total yards. Belton seeks to avenge its 42-7 non-district loss at Brenham in Week 2. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – In high school football, optimism is easy to find in August.
Teams coming off strong seasons are eager to keep building and achieve additional success, while squads that were less successful the previous year express hope that major improvements and a breakthrough campaign are right around the corner.
Even so, the feeling at Belton’s preseason camp this August seemed different.
After the Tigers got hot late in the 2021 season and reached their goal of advancing to the Class 6A Division I playoffs, they entered this season with only one returning starter – senior outside linebacker Donovan Thompson – on defense and a mostly inexperienced group of receivers on offense.
But while discussing his team on Aug. 22, Belton third-year head coach Brett Sniffin expressed not only optimism but also a high degree of confidence that his Tigers had a realistic opportunity to accomplish special things this season.
Sniffin said he expected junior quarterback Ty Brown to be much more dangerous and consistent than he was as a sophomore starter. The coach believed that the running back tandem of elusive senior LJ Underwood – returning from a season-ending knee injury – and powerful sophomore Shaun Snapp would be problematic for opposing defenses.
He liked the depth and ability of Belton’s new-look receiving corps. And he thought the Tigers had enough skilled, emerging defenders to pick up the slack for those standout players who graduated.
As much as any other factor, though, Sniffin pointed to Belton’s new level of competition: 5A Division II instead of 6A, especially considering that the Tigers played the last two seasons in 6A but without actual 6A enrollment numbers after the 2020 opening of Lake Belton High School.
“I’m good in 5A D-II,” Sniffin said, a few days before the Tigers’ season opener. “If you’re in 6A D-I, there’s only six or seven teams that have got a chance to win (the state championship). 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.”
And right now, Belton definitely is on a roll. It’s allowed only 89 points during a seven-game winning streak includes a 6-0 record in District 11-5A Division II, producing the Tigers’ first district championship since 2009 and their first outright league title since 1999.
Last Friday at Tiger Field, Belton permitted just 37 yards and two first downs – prompting players to douse defensive coordinator Chris Harbin with large coolers of ice water – in pummeling overmatched Austin Northeast Early College 56-0 in a bi-district playoff game for the Tigers’ first postseason victory since 2016.
Now, Belton (9-2) shoots for a trip to the Region III semifinals when it battles Brenham (7-4) in an area-round clash at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Merrill Green Stadium in Bryan. It’s a rematch of the Cubs’ 42-7 win on Sept. 2 in their home opener with first-year head coach Danny Youngs.
Perhaps Thompson was prophetic when he made this comment back in August: “I feel like we can compete deep in the playoffs now. We’ve got a chance.”
Nearly three months later, the Tigers still have a chance. After Belton concluded practice on a cold, gray Wednesday morning at Tiger Field, senior wide receiver and multi-purpose weapon Slade LeBlanc essentially spoke for the Tigers’ whole team with one simple statement: “We’re having a blast."
NOW THAT'S COLD: Belton players including Rayshaun Peoples (7), Sam Shephard (40), Grant Baggerly (24) and Brandon Anderson (37) celebrate their 56-0 first-round playoff victory over Austin Northeast Early College by dumping ice water on defensive coordinator Chris Harbin last Friday night at Tiger Field. The Tigers (9-2) allowed 37 total yards in that game and have permitted just 89 points in their last seven games entering Friday night's area-round clash with star quarterback Rylan Wooten and Brenham (7-4) at Bryan's Merrill Green Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Tiger Media BHS)
Fellow senior Underwood, who missed all but one game last season because of injury, is savoring the experience of competing in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Belton teammates.
“I’m just enjoying every moment right now,” he said. “This is my last ride and you can only do high school sports once, so I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
One season after Belton was controlled by Temple and Harker Heights in District 12-6A and then dominated 63-7 by behemoth state powerhouse Duncanville in a bi-district playoff, Underwood said he and the Tigers have witnessed the benefits of dropping into 5A Division II.
