Killeen sophomore Daniel McCants runs away from Arlington Heights’ defender Nate Guidry (21) on his way to the end zone in the first half Friday at Lumpkins Stadium in Waxahachie.

By Kevin Posival
Killeen Daily Herald

Daniel McCants’ first taste of Friday night football came on a Saturday at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium.

The Roos’ sophomore running back had eight carries for 29 yards, a rushing touchdown called back because of a holding penalty and a kickoff return score also negated by a penalty in Killeen’s bi-district playoff win over Granbury.

He ran for 155 yards and a touchdown on nine carries last week in the Roos’ area-round, 60-25 playoff win over Fort Worth Arlington Heights.

McCants didn’t come out of no where, he came up from a junior varsity team that went 10-0 this season.

“I knew I was good, but I didn’t know I was good enough to be on varsity because if I was, I would’ve been on it in the beginning. They put me on JV for a reason; I had to work hard to get my way back up,” McCants said.

The crowds are bigger, but the lights are no brighter. The stadiums are bigger, but it’s still football.

The stakes are what’s different.

“Before the (Granbury) game, my stomach was growling, I was scared, I didn’t know what to do. I was just real nervous. I was just jumping around and didn’t know what to do,” McCants said. “After I started getting the ball and I started to get hit, I thought about it: It’s pretty much the same thing as JV, you’re just getting hit a little harder. It’s pretty much all the same.”

McCants was part of the Roos’ JV team that went undefeated and won a second-straight District 8-4A championship, but their glory, their opportunity and their part of the Roos’ future began with Killeen’s fourth-straight postseason appearance.

And it continues, still.

“It definitely gets them ready to play in front of a crowd of more than 300 or 400. You’re talking a playoff game, you’re talking maybe 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 and even bigger — the longer you stay in it, the crowds get bigger — and they get to learn to perform at that level,” Killeen coach Sam Jones said of his JV call-ups. “Then, if you get the luxury to get them in the game and play, that’s just icing on the cake as far as them being ready to go for next year.”

Jones and the Roos’ coaching staff have added four former JV players to their playoff roster since a regular season finale loss to Midway — McCants included — and eight total since their season-opening win over Ellison.

“I thought he had a great JV year. He touched the ball on JV and made things happen,” Jones said of McCants, the Roos’ fifth running back to run for more than 100 yards in a game this season. “We knew he was a good runner and then when you put him behind an experienced varsity offensive line against varsity players — a young athlete that can run, he’s an athlete … he can make things happen, he can make people miss — he’ll be ready to go next year, no doubt about it.”

McCants’ immediate success this postseason is only a fraction of the benefits from the Roos’ extended playoff stay.

With a banged-up backfield, the Roos needed running back depth and the sophomore provided that extra body on game day. But, even those traveling JV guys — those guys whose JV uniforms give them away on the sideline — are receiving as much as their giving when the stands are empty.

“They’re real important to the team,” said senior offensive lineman Dante’ Patrick, who was moved up to varsity late his sophomore year. “They have to give us looks to get ready for the next team we’ve got to play every week (in the playoffs). If they go hard, that makes us go hard and we’ll know what to expect (in the game).”

Patrick didn’t see much of the field after he was moved up — then, he was still a defensive lineman — but he knew what was expected of him when he did.

And that carries over. He was moved to the offensive line the following season and has been a fixture there ever since, opening holes for the Roos to run for 3,537 yards this season with only a single returning running back from last year’s 8-3 team.

“It was exciting, but I was nervous as well because I knew if I got in, I had to do something,” Patrick said of his experience on the Roos’ area finalist team in 2009. “I was nervous, but I was excited at the same time, ready to see how I stand up to those varsity players.”

Senior receiver Keaton Morris was one of those JV guys last year that got lost on the sidelines. He practiced all week, but was relegated to the sidelines in Killeen’s 31-27, bi-district loss to Mansfield Summit.

“It’s a lot more intense. You’ve worked at the JV level and then you’re stepping up to a higher level. … It’s just a new role you have to take on and you’ve just got to be ready for whatever comes your way,” said Morris, who has 617 combined rushing and receiving yards and four total touchdowns this season. “Last year, we had Ja’Quail (Haskins) and we had Deontre (Huey) and now, they’re gone and you have to fill their shoes and do a lot more.

“You have to be ready to do what the coach tells you, how they want it, when they want it, just do everything right when it needs to be done.”

Getting it right when they get the chance starts with what they do away from the crowds, the lights and the stakes. It’s a process, a program that simply begins with practice.

“They get the experience from the practice part of it — you get two or three or more weeks of full pads — it’s like an extra season for them,” Jones said. “They get to go against better kids, the varsity kids, plus they get reps behind a better offensive line or a better defensive line or see a better quarterback throwing the ball. It’s just to their advantage. The more you can play, the better you get.”

No amount of practice, though, can prepare a young player for the Texas high school playoffs.

After his Week 11, first varsity game jitters, McCants obviously warmed up to the pressure.

“Any kind of experience they can get to get into a game and feel that adrenaline, I think it just makes it better for next year,” Jones said. “That’s why it’s so important to make the playoffs … they should be hungry and want to do this next year again.”

And, sometimes, it’s not even about taking that first postseason or varsity hit or even taking the field. It’s about just being there.

“It’s all about experience,” Morris said. “You’re in the atmosphere, you may not get to play, but you’re there.”