An inability to hold onto the ball or stop the run proved lethal combination Nov. 3 for Belton during the Class 5 playoffs.
Five of the Pirates’ last six possessions during the District 6 championship at Battle High in Columbia, including every second-half possessions, ended with a turnover. The Spartans turned two of them into touchdowns and used the others to sustain a ball-control offense that turned a close game into a 44-21 romp.
Belton (7-5) trailed 30-21after a back-and-forth first half when Battle (8-3) opened the second half with a 15-play, 73-yard TD drive. All but 17 yards came on the ground, the last 5 yards on the third of four touchdowns by the Spartans’ 6-foot-2 and 240-pound running back Jarel Hyler.
Quarterback Bart Harris’ second of four interceptions ended the Pirates’ next drive and the drive after that ended with a Harris fumble, which set up Hyler’s final touchdown on a 9-yard run — the last of the Spartans’ 30 unanswered points.
“We struggled on both sides of the ball up front,” Belton coach Todd Vaughn said. “We had a difficult time pass protecting, which caused us some issues, and then we couldn’t stop the run. And when you can’t run the football and you can’t stop the run, it’s an uphill battle.”
Belton had the same issues in the first half but managed to keep it close thanks to two electrifying touchdown kickoff returns by running back Dante Madden, who accounted for all three of the Pirates’ scores.
Madden’s first return, a 90-yard sprint down the right sideline, came after Battle’s first score and put Belton up 7-6 in the first quarter.
The second kickoff return for a touchdown, a 95-yarder, gave the Pirates a 21-14 lead early in the second quarter.
“He’s been like that all year long on offense and on special teams,” Vaughn said. “That was his sixth kickoff return for a touchdown this year, so that’s pretty impressive.”
Harris, a senior who has committed to Nebraska, struggled uncharacteristically against Battle’s defense. He threw a 3-yard pass to Madden early in the second quarter for Belton’s other score, but otherwise couldn’t get anything going against the Trojan’s pass rush.
“We’ve got a pretty good quarterback and receivers when you give them time,” Vaughn said. “I know he’s disappointed, but he’s had a great career here so he has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Battle took the lead for good at 22-21 on a 1-yard run by Darren Jordan — and Hyler’s 2-point conversion run — during the second quarter.
Belton’s Antoine Nunn Jr. picked off a pass to end Battle’s next possession, but the Spartans got the ball back two plays later when Harris threw his first pick. They needed only two plays after that to get a 6-yard touchdown run from Hyler for a 30-21 lead with 47 seconds left in the half.
The Pirates got the ball at midfield after a squib kick with 45 seconds left and marched to the Spartans’ 15-yard line, where kicker Josh Riley missed a 32-yard field goal attempt as time expired. That was the last Belton drive not to end with a turnover.
Battle, which has been open five years, won its fourth consecutive district title, including back-to-back championship victories against Belton.
“Obviously we’re disappointed the way it ended,” Vaughn said, “but, you know, we were 2-4 at one point in time and our kids never gave up. They kept battling and I’m proud of them for that.”