“For sure. Last year we had Temple and Harker Heights, and it was a little bit tougher in the playoffs,” he said. “Right now we’re just taking advantage of what we have.”
Added LeBlanc: “The speed and the level of play have lowered a little bit. We’re finally competing and it’s a good feeling.”
Sniffin thoroughly enjoys the yearly process of building a team by taking the raw materials and finding the best ways to utilize the available talent – and making the necessary adjustments along the way to help his squad reach its potential.
In that regard, the 2022 Tigers certainly have been Sniffin’s kind of team.
“The young kids on defense have grown up, and the offensive line’s gotten better each week. I’m still an old-school kind of guy and I believe you win with defense and offensive linemen,” said Sniffin, whose squad completed its perfect district season Nov. 4 at Waco University when senior Cole Chrisman kicked a 22-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tigers a dramatic, weather-delayed 31-29 victory.
“I’m not going to try to throw the ball 900 times and outscore you. We’re going to try to win by controlling the clock and playing complementary football, and we’ve done a great job of that throughout the season.”
Before arriving in Belton in 2020, Sniffin built the program from scratch at Fort Bend Ridge Point in greater Houston, guiding the Panthers to playoff trips in their first eight varsity seasons. They played 13 games in 2014 and 15 the next year.
One must go back to 1998 to find the last time Belton competed in the third round of the playoffs. As such, the opportunity to practice on Thanksgiving next week is something Sniffin wants to see his Tigers earn by getting past Brenham.
“I think it’s always a Texas high school football mantra that to practice on Thanksgiving in an honor and a privilege. That’s something that when we got here, we talked about making it a habit,” said Sniffin, who has an 18-14 record at Belton and a 93-36 mark overall. “Sometimes the schedule helps you because Thanksgiving is Week 2 (of the playoffs), and sometimes it hurts you when it’s Week 3. But we did it a lot of years (at Ridge Point), and it’s fun.”
The Belton-Brenham winner will advance to a Region III semifinal next week to battle the winner of Friday’s area-round duel between Austin LBJ (9-2) – which has shut out its last six opponents – and Port Neches-Groves (9-2).
In Week 2 at Brenham, Underwood rushed for 46 yards and scored Belton’s only touchdown in a 42-7 Tigers loss that was delayed approximately 3 hours because of lightning. LeBlanc and Snapp missed that game with injuries, and Brenham star senior quarterback Rylan Wooten carved up Belton’s defense for four touchdown runs, two TD passes and 377 total yards.
“Long drive to Brenham, 3-hour lightning delay and we were sitting in the locker room, and we didn’t respond very well to that. I didn’t do a very good job of getting them ready there,” Sniffin said. “I think that helped us with the Waco University game, because we came out much better after the lightning delay there. So hopefully we’ll play better (in the Brenham rematch).”
Underwood said Belton is enthusiastic and grateful to get another shot at beating 10-5A Division II runner-up Brenham, this time with playoff survival at stake.
“I’m excited. This is where it all counts,” said Underwood, who rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns in cold, windy conditions last Friday in the first-round romp over Northeast. “During the regular season, it’s a loss and we can deal with that and still make the playoffs. But this is when it counts – win or go home. We’re prepared and ready for this.”
Said LeBlanc about playing Brenham again: “I feel like we’re a different team now from when we first played them. Our defense has really stepped up their level and everyone else is finally playing together.”
Sniffin knew entering the season that Belton’s four-game non-district schedule would provide an early litmus test. The Tigers responded to their one-sided loss at Brenham by beating Huntsville 41-28 at home to improve to 2-1, but then they allowed 28 first-half points in their non-district finale at 6A San Angelo Central.
Although Belton lost 35-12, Harbin’s defense redeemed itself and generated momentum going into district play by limiting the Bobcats' playoff team to seven second-half points.
“(We’ve played strong defense) basically since the second half of the San Angelo game. We went in the locker room there and had a come to Jesus meeting with the defense, and they played pretty well from there on out,” said Sniffin said, whose team has allowed 96 points in its last 7½ games.
