BRONCOS' FUTURE IS NOW: Playoffs must wait, but Lake Belton hungry to keep winning in varsity debut
TEAM ON THE RISE: Junior wide receiver Connor Bartz and Lake Belton's second-year program are ready to begin their first varsity season of competition against Mexia next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Belton High School's Tiger Field, the Broncos' home venue. Bartz made 15 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns last year to help Lake Belton's top team, which consisted of sophomores and freshmen, compile a 9-1 record against a junior varsity schedule. Head coach Brian Cope expects the University Interscholastic League to have the Broncos competing in a Class 5A Division I district for the 2022 and 2023 football seasons. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
As Lake Belton High School’s rapidly growing football program enters its second season, its focus is on August 2021 and the immediate task at hand.
However, one can’t really blame the Broncos if their thoughts occasionally drift ahead to November 2022. That’s because they won’t get to compete in a University Interscholastic League district until next year, which means no league championships or playoff berths until at least their third season of action.
But even that reality can’t put much of a damper on the enthusiasm and optimism surrounding what’s happening at Lake Belton, whose top “Bronco” team achieved a 9-1 record last year while playing a junior varsity schedule with only sophomores and freshmen.
This season the Broncos of head coach Brian Cope add juniors to their roster mix as they make their first foray into varsity competition, as an independent team playing an “outlaw” schedule that begins at 7:30 p.m. next Friday against Mexia at Belton High School’s Tiger Field, the venue for Lake Belton home games.
So although the Broncos’ first playoff appearance in the state football playoffs will have to wait until at least November 2022, the future essentially is now for a talented, motivated group that expects to keep winning.
“I tell the kids, ‘Every game’s a playoff game.’ We don’t get to make a (playoff) run this year, so we’re going to treat every one like a playoff game,” said Cope, Belton’s offensive coordinator before he was hired in early 2020 to build Lake Belton’s program from the ground up. “A 10-game run is our goal – longest playoff run in school history.
“I’m really looking forward to Mexia, our first time at home on the varsity level. And I think Cameron (Yoe) and Llano are good.”
Lake Belton junior players such as wide receiver Connor Bartz are aiming to pour all their energy into preparing for this varsity debut season while also remembering that they’ll be pursuing bigger goals in 2022. Cope said he expects the Broncos to compete in a Class 5A Division I district for the 2022 and 2023 seasons after the UIL announces its next reclassification and realignment next February.
“We’re all just focusing on the next opponent, but ever since we started that’s been our goal – to develop and get ready for our senior year and the class of 2024’s junior year,” Bartz said. “(We’ll be) getting ready to be in a district and go for playoffs and all that.”
Lake Belton’s schedule – 10 consecutive weeks with games – includes its road opener Sept. 3 at Fort Worth Arlington Heights, a Sept. 17 home game against Cameron Yoe, two meetings with Katy Jordan and a season-ending battle Oct. 29 at fellow second-year school San Antonio Davenport, whose Wolves edged the visiting Broncos 42-35 early last season before Lake Belton returned the favor in strong fashion with a late-season 30-15 win at home.
Said Bartz about the payback victory against Davenport: “I think I speak for most of our team when I say that was our favorite game. We all had great energy and were flying around. We’re all ready for Week 10 against Davenport – Round 3 back at their field.”
Added junior outside linebacker Manuel Herrera: “It’s just really competitive. There’s a rivalry between us now.”
ALL ABOUT DEFENSE: Lake Belton junior outside linebacker Manuel Herrera made 33 tackles last year as a sophomore during the Broncos' 9-1 inaugural season, helping the defense allow only 223.5 total yards per game, just 76.6 against the run. Lake Belton's other key defenders include junior safety Javeon Wilcox (team-best 92 tackles), junior inside linebacker Connor Brennan (66 tackles), junior lineman Evan Roland (43 tackles), junior cornerback Bruce Onchweri (42 tackles), sophomore outside linebacker Ty Legg (67 tackles), sophomore lineman Isaiah Koonce (30 tackles) and sophomore safety Peanut Brazzle (three interceptions). (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Players such as Bartz, junior quarterback Connor Crews, junior wide receiver Jaydon Leza, junior running back/linebacker Tristan Robin, sophomore running back/linebacker Brandon Bell and sophomore safety Peanut Brazzle already have a good feel for varsity competition. They were key contributors last spring for coach Cory Beckham’s 23-11-1 Broncos baseball team that won the District 19-4A championship and advanced to the Class 4A Region III quarterfinals before losing a tight series to Lufkin Hudson.
