CREWS IN CONTROL: Junior QB boosts unbeaten Lake Belton with production, leadership, intelligence
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
HORSEPOWER: Junior quarterback Connor Crews has helped the Lake Belton Broncos go 16-1 in their two seasons of football, including a 7-0 record this year in their first varsity season. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Crews rushed for three touchdowns in the second half last Saturday as Lake Belton pulled out a 21-17 win at Katy Jordan. He's accounted for 1,820 total yards and 18 TDs this season entering the Broncos' homecoming game against Austin Liberal Arts and Science Academy at 7 p.m. Friday at Belton's Tiger Field. Crews, who overcame a serious bout with COVID-19 in February, also plays baseball and maintains a 5.41 grade-point average. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Last Saturday afternoon at Jack Rhodes Memorial Stadium in Katy, the Lake Belton football team’s perfect record was in jeopardy. The Broncos trailed Katy Jordan 3-0 at halftime after their offense was uncharacteristically dormant during the opening two quarters.
As much of a struggle as it was for Lake Belton’s offense in the first half, that unusual predicament presented an opportunity for junior quarterback Connor Crews to demonstrate the leadership that the Broncos already expect from him in their program’s second year of existence.
For the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Crews, a second-year starter, all it took was some encouragement in the locker room from his teammates on the other side of the ball.
“Our defense was telling me, ‘Connor, you’ve got to lead them. This is it.’ They were talking to me at halftime and that’s when it clicked,” Crews recalled Thursday morning on Lake Belton's campus in west Temple. “I was like, ‘You know, the only way we’re going to do this is if we have someone who tells us we’ve got to do it,’ so I did it and everyone was on board.”
Crews came through with three short touchdown runs in the second half to help Lake Belton seize a four-point lead with 8 minutes remaining, and its defense delivered a final-minute stop against Jordan to secure a hard-fought 21-17 victory that kept the Broncos’ record unblemished at 7-0.
Lake Belton head coach Brian Cope wasn’t surprised at all by that clutch performance from Crews, who in addition to being a key member of the Broncos’ football and baseball squads maintains a 5.41 grade-point average – yes, you read that correctly – while carrying a full load of advanced-placement classes.
“He’s everything we’re looking for in a Bronco athlete. He was part of a district champion baseball team, and he’s a leader on the field, in the classroom and in the weight room,” Cope said about Crews. “We’re very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to coach him.”
With two games remaining in its first season of varsity-level competition, Lake Belton seeks to complete a 5-0 home record when it battles Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy (1-6) at 7 p.m. Friday in the Broncos’ homecoming game at Tiger Field on the Belton High School campus.
Lake Belton will conclude the season next Friday with a showdown at fellow second-year school San Antonio Davenport (5-2), which is responsible for the Broncos’ only loss in their 17-game history. Host Davenport edged Lake Belton 42-35 early last September, the lone defeat in its 9-1 inaugural season at the sub-varsity level. The Broncos avenged that setback by beating the Wolves 30-15 in late October at Tiger Field.
“Davenport is a big focus, but right now this week it’s all about execution and details. (LASA) has the same record as Katy Jordan and Jordan is a very difficult team, so we cannot take this team lightly at all,” Crews said. “We’ve got to go out and execute and I think we’ll be just fine.”
Added Cope, whose team has overcome several key injuries by developing better depth: “It’s an opportunity to play a fifth home game in front of our crowd. It’s homecoming, so we’ll have a lot of people there. We want to make sure we’re crisp and clicking on all the right cylinders and peaking at the right time.”
A problematic factor for Lake Belton during the first half last Saturday was that the Broncos were playing second-year school Jordan for the second time in 23 days and for the fourth time in two seasons. On Sept. 24, Lake Belton’s defense made a fourth-down stop deep in its own territory to preserve a 35-28 victory.
So when the Warriors’ defense came out in a formation the Broncos weren’t anticipating in last weekend’s rematch, it took a while for Crews and Lake Belton’s offense to make the necessary adjustments.
“Mainly we were expecting them to come out in a 3-3 (stack), so we were running our script against a 3-3, but they came out in a four-man front,” Crews explained. “So once we switched our plays and kind of flipped it around, it started clicking.”
All three of Crews’ second-half touchdown rushes took Lake Belton from three-point deficits to four-point leads, and the rugged QB finished with 88 yards on 22 carries and 147 passing yards on 9-of-17 accuracy with an interception.
