- Greg Wille
BRONCO BREAKTHROUGH: Big first half sparks Lake Belton past Ellison 24-13 to earn first playoff trip
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
FULL EXTENSION: Lake Belton junior wide receiver Ty Legg gets past Killeen Ellison's Matthew Knox (32) and stretches out to make a 15-yard touchdown catch from senior quarterback Connor Crews 1:14 before halftime during the Broncos' 24-13 win over the Eagles in Friday night's regular-season finale at Tiger Field. Lake Belton (8-2) finished 6-2 in District 4-5A Division I to share second place as coach Brian Cope's Broncos earned a playoff berth in their first season of postseason eligibility. Lake Belton plays its bi-district game at Burleson Centennial (9-1) at 7 p.m. next Friday. (Photo by Dennis Knowlton/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
BELTON – When the Lake Belton Broncos gathered in August 2020 for the first football practice in their school’s history, they already were thinking about and talking about competing in the state playoffs.
The 2022 playoffs, that is.
Lake Belton had to remain patient as it played an outlaw sub-varsity schedule in 2020 and then an independent varsity slate in 2021, compiling a stellar 18-1 record while waiting to join a University Interscholastic League district for the first time in its third season.
Suiting up senior players for the first time, head coach Brian Cope and the confident Broncos entered their debut season in Class 5A Division I with a clearly stated goal: to qualify for the playoffs in their first year of UIL eligibility.
Lake Belton had to wait until the regular season’s final week and then had to wait out a 2-hour weather delay against Killeen Ellison in a District 4-5A Division I finale Friday night at soggy Tiger Field, but the persistent Broncos finally got what they’ve been working toward for three years.
Connor Crews threw touchdown passes to Micah Hudson, Javeon Wilcox and Ty Legg as Lake Belton built a 21-7 halftime lead, then the Broncos’ sure-tackling defense stymied the Eagles in the second half as Lake Belton earned a 24-13 victory that clinched that prized position in the playoffs.
“It’s amazing. There’s a weight off my shoulders and off my chest. I think it was on everyone. This has been our team goal forever,” said Crews, the Broncos’ starting quarterback for all three seasons. “Coach Cope’s always pushed that when we get our chance, we’ve got to take it, and we definitely did that tonight.”
Following its open date last week, Lake Belton entered Week 11 at 7-2 overall and 5-2 in district, yet the Broncos still had to defeat playoff-hungry Ellison (5-5, 4-4) to seize 4-5A D-I’s final available postseason berth after champion Midlothian and second-place teams Killeen Shoemaker and Red Oak already had clinched three spots.
After Wilcox’s 81-yard catch-and-run touchdown from fellow senior Crews gave Lake Belton a 14-7 advantage 4½ minutes into the second quarter, the Broncos (8-2, 6-2) never looked back.
The result is a history-making playoff trip for Lake Belton’s seasoned 2022 team – something Cope and his players and coaches have been striving for ever since he was hired in January 2020 to build the Broncos’ program from the ground up.
“There’s a helmet in my office with the number 22 on it. I needed the kids to buy into our vision, and they did,” Cope said after the pushed-back game ended at 11:40 p.m. “Man, I’m just thankful for a group of kids that bought in and a group of parents, a community and an administration that are top notch.
“And to have that opportunity to make the playoffs in our first year (of eligibility) . . . we’ll reset our goals tomorrow, but our first goal was to get in. I’m just thankful for everything and for an unbelievable family that supports me more than I could ever ask.”
Lake Belton tied fellow 8-2 squads Shoemaker and Red Oak for second place in the district, two games behind fifth-ranked Midlothian (10-0). Because Lake Belton, Shoemaker and Red Oak all went 1-1 against each other, the league used its points tiebreaker system to determine the playoff seedings. Red Oak is seeded second, Lake Belton third and Shoemaker fourth.
The Broncos’ first postseason opponent is 3-5A D-I runner-up Burleson Centennial (9-1), which will host Lake Belton at 7 p.m. next Friday at Burleson ISD Stadium. The Spartans’ lone loss was a 64-21 district setback Oct. 14 against third-ranked and perennial power Aledo. Centennial has outscored opponents 419-160 overall.
“They’re pretty solid. We already know we’re the underdogs in that game, but we’ve got the chip on our shoulder. Even though we made it to the playoffs, we’ve still got that chip,” said Crews, whose team’s only losses were by one point to Shoemaker on a last-second touchdown and by two points at undefeated Midlothian two weeks ago. “We’re going to go up there and ball out and do our job. We’re going to stick to our 212 motto and just push it every time.”