“It’s a really good thing when you win district in baseball and you win district in track and field. That gave our kids some confidence, understanding the type of work that it takes. That’s a key,” Cope said. “With basketball and soccer, too, we have a lot of kids with varsity experience. They’re very familiar with the challenges that take place in comparison to different levels.”
Said Bartz about how Lake Belton’s baseball success can give the football team a boost: “I think it’ll really help next year, because we’ll have that playoff experience. Even though it’s a different sport, we had send-offs and a lot of special stuff for the playoffs. That was new. It’s a different routine. It’s a big stage.”
With the addition of a 115-player freshman class, Cope reported that Lake Belton has 245 players out for football and has expanded its program from three teams last year to five this season. The staff has grown from 10 coaches to 14. The 43-player varsity roster entering Thursday’s home scrimmage against Burnet included 32 juniors and 11 sophomores.
“We return 22 starters, but we return zero starters because we were a JV team last year and we’re a varsity team this year. So every spot is up for grabs and you’ve got to go compete,” Cope said. “Others are getting more well-rounded and are going to compete. We’ve had some sophomores step up to push those juniors. Any time you have competition, that breeds success.
“Our kids are bigger, faster and stronger than last year, and that’s a testament to Kade Cole, our strength and conditioning coordinator. He does a phenomenal job of building our weight program.”
Lake Belton’s offense was plenty productive in its inaugural season, generating 268.2 rushing yards and 390.4 total yards per game. Paving the way are four junior linemen: Logan Gandara, Christian Kunz, Challen Ma’lleoi and Dominic Simpson. Junior Daud Khan and sophomore Isaiah Koonce are tight ends who provide strong blocking.
“They’ve matured mentally, physically and leadership-wise,” Cope said. “We feel like we can’t be coach-driven to be great. We’ve got to be kid-driven.”
Crews returns as the starting quarterback after compiling a productive sophomore season. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder passed for 1,182 yards and 17 touchdowns against seven interceptions and rushed for 570 yards and seven TDs.
“Connor had a good sophomore year and led us to state in 7-on-7. His leadership has improved tremendously,” said Cope, who has junior Easton Hammond ready as the backup QB along with playing receiver and a key role on special teams.
Added Bartz about Crews: “He’s definitely matured this year and is spotting balls up pretty good. He’s really grown as a leader. Today was a tough practice, but he was picking everyone up.”
CREWS CONTROL: As a sophomore during Lake Belton's debut football season, quarterback Connor Crews passed for 1,182 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 570 yards and seven TDs for the 9-1 Broncos. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Crews also helped the Broncos' baseball squad win the District 19-4A championship and advance to the third round of the Class 4A playoffs. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
The Broncos have a stable of skilled running backs. Shifty junior Tristan Robin (5-6, 155) rushed for a team-leading 769 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and juniors Daniel Hardin (225 rushing yards) and D’Arius Wilkerson and sophomore Bell (270 rushing yards) are other viable options in the backfield.
“Running back is a very strong position for us, with a lot of depth,” Cope said.
Among Lake Belton’s most talented performers is sophomore Micah Hudson (6-1, 185), a four-star recruit whom Cope said plays everywhere from running back to wide receiver to defensive end to kickoff and punt returner. As a freshman, Hudson needed only 41 carries to rack up 655 yards and six touchdowns. He also made 22 catches for 466 yards and six TDs and added four more scores on kick returns en route to leading the Broncos with 96 points.
“Micah is a great character kid, works really hard at his craft and wants to be great. He’s probably the best freshman wide receiver I’ve ever coached. And he’s growing up leadership-wise, too,” Cope said of Hudson, who has scholarship offers from Baylor, Texas-San Antonio and Pittsburgh and is ranked by 247 Sports as the No. 10 recruit in Texas and No. 63 in the nation for the 2024 graduating class.
Along with Hudson, the top receivers for Crews in the passing game are juniors Bartz (15 catches, 185 yards, two TDs), Leza, two-way standout Javeon Wilcox (three TD receptions) and Hammond and sophomore Ty Legg.
“Bartz allows us to be multiple in a lot of things,” Cope said. “He’s very intelligent and we can move him all around in different spots.”