Junior linebacker Wyatt Butler has a team-leading 96 tackles for a defense that’s allowed 277.5 yards per game. Senior safety Sam Babcock has made 59 tackles and the experienced Thompson has recorded 57 stops despite missing Belton’s non-district finale and first two district games with a broken foot. The Tigers gave gotten 55 tackles from junior linebacker Sam Shepard, 51 from junior defensive back Giani Zecca, 48 from junior end Ethan Arendall and 39 from junior linebacker Hayden Hourany.
Belton’s defense needs to continue its stingy play as it moves into another matchup with Brenham and senior quarterback Wooten, its dual-threat game-breaker who helped lead the Cubs to a 42-28 home win over bi-district opponent Dayton last week.
Wooten has been effective and efficient through the air, completing 134 of 240 passes for 1,938 yards and 22 touchdowns against two interceptions. He’s also an established threat on the ground, having rushed 202 times for 1,053 yards – 732 more than anyone else on the Cubs’ roster – and 14 touchdowns.
Sniffin said the reality of Wooten’s big-play ability makes the mission of Belton’s defense a simple one, although executing that mission doesn’t figure to be so easy.
“You stop him, you win the game. He’s (nearly) a 2,000-yard passer and a 1,000-plus-yard runner. He’s quick as a snake and he gave us trouble the first time,” Sniffin said. “We don’t have anyone athletic enough to spy him, so it’s going to be a total team effort. We just want to keep him contained as best as we can. We’ve seen how some teams have played him on film and it’s kind of how we want to attack him.
“The non-scripted plays are the ones he gets you on. The scripted stuff you can plan for and stop, but you can’t plan for the five-step drop and then scrambling around. The kid’s a heck of an athlete and he’s definitely the cog that makes them go. We want to stop the quarterback and make someone else beat us.”
Wooten’s go-to target in the passing game is senior Reid Robinson with 31 receptions for 621 yards and seven touchdowns. The Cubs’ receiving corps also features sophomore Keith Crawford (30 catches, 389 yards, three TDs), senior Ian Stelter (25-376-7) and senior Datavian Neal-Franklin (19-231-4).
Belton’s defense showed immediate improvement when 11-5A Division II action began. The Tigers beat Pflugerville 28-7 and Elgin 28-6 in their first two district games and went on permit 14.8 points per league contest.
LeBlanc's been highly impressed with Belton’s defense as the season has progressed.
“I just see everyone going 100 percent and they’re all in it with their hearts. It’s beautiful,” he said.
It was a rare moment of struggle for Belton’s defense that allowed the Tigers’ offense to come to the rescue in crunch time.
Two weeks ago at Waco ISD Stadium, Belton needed to win its regular-season finale against resurgent University to secure the Tigers’ first outright district championship since coach Jay Warrick’s Tigers went 11-1 in 1999, one season after Belton notched its last appearance in the third round of the playoffs.
Brown’s 43-yard touchdown connecton with LeBlanc gave Belton a 28-21 lead with 9 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but the resilient Trojans produced an 84-yard drive that included a short TD pass and the ensuing 2-point run to grab a 29-28 advantage with 42 seconds remaining.
Undeterred by the seemingly dire circumstances, Sniffin then instilled confidence into his offense.
“University scored with 40-something seconds left and I just looked at them and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got three timeouts left, and we’re going to go down and win this thing,’” Sniffin said.
Brown completed passes of 17 and 18 yards and had a 19-yard run as Belton drove to the 5-yard line before Chrisman calmly kicked the winning field goal as time ran out, sending the Tigers and their fans into a wild celebration of their long-awaited district crown.
“It was awesome. We went down there really well, Ty made good decisions, we had good play calls and then good snap, hold and kick,” Sniffin said. “It was just the heart of the kids. That’s something they get from winning. Once you expect to win, you win. It’s a weird thing. It’s so mental. They all have to buy into that mental part of, ‘We’re going to win because of who we are. We’re Belton.’ Once you get that, then you become tough to stop.”
