It was written all over their faces. Disappointment was in their eyes.
Copperas Cove was crushed by its loss to Belton.
Perhaps it was because another opportunity passed. Perhaps it was because of how the game slipped away in the second half.
Perhaps it was because of a notion that reaching the playoffs just became exponentially more difficult. Perhaps it was because the players are just passionate about the game and emotionally uninhibited.
Regardless of reasons, the Tigers delivered a bruising punch to the gut, dropping the Bulldawgs to their knees, and anyone on the field following Copperas Cove’s 35-31 road loss could see it. The Bulldawgs were in excruciating pain.
But there is a saying: What does not kill you only makes you stronger. And the Bulldawgs are far from dead.
Although the team’s second consecutive defeat might have felt like a deathblow, it was not. In reality, Belton’s rally did little to affect the big picture.
Had Copperas Cove beat the Tigers, it would have been positioned in a three-way tie for second place in District 8-5A, one game behind undefeated Waco Midway, with Killeen and Belton poised just outside the playoff picture. Instead, the Bulldawgs are sitting in a three-way tie for fourth place.
Either way, six teams are fighting for four spots, and Copperas Cove is one of them. Nothing else should matter to the Bulldawgs.
The most important thing Copperas Cove lost at Belton is not the game; rather, it is time. The regular season is rapidly coming to a close in a district plagued by parity, and the Bulldawgs must make every remaining second count. They must adjust to their current situation quickly.
The odds of winning a district championship are virtually gone at this point, and seeding really does not matter. District 7-5A, the district Copperas Cove would play in the bi-district round of the playoffs should it reach the postseason, is extremely balanced, deep and dangerous.
No. 2 DeSoto sits atop the district, but the Bulldawgs will probably not have to worry about the Eagles, who should play in the Division I playoffs. The only way DeSoto drops to Division II is if both Duncanville and South Grand Prairie qualify for the playoffs, but the Panthers are 1-3 with a difficult schedule remaining.
The Bulldawgs are likely to land in Division II because three of the teams in contention for playoff berths have larger enrollments. With DeSoto virtually removed from the equation, Copperas Cove’s potential opponents are practically inseparable statistically.
Each averages more than 300 yards of offense and 28 points per game behind a strong rushing attack. Defensively, all are equipped to slow down the Bulldawgs’ go-to ground game as only two teams allow more than 200 yards rushing per game.
Not that the Bulldawgs have the luxury of being picky in the first place, but all their conceivable bi-district challengers are interchangeable at this point, leaving the team to worry about one thing and one thing only: Winning each remaining game. Although it certainly did not appear to feel like it to the Bulldawgs last Friday night, the consecutive losses to Midway and Belton are inconsequential. And, by now, the team should have reached the same realization.
While the loss to Belton was obviously upsetting to the players in the moments following the final buzzer, it should not carry over into the game against Ellison. Copperas Cove head coach Jack Welch will not allow his players to dwell on defeat. He knows the Bulldawgs’ fate will be decided over the next three weeks, not the previous seven games.
The Bulldawgs need to beat Ellison simply to generate some momentum and eliminate any lingering emotions from their current slide. Then, they must defeat Temple on the road and Harker Heights at home in the regular-season finale to earn necessary wins and accompanying tiebreaker advantages.
Even with a victory against the Eagles, Copperas Cove could find itself in a three-way tie for third place with two weeks remaining. Tiebreakers are as good as an extra tick in the win column and will probably be the downfall of at least one team. The Bulldawgs desperately need to add the Knights and Wildcats to their list in order to increase their postseason chances.
For as disheartening as the Belton loss was to many Bulldawgs, their preseason goal of making the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year is still alive. Their eyes should be filled with promise, not disappointment.