WINNING MOMENT: Lake Belton senior quarterback Connor Crews passed for 300 yards and three touchdowns – to Micah Hudson, Javeon Wilcox and Ty Legg – as the third-year Broncos defeated Killeen Ellison 24-13 on Friday night at Tiger Field to clinch a playoff spot in their first season of eligibility in District 4-5A Division I. Crews, a three-year starter, finished the regular season with 2,522 passing yards and 30 touchdowns for Lake Belton (8-2, 6-2). (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Crews was 18-of-32 passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns, increasing his season totals to 2,522 yards and 30 TDs against five interceptions. Ten of his completions went to explosive junior Hudson, the 6-foot, 190-pound five-star recruit who totaled 132 yards and finished the regular season with 63 catches for 1,170 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Despite rushing for only 69 yards, Lake Belton’s potent offensive attack accumulated 354 total yards against a strong, aggressive Ellison defense that came in allowing 234 total yards per game.
“(Ellison has the) best defense in the district, and there were 11 ‘dudes’ on their defense,” Cope said. “We found a way to capitalize (in the first half) and we were able to run the ball late, which was really good.”
Crews connected with seven receivers overall, finding seniors Jaydon Leza and Christian Kunz, junior Tyus Jackson and sophomore Cash Robin along with Hudson, Wilcox and Legg.
“(The plan) was just giving the ball to our guys in space. (Ellison is) athletic out there, too, but we were confident in our guys on the outside and just trusted it,” said Crews, whose only blemish was an interception by Zy’Aire King on a deep throw intended for Hudson early in the third quarter. “We had some frustrations and mishaps, but we stayed true to the gameplan, trusted each other and we stayed as a team throughout the whole game, and I think that’s really what helped us win.”
Ellison needed to win to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and prevent Lake Belton from achieving its postseason dream. The Eagles of second-year head coach Danny Servance got 207 passing yards from sophomore quarterback Sidney Holland, highlighted by a game-tying 69-yard touchdown to Khamani Debrow 13 seconds after Crews’ 34-yard TD pass to Hudson gave the Broncos a 7-0 lead 7 minutes into the showdown.
However, Ellison rushed for only 69 yards and didn’t score again until Emory Watson’s 2-yard TD run capped the scoring with 3:24 left in the fourth quarter.
A major storm that swept across Central Texas and darkened the sky above Tiger Field delayed the game 2 hours from its original 7 p.m. start time because of numerous lightning strikes detected nearby. The teams finally entered the rain-soaked field for warmups around 7:50 and kicked off around 9 in cool, breezy conditions.
Crews said the lengthy pregame wait in the locker room didn’t have any negative effect on Lake Belton’s focus and preparation.
“We were just playing music. The guys who listen to speaker music, that’s what they were doing. I had my headset on, listening to my calm music. We’re teenagers and we’ll start goofing around and stuff, but I would say everyone was locked in the whole time,” he said. “We were laying there for, I don’t know, an hour and a half. I have no idea. Everyone was locked in and everyone was ready to go.”
An Ellison snafu on special teams helped Lake Belton break through for the early lead. The Eagles lost 4 yards on their opening possession before they bounced a snap to their punter, who couldn’t get a handle on the skidding ball. Kesean Meeks finally grabbed the ball and tried to run for a first down, but several Broncos swarmed him at the Ellison 38 for a 17-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
On fourth-and-6 from the 34, Hudson ran a post pattern from the right side and beat his defender to catch Crews’ accurate pass at the 2 and move in for the touchdown. The first of senior Cole Jackson’s three extra points gave Lake Belton a 7-0 lead with 7 minutes gone.
It didn’t take Ellison long to respond. The Eagles began the ensuing possession at their 31, and the speedy Debrow caught Holland’s deep post pass behind the secondary and sprinted in for a 69-yard touchdown and a 7-7 game with 4:52 remaining in the opening period.
But true to Lake Belton’s resilient character, the Broncos’ defense wouldn’t allow another point until the game’s final few minutes.
Facing third-and-11 from the Lake Belton 19-yard line 4½ minutes into the second quarter, the Broncos turned to their best defensive player to provide an offensive spark. Texas Christian-committed safety Wilcox ran a post route from the right side, caught Crews’ pass in stride near midfield and used his speed to outrun the last defender for an 81-yard touchdown and a 14-7 Lake Belton lead 7:20 before halftime.
IN HOT PURSUIT: Lake Belton senior safety Javeon Wilcox (5) chases Killeen Ellison receiver Bobby Williams on a long second-quarter run in Friday night's District 4-5A Division I finale at Tiger Field. Wilcox eventually made a diving tackle to prevent a would-be 67-yard touchdown and limit Williams to a 33-yard gain, and the Eagles did not go on to score on that drive as the Broncos prevailed 24-13 to clinch the first playoff berth in program history. Wilcox, a Texas Christian commitment, made an 81-yard touchdown reception from Connor Crews right before his TD-saving tackle of Williams. (Photo by Dennis Knowlton/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
As good as that play was, the hard-hitting Wilcox – the Broncos’ leading tackler for the third consecutive season – made one on the next play from scrimmage that was equally impressive and important.
Fleet-footed Ellison receiver Bobby Williams ripped around the right edge for a long run on a jet sweep and appeared to be on his way to a 67-yard touchdown gallop, but the 6-foot, 185-pound Wilcox tracked him down, dived and grabbed just enough of Williams’ foot to trip him up and limit him to a 33-yard gain to the Broncos’ 34.
