BIG-TIME GROWTH: 11-win season, increased numbers boost Academy as Bees brace for difficult district
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
WORKING TOWARD SUCCESS: Academy wide receiver Scout Brazeal recorded a breakthrough junior season in 2021, making 75 catches for 1,395 yards and 17 touchdowns as the Bumblebees went 11-2 and advanced to the Class 3A Division I Region III semifinals. He also made 92 tackles and three interceptions at safety. Brazeal and Academy begin their third season with head coach Chris Lancaster at home against rival Rogers at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at John Glover Stadium. The Bees' opener in highly competitive District 11-3A Division I is at Troy on Sept. 23. That seven-team league includes two reigning 3A state champions in third-ranked Lorena and No. 2 Franklin. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – Chris Lancaster was asked to recall how many two-way starters he put on the field in 2020, his first season as Academy’s head football coach.
“Eleven,” he replied with chuckle Wednesday afternoon in his fieldhouse office next to John Glover Stadium.
Lancaster was joking, but only a little bit. With less than 50 players in the entire program, that Bumblebees team usually had eight or nine players getting large amounts of snaps on both sides of the ball.
That arrangement worked out well enough for Academy to get into the Class 3A Division I playoffs and finish 7-4 in a momentum-building season.
In Lancaster’s second year, the Bees developed better depth and thus were not as reliant on two-way starters, although they still had a few key cogs who rarely left the field, such as receiver/linebacker Darion Franklin, receiver/safety/kicker/punter Blake Bundy and receiver/safety Scout Brazeal.
Academy’s well-balanced attack produced a breakthrough 9-1 regular season, lost only to eventual state champion Lorena in District 11-3A Division I and advanced past Yoakum and Winnie East Chambers in tight playoff duels before being edged 37-34 by Diboll in a classic Region III semifinal. The Bees finished 11-2, their most successful season since the early 1960s.
As Academy prepares to open its 2022 season at home against traditional rival Rogers next Friday night, the Bees now have approximately 85 players in the program, moving Lancaster closer to his goal of not having any two-way starters unless he chooses to.
That’s symbolic of the ongoing growth in Academy ISD, which is attracting more and more students from Temple and is busy building a new high school campus.
“Our numbers are really up. When I took this gig a couple years ago, we started out with 47 kids, maybe 50. Last year it was 60-something. The key is having more in your classes,” Lancaster said. “We’re sitting here with 12 or 13 seniors, 20 junior kids, about 22 sophomores and we’re in the low 30s with the freshmen. And that helps. That pushes us to 39 or 40 players on varsity, so now we have a varsity practice and a JV practice and they’re going against each other. Two years ago we were practicing with trash cans.
“I want some good depth and some kids who might not be starters on offense or defense but they are special teams starters – and now you’re helping yourself and giving starters some breaks. That’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Said Brazeal, who last season made 75 receptions for 1,396 yards and 17 touchdowns and collected 92 tackles and three interceptions on defense: “I know our coaches are trying to get 11 starters on offense and 11 on defense, just for all of us to keep fresh. I think we have the bodies to do it this year.”
Academy is expected to rise into 4A in the near future, and the Bees’ schedule reflects that. Academy scrimmaged at defending 4A Division II state champion China Spring on Thursday evening, and its four-game non-district slate includes duels with 4A-II programs Lago Vista, Hillsboro and Salado, with the last two on the road.
“I wanted to get a good barometer to see where we’re at, because we’re going to play several 4As this year. Every (game) is going to be big. That’s the way we look at it,” said Lancaster, whose squad’s first scrimmage was against Gatesville and Caldwell. “What we’re trying to do is go one-platoon, where you’ve got an offense and a defense. We’re going to use these scrimmages and these non-district games to try to do that.
“Now when the gloves come off and it’s do-or-die (in district play), we’re going to have to put our best (on the field) and do whatever we’ve got to do to win the game.”
District 11-3A Division I was considered challenging during the last two seasons. Now, “brutally tough” would be a better description.
Reigning 16-0 3A Division II state champion Franklin, known for its relentless rushing attack, rises to join a seven-team league in which defending 3A D-I state champ Lorena has captured the last two outright district titles. Academy, Troy, Cameron Yoe and Rockdale are the holdovers and McGregor is the other new member. Those seven teams will battle for four playoff berths in a highly competitive league.
