BATTLE-TESTED BEES: Close wins, vital chemistry carry Academy into area-round duel vs. East Chambers
KEY COMPONENT: Academy junior wide receiver/safety Scout Brazeal, shown after his team's 32-28 home win over Cameron Yoe on Oct. 8, has excelled on both sides of the ball while helping the Bumblebees (10-1) move into a Class 3A Division I area-round playoff game against Winnie East Chambers (8-3) at 7:30 tonight at Tomball ISD Stadium. Brazeal has made 59 receptions for 1,143 yards and 13 touchdowns, including a 9-yard TD catch from Kasey Mraz in overtime to give Academy a 28-22 win over Yoakum last Friday in Waller. He's also made 81 tackles and three interceptions for coach Chris Lancaster's Bees. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – Having put together an outstanding 9-1 regular season, Academy second-year head football coach Chris Lancaster already had a very good feeling about his Bumblebees entering their Class 3A Division I bi-district playoff game against Yoakum last Friday night in Waller.
The events that transpired late in that first-round battle only strengthened Lancaster’s previous belief.
Academy trailed Yoakum for most of the second and third quarters before the resilient Bees used Darion Franklin’s 3-yard touchdown rush and Kasey Mraz’s 2-point pass to Brayden Bartlett to finally catch the Bulldogs for a 22-22 deadlock early in the fourth quarter.
Later in the period, a short Yoakum punt gave Academy great field position as it eyed the go-ahead score. However, that opportunity then went away when sophomore quarterback Mraz threw only his sixth interception of his stellar season.
What Lancaster witnessed next impressed him the most.
“We threw an interception, and I watched our defense go out there and say, ‘You know what, Kasey? Don’t worry about it. We’ve got your back.’ I saw a lot of brotherhood in there,” Lancaster said Wednesday. “It just reiterated and resolidified to me how strong our brotherhood is within the team.”
Academy’s defense held firm for the remainder of regulation and on the first overtime possession, then Mraz’s 9-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Scout Brazeal gave the Bees a dramatic 28-22 win – and their only lead all night.
Academy earned its first playoff victory since 2014 and its first 10-win season since 1962, propelling the Bees (10-1) into an area-round clash with Winnie East Chambers (8-3) at 7:30 tonight at Tomball ISD Stadium.
It’s a matchup of the same schools that clashed for the 3A Region III basketball championship early last March. Academy defeated East Chambers 68-58 in Madisonville to reach the state semifinals.
The Buccaneers, who shared the District 10-3A Division I championship with Anahuac and Woodville at 5-1, dominated bi-district opponent Huntington 59-14 last Thursday. East Chambers has advanced to the playoffs 10 times in head coach Russ Sutherland’s 11 seasons and has a 40-8 record in the last four years.
“East Chambers is a good ballclub with a lot of history, a lot of tradition,” said Lancaster, who’s guided Academy to a 17-5 record and two playoff berths.
The Academy-East Chambers winner will advance to a Region III semifinal next week against the winner of Friday’s area-round duel between seventh-ranked Hallettsville (9-2) and Diboll (8-3). In 2020, Hallettsville beat Academy 61-26 in a first-round playoff on the Brahmas’ way to the state championship game.
Lancaster said one factor that likely kept the spirits of the Bees’ defense up late against Yoakum is that Academy isn’t using nearly as many two-way starters as it did last season in his first year on the job.
“I think we now have seven kids on defense who don’t play any offense, and that has really helped us immensely with staying fresh,” said Lancaster, whose squad finished 5-1 in District 11-3A Division I, in second place behind back-to-back champion Lorena.
The leading tacklers for Academy’s defense are junior linebacker Clayton Lawson with 96 stops and senior safety Blake Bundy with 95, followed by junior linebacker Lane Ward with 83 tackles, junior safety Brazeal with 81 and senior linebacker Franklin with 68. Bundy, Brazeal and Franklin are two-way starters.
