By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
It used to be home to the San Antonio Spurs.
It's been the occasional training camp site of the Dallas Cowboys.
It's housed three NCAA men's Final Fours.
Each year since 2002, 80 of the nation's elite high school football prospects descend on it to play in the annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
And this weekend, prep football players from Belton and Harker Heights will stand where so many others have before them when they visit the world-renown Alamodome in San Antonio to participate in the 12th annual Texas Football Classic.
"It's exciting. We've never been in a game like this, no venue this big before," Harker Heights senior linebacker Tyler Babb said. "... But (to play) in a game like this, we're excited - just happy and ecstatic."
But for two programs that have seen their share of disappointment in recent years (Belton went through five losing seasons between 2003-2008 and Heights has won just four games over the last three years), playing under the bright lights of the 65,000-seat Alamodome is a step in the right direction.
"It's just a great opportunity for our program, and obviously, the team we're playing makes it even more exciting because they are the defending state champion and it's going to be a huge test for us," Belton coach Rodney Southern said.
Led by University of Texas quarterback-commit David Ash, the Tigers take on defending Division II-5A champion Abilene - the second-ranked team in 5A - and Oklahoma State tailback-commit Herschel Sims in a Friday night showcase at 7:30.
The Knights, a program seeking to reclaim it's winning ways of old, close out the five-game classic when they play Georgetown in the last of a Saturday triple-header at 7:30 p.m.
"We're trying to get over that hump of being mediocre and we want to take that next step, whether it's there (at the Alamodome) or playing anywhere else, we've got to do that," second-year Harker Heights coach Mike Mullins said. "This just provides us the opportunity to go down there and be in a different atmosphere. It's obviously a bigger stadium, but when the ball's kicked off, the butterflies pretty much go away and you play within the confines of the white lines."
After managing nine wins during its five-year losing spell, Belton finally broke out of its postseason funk last year - Southern's third - when Ash and a senior-led defense powered the Tigers to the area round of the playoffs, where they fell, 24-14, to South Garland.
Heights, on the other hand, is still struggling to crawl out of its three-year draught following playoff runs in six of its first seven seasons as a program.
Part of turning things around is reviving a luster and swagger that is generally associated with winning. That's why competing in a venue like the Alamodome, in a showcase event like the Classic, can be beneficial on multiple levels.
"It does a lot for several factors, one, it exposes your community and we've got a lot of good things to offer not only in our football program but our school district and in our community," Southern said. "I think it also exposes our kids to more recruiting and better opportunities for them because obviously more people will see them."
That exposure can be especially important for those mid-level prospects like Belton receiver Adrian Henderson or Abilene quarterback Ronnell Sims (Herschel Sims' cousin) who's collegiate opportunities have been few and far between.
"Showcase might not be the exact word, but it is a little bit to that extent," Southern said. "... For a guy like Adrian, who is still out there to be recruited, it's a chance for him to shine, and that's a recruiting tool that can hopefully help him and some other guys too."
For the Knights, they just want to soak up the entire experience - all of which they hope will lead into bigger and better things in the not-so-distant future.
"We're just smiling our butts off right now," Babb said. "Just to have the opportunity to go down there and play in something like this, so we know what the playoffs taste like, we just want more of it. It's just like Rocky in the movies, we just want more and I think we're hungrier than ever right now."
Because ultimately, it's a way to create the intense playoff atmosphere - minus the win-or-go-home finality of an actual playoff game - that Belton and Heights haven't experienced much recently.
"It's a chance to expose them on a very high level of what it's like when the postseason starts," Southern said. "And we'll find out Friday night immediately where some of our strengths and some of our weaknesses are, which will hopefully help us move through our district."