Added Bartz (5-9, 160): “We run the ball a lot, so as a receiver – me and as a group – we want to get better at blocking on outside runs. And this year we’ve worked a lot on releases and getting out of press coverages.”
GROUND GAINER: Lake Belton running back Tristan Robin returns for his junior season after leading Broncos rushers with 769 yards and 10 touchdowns for a first-year team that went 9-1 against a junior varsity schedule. The 5-foot-6, 155-pound Robin benefits from an offensive line that features juniors Logan Gandara, Christian Kunz, Challen Ma’lleoi and Dominic Simpson. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Junior Cole Jackson is back as Lake Belton’s kicker after he made nine field goals and 51 extra points to rack up 78 points, the team’s second-highest total.
Defense was an outstanding element during the Broncos’ debut season. Operating out of a 3-4 formation, coordinator Randy Hooton’s crew allowed only 223.5 yards per game overall and just 76.6 yards against the run.
“All of our top players will have a defensive position, because I think defense wins championships,” Cope said. “And even though I’m an offensive guy, I know it’s a lot easier to have an offense when your defense is really, really good.”
Outside linebacker Herrera (5-11, 190), who made 33 tackles last year, said there’s nothing fancy about the Broncos’ approach to playing stingy defense.
“It’s a combination of everything,” he said. “We just make sure we stay communicated and we’re all on the same page and just doing our job. We’re more experienced, so I feel like we’re going to be more dominant this year.”
Said Cope about Herrera’s emergence: “Man, he does a great job in our defensive scheme.”
Legg (67 tackles) is a stalwart at the other outside linebacker spot, while the group of inside linebackers includes Bell and juniors Connor Brennan (66 tackles) and Kyle Dalton. The active line features playmakers in juniors Markus Abrego, Nathaniel Bratton and Evan Roland (43 tackles) and sophomores Hudson, Koonce and Adam Walden.
In the secondary, strong play is expected from junior Bruce Onchweri (42 tackles) and sophomore Selman Bridges at cornerback and from sophomore safety Brazzle (three interceptions).
However, the leading linchpin of Lake Belton’s defense is Wilcox, the savvy, hard-hitting safety – his nickname is “Boom” – who paced the Broncos with 92 tackles and made two interceptions. Texas Football magazine lists the 6-1, 190-pound Wilcox as one of the state’s top 100 prospects in the 2023 recruiting class.
“Javeon’s the most intelligent defensive football player I’ve ever coached,” Cope said. “As a freshman, he was asking pre-AP questions. Last year, he was asking AP questions. Now, he’s almost teaching the course. You better know where he is. His nickname is ‘Boom’ for a reason. He’s a two-way threat – all the time on defense and we’ll spot play him on offense.”
Herrera explained that Wilcox’s acumen for diagnosing the opposing offense before the snap is a boon for his fellow Lake Belton defenders.
“He’s a beast. I guess he just sees the field better than all of us,” Herrera said. “He knows what’s going to happen before it even happens. He can just kind of tell.”
MAN WITH BIG PLANS: Head coach Brian Cope had only sophomores and freshmen to work with during Lake Belton's 9-1 debut season in 2020, but a 115-player incoming freshman class has expanded the Broncos' program to 245 players, five teams instead of three and 14 coaches instead of 10. Lake Belton will play its first varsity season this year – as an independent team with a 10-game "outlaw" schedule – before the Broncos join a University Interscholastic League district in 2022, the first time they'll be eligible to compete for a playoff berth. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Even if the Broncos go 10-0 this year, their second season will end on Oct. 29 at Davenport. However, their inaugural journey as a varsity team will go a long way toward shaping the caliber of squad they can put on the field in 2022 – when Lake Belton’s dreams of winning a district championship and making a long playoff run finally can turn into reality.
“I think it’s the culture we’ve established, that our kids understand what 212 effort is about and they understand what it means to ‘Rise Up,’” Cope said, referring to the Broncos’ mantras. “As I tell people, building a program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For Bartz and his comrades, it’s all about continuing to enjoy the climb as Lake Belton pushes toward building a tradition of consistent success.
“It’s been fun to watch and fun to be a part of. Last year we were a JV schedule and this year we’re a varsity schedule, so it’s been fun to watch the team take that step forward and play with more energy, fly around and be faster,” Bartz said. “We’re coming closer together as a team and playing with a better bond. Doing that, we can play better on the field."