Lancaster reflected fondly on his years as an assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference, the Southwest Conference, the Big 12 and the Southland Conference as he expressed why Academy should embrace the challenge of its strong district.
“I’m going to be honest: I want that. Why would you want to be in a district where (you’re not challenged)?” Lancaster said. “I think whoever does make the playoffs is going to be battle-tested and a good team.”
Brazeal believes that competing against high-level opponents such as China Spring, Lorena and Franklin has to prepare Academy as it seeks to take the next step.
“We should know what it takes to go to state this year. I’m looking forward to it,” said Brazeal, a senior wide receiver and safety who produced a stellar junior season on both sides.
Academy begins its district schedule Sept. 23 at Troy and one week later hosts Lorena, which is ranked No. 3 in the state by Texas Football magazine. The Bees’ regular-season finale is against No. 2 Franklin, also at John Glover Stadium.
Lancaster said that although Academy clearly wants to compete in the playoffs for the third straight season, the Bees haven’t yet discussed specific teams goals such as winning a district championship or making an even longer postseason run.
“We don’t talk about that. We really don’t. It’s too early. I think one of the keys of being a good leader is staying focused,” Lancaster said. “You always want win the home opener, you always want to win the first district game, you always want to win homecoming and you always want to win your last game. That helps keeping your job.
“But our job is to stay focused and keep improving every day. We’ve got some really good kids, so we’re just trying to stay focused and do what we’ve got to do.”
With players such as Brazeal, receiver/safety Alex Lawton, outside linebacker Lane Ward and defensive end Clayton Lawson, Academy has a small nucleus of seniors who have helped the resurgent Bees go 18-6 during the last two seasons.
However, Lancaster is especially enthusiastic about the Bees’ experienced, cohesive group of juniors, led by players such as quarterback Kasey Mraz, center Caden Berry, slot receiver/linebacker Zane Clark, middle linebacker Tyler Burnett, offensive tackle Jake Jones and tight end Luke Tomasek.
“Our community offers a 7-on-7 league and also padded Pop Warner football, and we’ve got some great community leaders who spearhead that. I think the dads of this junior class started that,” said Lancaster, who has a junior newcomer in defensive end/tight end Trey Ward. “These juniors, there’s a group of them that are as thick as thieves. They are peas in a pod. They are, ‘I’ve got your back; you’ve got my back.’ That’s where our strong leadership core is.
“I’m not saying our seniors aren’t good leaders. What I’m saying is the juniors, you see all of them in the weight room. They’re a traveling group and it's a close-knit group.”
SOUTHPAW SLINGER: Kasey Mraz took over Academy's quarterback position as a sophomore last season and the left-hander passed for 2,973 yards and 33 touchdowns with only eight interceptions, completing 70.9 percent of his throws. "Kasey is really amazing. His future's all ahead of him once colleges see him," said Chris Lancaster, the Bumblebees' third-year head coach. "He's stronger, faster and a little bit taller." Mraz's top targets this year include seniors Scout Brazeal and Alex Lawton and junior Zane Clark. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The left-handed Mraz returns to direct the offense after a stellar sophomore season in which he was 212-of-299 passing (70.9 percent) for 2,973 yards and 33 touchdowns against eight interceptions. Academy expects the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Mraz, also a capable runner, to keep improving with instruction from new offensive coordinator Mark Mullins.
“Kasey is really amazing. His future’s all ahead of him once colleges see him. He’s stronger, faster and a little bit taller. I’m not saying he’s smarter, because we still ride him pretty hard on that,” Lancaster said with a laugh. “But he’s probably one of the best kids I’ve ever been around as a quarterback. Here’s what I mean: he’s no different than your linebacker or your right guard. If you had a neck-roll fullback in here, he’s no different than that kid. He’s a football player.
“He’s not needy, he’s not a whiny baby, he’s not spoiled or ‘I don’t want to get hurt’ or anything like that. He’s the most humble kid and a joy to be around, and our kids rally around that. (Brothers) Caden Berry and Kasey Mraz have been playing center and quarterback since they started football. Why would I want to break that up? Kasey’s good enough to be a starting linebacker here. That’s a joy as a coach.”
Brazeal certainly have noticed the strides Mraz has made both as a skilled, efficient quarterback and as a go-to team leader.
“Kasey’s grown a ton since the start of last year. He became a true leader and people are watching him and how tight he is with his O-line. It’s crazy to watch,” Brazeal said. “His leadership abilities have grown so much since last year. Having that as a quarterback is really good. He had it last year, but this year he has a lot of people standing behind him and he’s proved that he can do it.”