LeBlanc delivered a stellar performance in the title-clinching comeback win, catching seven Brown passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing a football game,” he said. “Going down and having to drive all the way down the field with 40 seconds to go was crazy.”
LeBlanc had to overcome a torn ACL early in his high school career, and a sprained ankle early this season sidelined him for multiple games and took longer to fully heal from.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound LeBlanc has moved past that injury to produce a stellar senior season, making 32 receptions for 474 yards and six touchdowns – he scored two more TDs in the playoff win last week – along with showing his versatility and strong leg by recording 10 touchbacks on 37 kickoffs. He said he’s 100 percent healthy now.
As a junior LeBlanc shared playing time at quarterback with then-sophomore Brown for the first half of the season and finished with 334 passing yards and two touchdowns. With Underwood sidelined for the final 10 games, LeBlanc got significant time at running back and rushed for 495 yards and four TDs.
“Slade does a billion different things, and he’s a great athlete. You see a senior and watch him improve during the year. He’s improved and gotten confidence,” Sniffin said. “He had a high ankle sprain in that first game and it slowed him up for most of the year, but he’s finally healthy and having his leg on kickoffs . . . he can put it where we want it. That’s a very big help, obviously.
“And then he catches the ball well and runs well. If we need him to throw, he can throw. We don’t need him to do as many things as last year. I don’t know if he likes that or not, but he’s able to focus on receiver a little bit and he’s done a great job for us.”
Sniffin and the Tigers have seen the progression they anticipated this season from the 6-4, 203-pound Brown. Sharing time with LeBlanc last season before becoming the primary QB, Brown passed for 1,603 yards and 18 touchdowns against 6A competition but also threw 16 interceptions and finished with minus-94 rushing yards.
Having added 25 pounds going into his junior year, the strong-armed Brown has made huge strides by passing for 1,992 yards and 24 touchdowns against seven interceptions and contributing 122 yards on 50 rushing attempts. His top targets have been LeBlanc and fellow senior wide receivers Garrett Oliveira (26 receptions, 538 yards, nine TDs) and Mason Ramm (22-321-3).
“We’ve had some games here late in the year where we didn’t need Ty to throw, so his stats aren’t (as impressive as they could be), but that’s not who we are," Sniffin said. "My biggest stat is touchdown-to-interception ratio, and his is way improved from last year. And a lot of those (seven INTs) came early in the year as he was still getting some timing down with his receivers. He can run it a little bit more and we’ll probably need his legs on Friday night to pick up some key yards.”
Underwood praised Brown’s all-around improvement as Belton's field general this year.
“Ty came in and started as a sophomore, so he had some growing pains. But I’m really confident in him,” Underwood said. “He feels way more confident in his throws and staying in the pocket and even running the ball.”
Complementing Brown’s passing prowess are talented running backs Underwood and Snapp, who have formed a lethal combination in Belton’s backfield.
The 5-9, 185-pound Underwood has rushed 118 times for 624 yards and eight touchdowns in his successful return from the torn ACL he suffered in the 2021 season opener.
“I feel like the second and third game was when I started feeling confident. The first game, it was like, ‘OK. I’ve done it. I’m good now,’” Underwood said. “For me to finish this whole season, it’s amazing.”
Having also come back from a torn ACL, LeBlanc commended Underwood for bouncing back with an outstanding season.
“100 percent. It’s great,” LeBlanc said. “It’s crazy to think that people still want to play after stuff like that.”
Meanwhile, the 6-foot, 208-pound Snapp has been a force throughout his sophomore season, earning his nickname “The Tank” by damaging defenses for 1,016 yards and 13 touchdowns on 145 carries.
“It’s a great combination, because we’re like totally opposite backs,” Underwood said. “Shaun’s a big bruiser back and I’m more elusive, so it’s a great combo. He’s only a sophomore, too, so he’s got a lot of time to grow.”