Had Ellison gone on to score on that drive, Wilcox’s lunging tackle might have been a mere footnote in the game. It became vital, though, because Lake Belton’s defense stopped King’s fourth-and-1 run just short at the 25 for a momentum-changing turnover on downs.
Wilcox’s sprawling takedown of Williams didn’t surprise Crews, who commended the player nicknamed “Boom” for playing through an illness in the Broncos' must-win finale.
“He’s a dude. It’s crazy. He was sick yesterday and sick today, and he still came out here and balled out,” Crews said. “That just shows that everyone’s bought in. You have the guys who aren’t known and you have the stars who are known, and everyone is committed to our whole program. That’s what really shows, and Coach Cope has done a great job of building us and just letting us build the legacy of Lake Belton Bronco football.”
Cope has watched Wilcox make big plays like that not only during Lake Belton’s first three seasons but also going back to 2019, when Cope was Belton’s offensive coordinator and Wilcox was a freshman for the Tigers.
“Man, he’s done everything that we’ve asked and I’ve been so, so proud of that young man,” Cope said about Wilcox, who entered the Ellison game with 100 tackles and three interceptions plus five touchdown receptions. “He’s the most intelligent defensive player I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around.”
SKY-HIGH TALENT: Lake Belton junior receiver Micah Hudson (1) makes a jumping catch against a Killeen Ellison defender during the Broncos' 24-13 victory over the Eagles in Friday night's District 4-5A Division I finale at Tiger Field. Hudson, a five-star national recruit, made 10 receptions for 132 yards from senior Connor Crews, highlighted by a 34-yard touchdown 7 minutes into the first quarter. Hudson finished the regular season with 63 catches for 1,170 yards and 14 TDs for the playoff-bound Broncos (8-2, 6-2). (Photo by Dennis Knowlton/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Lake Belton kept the momentum on its side after its defense forced the turnover on downs. A third-and-14 tunnel screen pass from Crews to Hudson produced a 28-yard gain to the Ellison 27, then Crews’ 24-yard strike to Legg across the middle pushed the Broncos to the 5.
A holding penalty pushed them back 10 yards, but the versatile Legg – also a key starter on defense – separated from his defender and made a full-extension dive to catch Crews’ pass in the back-left portion of the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown that expanded Lake Belton’s lead to 21-7 with 1:14 remaining until halftime.
After Crews passed for 224 yards and three TDs in the first half, the potent Broncos uncharacteristically didn’t score a touchdown in the second half as Ellison’s sturdy defense did its best to keep the Eagles’ playoff hopes alive.
But with the disciplined way in which Lake Belton’s Randy Hooton-coordinated defense was playing, the Broncos didn’t really need to put up many additional points.
Lake Belton made a bid to increase its lead on its first possession of the third quarter. Senioir D’Arius Wilkerson’s 18-yard rush and Crews’ 17-yard pass to Cash Robin moved the Broncos to the Ellison 35, but Crews threw a deep pass for Hudson into double coverage near the right sideline and King cut in front of Hudson to intercept it and quell the threat.
“That play’s designed to go to Mike, so I’m going to throw it up even if it’s into double coverage. He’s a dude,” said Crews, whose offense came in averaging 436 yards per game. “But our defense had some great stops and that definitely motivated us on offense to keep going even if we were struggling – just to keep pushing on the gas.”
Ellison then marched from its 16 to the Lake Belton 46, but on fourth-and-1 the Eagles ran a toss play for running back Daryl Cannie and Broncos junior linebacker John Cole penetrated the backfield to tackle him for a 2-yard loss and a key turnover on downs.
Lake Belton then embarked on a time-consuming drive, mixing runs and high-percentage passes to Hudson to reach the 7 before sophomore Tommy Stephens kicked a 25-yard field goal for a commanding 24-7 lead with 25 seconds left in the third period.
After Ellison opted to punt on fourth-and-6 from its 44 on the second play of the fourth, the Broncos drained nearly 5 minutes off the clock before punting back tio the Eagles with 7 minutes remaining.
A series of crisp Holland passes to Jordan Jews, Tay’Veon Johnson and Williams drove Ellison to the 2 before Watson rushed through the middle for a touchdown. The extra point fell short, leaving Lake Belton’s advantage at 24-13 with 3:24 left.
After three consecutive rushes by senior running back Tristan Robin produced the clinching first down, the Broncos finally were able to celebrate the historic playoff berth as their fans cheered loudly from the stands.
Lake Belton had to wait until Week 11 of its third season and 20 minutes before midnight to see its long-range goal come to fruition, but that seemed to make the accomplishment even sweeter for the postseason-bound Broncos.
“I think everyone’s just ecstatic. The guys who have been playing football since they were extremely little, I saw them screaming and being as happy as they can get,” Crews said. “That’s what makes me happy, that everyone’s bought in. It’s awesome.”
A challenging first-round matchup at Burleson Centennial awaits Lake Belton next Friday night. Bring it on, say the upstart Broncos.
Said Cope: “It is. We’re in and looking forward to it."
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