All five of Academy’s projected starting offensive linemen are juniors: left tackle Adam Caddell, left guard Chase Adkinson, center Berry, right guard Orlando Feregrino and right tackle Jones. Berry (6-0, 230) and Jones (6-3, 265) enter their third season as starters. Lancaster said they’re all stronger this season after diligent work in the weight room, the emphasis of Academy’s offseason program.
“Caden, he's the bell cow. He can tell everybody what to do and who to block. Feregrino and Jones are the big-body people movers, so that’s why they’re on the right side,” Lancaster said. “Orlando has really transformed his body. In powerlifting I think he stepped on the scale at 308 pounds. He’s 275 right now and he’s moving better and more athletic and agile. Adam also plays in the band, so he’s already been at band practice 4 or 5 hours today. And Chase is learning.”
Fast senior running back Brayden Bartlett returns after rushing for 482 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Also in the backfield mix is Cavalli Nealy, one of six freshmen on Academy’s initial varsity roster.
“I think in any offense, you’ve got to have more than one running back. We’re really excited about in Cavalli Nealy, so you’ll see him play in spurts,” Lancaster said. “He’s just a freshman and he’s still learning, but he brings another dimension to the game.”
A year ago, Franklin switched from running back to slot receiver and sparked Academy’s offense by complementing Brazeal with 69 catches for 876 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Bees are hoping that a similar shift pays similar dividends this season. After rushing for 450 yards and five TDs last year, the speedy Clark (5-7, 160) has moved to slot receiver and could be primed for a big season – which could lessen some defensive pressure on top receiver Brazeal.
“The defense is going to look a little different in the beginning of the year, but I think Zane Clark’s going to have a huge season and open up the field a lot,” said Brazeal, who’s joined at receiver by senior Evan Lewis. “And I trust Alex Lawton a lot, too. They’re both great receivers.”
Said Lancaster about the Bees’ versatile offense: “We always take our tailback and (also) put him out there as a receiver, so we’re very multiple in formations using the same personnel. Now the defensive coordinator can’t go off our personnel. That’s totally by design. Who are you going to double up? If you double up on Scout, that’s going to open up somebody or open up the running game.”
Added Lancaster about Clark’s well-rounded game: “Zane can play linebacker, safety, cornerback. If we need him at nose guard, he can. That’s the kind of player he is.”
Tomasek contributed 17 receptions for 134 yards last season and Lancaster said he and Clark “are two of our best blockers on the field.”
As for Academy’s defense, coordinator Eddie Dewbre can rely on returning standouts such as sure-tackling outside linebacker Ward, who made 105 stops despite missing three games because of injury, and experienced safety Lawton (32 tackles, two interceptions).
Lawson produced an excellent season at middle linebacker by recording a team-leading 109 tackles, but his aggressive style of play prompted Academy’s coaches to move him to defensive end as a senior.
“Clayton played middle linebacker and where he was most effective was when we blitzed him, or he would blitz himself without asking us,” Lancaster explained. “So we said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to put you at defensive end. It’s still an outside linebacker, but you’re going to stand up from defensive end and just go create havoc.’”
STEADY LEADERSHIP: Chris Lancaster has guided Academy to an 18-6 record (8-0 in non-district games) and two Class 3A Division I playoff berths in his first two seasons, highlighted by last year's 11-2 campaign and third-round trek. A former college assistant coach whose stops included Baylor and Kentucky, Lancaster said the Bumblebees' program has grown from roughly 50 players in his first season to approximately 85 currently. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The Bees lost Burnett to a season-ending leg injury as they won their non-district finale at Lago Vista. This year Academy has shifted the 6-foot, 205-pound junior from offense to middle linebacker and expects big things from him and also senior Levi Thomas, a 6-4, 270-pound lineman who transferred from Salado.
“Burnett’s now playing middle linebacker and I feel he’s going to have a huge year there,” Brazeal said. “I’m super impressed with our defensive line. I feel like it’s the best D-line we’ve had in Academy in a long time. Clayton and Levi are looking really good.”
Other potential contributors on the defensive front include senior Daniel Munoz-Garcia (67 tackles) and juniors Cartier Nealy, Dylan Edelbrock and Trey Ward.