Said Sniffin about his potent rushing tandem: “It’s great to have multiple guys back there, and they complement each other well. Keeping them fresh is the key. It’s a nice 1-2 punch to have back there. If one of them gets on a roll, we let them go for a little bit, then we put the next one in and let him go. And they both catch the ball out of the backfield pretty well.”
BELTON BREAKTHROUGH: Senior center Zach Erickson (left) and senior outside linebacker Donovan Thompson have helped the Tigers win their first outright district championship since 1999 and earn their first playoff victory since 2016. Erickson's balanced offense averages 375.3 yards per game, while Thompson's defense that has 10 new starters this season has allowed 12.7 points per game during Belton's seven-game winning streak. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Belton’s offense has averaged 375.3 yards per game this season for coordinator Barry Campbell, aided by a sturdy offensive line of senior left tackle Aidan King, senior left guard Robert Trent, senior center Zach Erickson, junior right guard John Roach and senior right tackle Ethan Sandoval.
The Tigers clearly seek better production against Brenham’s athletic defense in the teams’ rematch. With Snapp missing in Week 2, Belton rushed for only 69 yards against the Cubs and Brown was limited to 75 passing yards on 7-of-22 accuracy.
Brenham allowed a combined 82 points in its last two games – a 54-42 loss at Montgomery Lake Creek in a Week 11 showdown for the district championship and then 28 points against bi-district playoff foe Dayton as the Cubs won by 14.
Senior middle linebacker Ricky Brown leads Brenham with 83 tackles and junior linebacker Cade Moore has 73 stops. Powering the Cubs’ defensive front is 320-pound senior tackle Quenton Graves (49 tackles), and senior cornerback Savion Ragston has snared a team-high five interceptions.
“Brenham has a really good defense,” Underwood said, “but I think we’ve prepared all week to go put up a lot of points and win for our team.”
As his third and most successful season in Belton has unfolded, Iowa native Sniffin has watched the Tigers become the true essence of a team – committed, focused and selfless.
“The biggest challenge when I got this job was changing the mindset. I think the biggest thing is we had to become a family and have no individuals playing,” said Sniffin, whose son Joe was a linebacker for Belton in 2020 and now plays at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens. "Kids had to sacrifice and move positions and do whatever it takes for the team to be successful. And now we’ve got a ton of them and we feel like it’s down the line now, from seventh grade on up. We don’t want to relax from teaching, but it’s there now and it took some time to do.”
And now that Belton has earned back-to-back playoff berths and ended its long district championship drought, Sniffin wants his Tigers to embrace the confidence – maybe even swagger – of a program that expects to prevail every time runs onto takes the field.
“They always talk about how you want to win because of the name across your chest,” he said. “One, the other team knows you’re going to play hard the whole time and you’re never going to give up, because you’re Belton. And then you’re going to have that confidence that you’re just going to get it done. We might make a mistake, but we’re going to play the next play and get after it. Let’s go.”
With so many Belton ISD students shifting to attend Lake Belton, Belton’s official enrollment went from 2,937 in the University Interscholastic League’s 2020-22 alignment to 1,917 in the 2022-24 alignment. Now that Sniffin’s Tigers know exactly what they have and can fully get accustomed to competing at the 5A Division II level, they believe that they have everything set up to become major players in Region III and perhaps beyond.
“To me, smaller is better to do that,” Sniffin said. “It’s a challenge when another school breaks off of you and they take a lot of kids from you, but you’ve just got to focus in on your kids and build that family atmosphere and have those kids believe that, ‘Hey, if we’ve got each other’s back, we’re going to get it done.’
“You watch football on TV and the most athletic team and the best-looking team doesn’t always win. The team that wins is the team that plays as a family and plays together. And if you’ve got good athletes and you do that, it’s pretty damn nice. I enjoy coaching those kids – the underdog type kids and watching those kids grow as a team. It’s been a pretty neat deal. I love it."
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