Even as his players celebrated their first victory of the season, Harker Heights coach Mike Mullins’ mind wasn’t on football.
It was with his first grandchild, Brody, who is in neonatal intensive care at Scott & White in Temple after he was born several weeks early on Wednesday.
“It was an emotional roller coaster, and for two new parents to have to deal with that, and to see it as grandparents, it’s tough,” Mullins said, choking up as he talked about his son, Ryan, and daughter-in-law, Jennifer. “It was tough tonight, I was just glad the way our kids played.”
The Knights made sure their coach didn’t have to deal with any heartbreak on the field Friday night as the Heights defense forced Belton into three second-half turnovers and held on for a 7-0 victory in their District 8-5A opener at Leo Buckley Stadium.
“It’s surreal,” said Knights senior safety Tyrel Stokes, who had a one-handed interception and two pivotal deflections on third down to stall a pair of Belton second-half drives.
“We lost those first three games but it’s OK because we bounced back and we did it — we got that win,” added Heights cornerback Samson Gray, who contributed a forced fumble and an interception.
Struggling with turnovers and costly offensive mistakes through a winless non-district run, the Knights (1-3, 1-0 8-5A) turned to its senior-laden defense Friday.
“As a defense, we like to play pissed off,” said Heights’ 6-foot-4 senior linebacker Naashon Hughes. “Belton, they came out and we knew what they like to do with Durham (Smythe) and Peter (Shelburne) so we just came out and tried to do what we could.”
Hughes, who committed to Texas as a greyshirt, did plenty by himself, flushing Tigers quarterback Shelburne when he rushed and then blanketing 6-6 tight end Smythe when he didn’t, limiting the fellow Longhorns commit to no catches.
The last of those opportunities proved to be the game-clincher.
With less then 2 minutes on the clock, Belton (3-1, 0-1) was locked into a do-or-die fourth-and-goal play from Heights’ 18 after Stokes knocked down a pass intended for Tigers’ sure-handed receiver Derick Bates on third down.
Not finding much open down field, Shelburne (9-of-21 for 121 yards) uncorked a jump-ball to Smythe in the left corner of the end zone. Not to be outjumped, Hughes swatted the ball down with 1:37 left to play.
“I just timed my jump perfectly,” he said.
From there, the Heights’ ground-and-pound offense wrapped it up thanks to a career-high 116 rushing yards and one 3-yard touchdown from senior fullback Tyler Brown and another 58 rushing yards from Terance Goodwin.
After trading punts in the first half, the Knights started the second half fast as junior Damaria Moon caught the opening kickoff at the 5-yard line and returned it 95 yards into the end zone.
But the excitement dissipated as Heights was cited for a clipping penalty at the Belton 33-yard line and forced to start at the 48 after what turned into a 62-yard return by Moon.
“It never bothered them a bit — it bothered me a little bit — but when I saw where their mindset was and what we were doing, … I said, ‘We can run right at ’em,” Mullins said.
And run they did, as Brown broke free for 23 yards on the next play and then busted into the end zone four plays later on a 3-yard touchdown run to put Heights up 7-0 2:20 into the second half.
With a lead, Heights defense — and Stokes — took over.
Following a missed 45-yard field goal by Belton kicker Carlo Mosnia, Stokes sealed the next Tigers drive with a diving one-handed interception on a deep pass over the middle to Bates, who just missed a diving 33-yard catch on the play.
“What a great interception by Stokes, oh my gosh, that was something that you don’t see very often,” Mullins said.
Gray ended Belton’s next drive by intercepting an under-thrown pass to Smythe at the 2-yard line — his second touchdown-saving play after stripping Bates on the Tigers’ opening series — and Hughes swatted another Smythe touchdown opportunity as the Knights walked away winners for the first time this season.