Junior Trey Vargas (26 tackles) is a returning starter at cornerback and speedy senior Jareese White is projected to start at the other cornerback post. Lawton mans one safety spot and Brazeal will play some at safety but likely won’t be a full-time player there as Academy aims to lighten his overall workload.
“We’re still going to be out of the 4-3, but some of our schematics have changed a little bit. We’re just trying to shift guys around and get them in the right areas,” Lancaster said, adding that freshman Payton Wilson is in the mix at linebacker. “We lost Darion Franklin at outside linebacker and we’re still trying to fill the gap there. We’ve got some up-and-coming talent that we’re really happy with.”
Brazeal lit up defenses and scoreboards throughout his prolific junior campaign, but he certainly didn’t rest on his laurels during the so-called offseason.
He helped Academy’s basketball team win its fourth straight 19-3A championship and reach the Region III quarterfinals before being eliminated by Franklin, then he turned in a strong track season that was highlighted by advancing to the regional meet in the 400-meter run.
After that, Brazeal went to work in a focused effort to improve all aspects of his physical ability and skills as a wide receiver.
“My mindset has been that I’ve worked as hard as I ever have this summer. I want to take my game to another level this year,” said the 6-1, 185-pound Brazeal, who turns 18 on Saturday. “It’s a mental game just as much as it is a physical game. The reps and eating right and how you handle your body, it’s all a process. I have truly put it all in this summer.”
Brazeal said he spent extra time lifting weights and had regular training sessions in Waco with coach Mario Price, who played for Baylor when Lancaster was a Bears assistant.
“It was a lot of weight room and training with different people who have played and know what it takes to go to the college level,” Brazeal said. “A whole lot has changed in my route running, for sure. The top of my routes was weak last year. I’ve cleaned up all that on that side of the ball. I didn’t have a release last year hardly at all. I worked on a lot of releases all summer – not taking five steps to get out of my break at the top but taking two this time. It’s different things I’ve learned and worked on that make it so much quicker.”
Lancaster definitely has noticed Brazeal’s extra work and attention to detail.
“Scout’s worked really hard on his body, and he’s still working hard on his flexibility and speed. He’s a senior now and it’s his time,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got to highlight that and use that, because we’ve got a kid (Mraz) who can throw it.”
Brazeal said he attended 13 or 14 college football camps this summer, aiming to raise his recruiting profile as he pursues his goal of playing on the next level. Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech and Sam Houston State are among the schools and programs that appeal to him.
“I love UTSA and could see myself there. I love Tech and also Sam Houston,” he said. “I love the coaches and have good connections with them. I love competing, especially places where I know people are going to bring competition and coaches are going to be there. It’s always fun and exciting for me to go compete against the best at these big camps.
"I’m really open to anything right now. It's one day at a time going into my senior year. I truly put it in God’s hands at this point and wherever He leads me is where I’m going."
Brazeal identified Alabama and Clemson as his dream schools. Walking in on the interview, Lancaster – who played fullback at Clemson – couldn’t resist chiming in: “They only take the elite, elite, elite,” he said with a laugh, making Brazeal crack a smile.
Brazeal, who models his game after Los Angeles Rams star receiver Cooper Kupp, said he’s not big on chasing statistical goals but that 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns – slight increases over his 2021 numbers – are figures he’d like to reach this season.
“I can’t put that pressure on myself, because then I won’t end up performing like I should. But my goals are high, for sure,” he said. “My goal is to go farther and do better things, but as long as we’re winning, I’m truly good.”
A major source of motivation for Brazeal is his sister, Jenna Brazeal, a 2019 Academy graduate. After winning two 3A state championships in the 1,600 meters and two state titles in cross country, she’s produced a record-setting college career while running track and cross country for NCAA Division I Tarleton State in Stephenville.
“Jenna definitely set the standard for me, and it’s definitely rubbed off on me,” Scout Brazeal said. “That’s what drives me – to go do what she does. She went D-I, so that makes me feel like I need to go D-I.”
For both Brazeal and Academy’s steadily growing football program these days, the hard work and quest to improve never stops.
“We keep growing by the day. I don’t like turning kids away,” Lancaster said. “Some kids get here in totally different avenues. We just had one transfer in from Colorado. He can’t help that. He wants to play, but he missed a week or two of camp. But this could help a kid for the rest of his life, so I’m going to give a kid an opportunity. He’s a senior and I told him, ‘You might have to play JV for a while.’ He said, ‘Coach, I just want to be part of your program.’”
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