Brazeal and Bundy share the team lead with three interceptions each, and Franklin and junior cornerback Alex Lawton have picked off two passes apiece. Lancaster praised the steady play and production of senior ends Cole Stewart (54 tackles) and John Tomasek (53 stops).
Ward contributed 12 tackles in his return to the lineup for the playoff opener after missing three games, all Academy wins. He suffered a broken collarbone late in the Bees’ 32-28 comeback win at home against Cameron Yoe on Oct. 8.
Academy’s defenders will need to remain fresh and focused against the potent rushing attack of East Chambers. The Bucs are paced by junior quarterback Jacoby Perrault, who through nine games had rushed for 585 yards and 11 touchdowns and passed for 720 yards and seven TDs. Sophomore running back Hadyn Reeves had rushed for 691 yards and eight touchdowns through nine games.
“They’re very fast. They’ve got speed and they can beat you sideline to sideline, but they like to come downhill, too,” Lancaster said of the East Chambers offense. “They throw it a little bit. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors to formation you and try to get you out of a gap. They primarily run right off tackle and outside, too.”
Meanwhile, Academy’s passing-led offense will be challenged by the sturdy 4-2-5 defense of East Chambers, which has allowed a combined 21 points in its last two games. Senior linebackers Damion Moreno and Cooper McKay lead the Buccaneers with 80 and 69 tackles, respectively. Senior tackle Slade Parnell has seven sacks among his 55 tackles, Wyatt Kash has 57 tackles and five interceptions and fellow senior cornerback Kadron Morris has picked off four passes.
They’ll contend with quarterback Mraz, the left-handed sophomore who’s completed 159 of 233 passes (68.2 percent) for 2,337 yards and 26 touchdowns against six interceptions. Brazeal leads Academy with 59 receptions for 1,143 yards and 13 touchdowns, while Franklin has made 52 catches for 672 yards and nine TDs.
Lancaster, who calls Academy;s offensive plays, said it’s the combination of what Brazeal and Franklin do well that makes them so dangerous as a tandem.
“No. 1, Scout’s a great young man. No. 2, he’s an excellent route runner. And No. 3 is that if you look at Scout and Darion’s receptions, they complement each other very well,” Lancaster said, noting that Brazeal will notify him when he thinks he can beat his defender for a deep pass. “You’re going to see that Scout gets more of the long ball, and now that sets up Darion for short and intermediate passes. They’re a hard combination to cover. We try to let the defense tell us what they’re trying to stop.”
Academy’s running game hasn’t yet reached the level Lancaster wants, but it’s still a viable option with junior Bartlett and sophomore Zane Clark rushing for a combined 780 yards and nine touchdowns while sharing time.
Lancaster has high marks for his starting offensive line that consists of all sophomores other than senior left guard Dylan Gardner. The sophomores are left tackle Adam Caddell, center Caden Berry, right guard Orlando Feregrino and right tackle Jake Jones, and the tight end/blocking back is another sophomore, Luke Tomasek.
Two-way starter Bundy, who was sidelined by a foot injury for most of last season, also gives the Bees also have a valuable weapon on special teams. The senior has made nine field goals – highlighted by a game-winning kick at Lago Vista – and 37 extra points.
Six of Academy’s 10 wins have been decided by 10 points or less, and Lancaster described the battle-tested Bees as a “roller-coaster team” that tends to “flip the switch” against stronger opponents.
As Academy seeks its first season with more than 10 wins since it finished 12-0 in 1961, Lancaster believes that excellent team chemistry has played an important role throughout the Bees’ breakthrough season.
“We’re loaded with a lot of sophomores, and these kids are really close. Our seniors have really accepted their leadership, and our sophomores and juniors have accepted our small group of seniors’ leadership and their style," Lancaster said. "We have character, but man, I’m going to tell you, we have some characters.
“Darion Franklin’s a character on the field. He brings his own style of play but also his uniqueness of the way he motivates. Scout Brazeal is a go-to guy. Blake Bundy does it all and is probably the best kicker in Central Texas. Our kids have really got great chemistry and a brotherhood, and they have each other’s back. It’s just been amazing and a joy to coach.”
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