Leading 21-17 after Crews’ 1-yard TD run with 8 minutes left, Lake Belton relied on its formula of ball-control offense and get-the-job-done defense to seal another close victory against Jordan.
“We had the ball with 7 minutes to go and went on our 4-minute-grind offense and got it all the way down to 1½ minutes left. Then Jordan drove down and got it to the 30-yard line, and (junior safety) Javeon Wilcox made a tackle on a screen that kept the clock running, which was a huge play,” Cope said. “The P in (Lake Belton’s mantra of) ‘Rise Up’ stands for ‘players make plays,’ and he did. They tried to get one more snap off and couldn’t get it off.”
From Cope’s viewpoint, the challenging road win was further evidence of maturation for Lake Belton, whose football program won’t have any seniors or compete in a University Interscholastic League district until the 2022 season, likely at the Class 5A Division I level.
“That’s the first time we’ve been down at halftime. What I was really proud of is that our coaching staff did a great job with adjustments. There was a calm in the locker room, and our kids understood that, ‘Hey, we’re going to come out here and win the second half,’” Cope said. “They weren’t going to back down. Our defense had some great stops and only gave up one touchdown the whole game.
“It’s tough to beat a team four times. The biggest thing is our kids are learning how to win at the varsity level. It’s real to our kids, our coaching staff and our community. We’re learning how be one degree more.”
Crews attended Belton High School as a freshman and played football and baseball for the Tigers, but he already knew based on where his family resides that he’d become a Bronco for Lake Belton’s inaugural 2020-21 school year.
“I got attached (to Belton), because my entire life I was raised as a Tiger. But once I found out about the opportunity to come over here and start the legacy, I fully embraced it,” Crews said. “It gave me a new opportunity. Not a lot of people can say, ‘I was in the first graduating class’ and ‘I was the first everything here.’ It was definitely for the best.”
Crews has been productive and consistent in two seasons as the triggerman of Lake Belton’s offense. Starting all 17 games, he’s completed 162 of 284 passes (57 percent) for 2,543 yards and 27 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Featuring a blend of physical power and sufficient speed, Crews has rushed for 1,029 yards – averaging 6.3 yards per carry – and 20 touchdowns.
“I don’t really have the jukes, but I’m not afraid to drop my shoulder on someone and let them feel it. That’s what I like to use,” Crews said about his running style. “One of (the three touchdowns at Jordan) was easy. (Junior lineman) Logan Gandara pulled and grabbed the middle linebacker and shoved him into the safety, so I just kind of walked into the end zone. That was pretty nice. The other two, I had to run over a kid or there was a pile push.”
The leading target for Crews in the passing game both seasons has been Micah Hudson, a highly athletic sophomore who paces the Broncos this year with 41 catches for 715 yards and four touchdowns and has added three rushing TDs. Hudson has scholarship offers from Baylor, Houston, Texas-San Antonio, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
“I’ve never seen a talent like that. It’s crazy what he can do,” Crews said. “He’s also very smart. You can tell he’s thinking and trying to make everyone better. There are situations where we’ll call this play, but he’s trying to run like an audible. You know he knows what he’s doing. It’s almost like having another quarterback on the field. It’s pretty cool.”
Crews said his two personal goals this season were to produce 300 total yards in a game and 2,000 for the season. His top game thus far is 293 total yards, and with 1,820 total yards he’s 180 away from the 2,000 milestone.
Said Crews: Overall this season I’ve been very happy with what’s gone on.”
“The competition level has gone up,” Cope said. “Connor’s a student of the game, and Matt Uzzell, our offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, is doing a great job with him and all our offense to make sure he’s ready to go on Friday nights.”
RAISING THE BAR: With two games remaining, including next Friday's season-ending showdown at San Antonio Davenport, Lake Belton second-year head coach Brian Cope wants to see his Broncos finish with a 9-0 record in their varsity debut before they join a University Interscholastic League district for the first time in 2022. Cope expects Lake Belton, which plays its home finale Friday night at Tiger Field, to compete in Class 5A Division I next season. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Crews enjoys being mentored and pushed by both Uzzell and Cope, who was Belton’s offensive coordinator for then-Tigers head coach Sam Skidmore before Cope was hired to build Lake Belton’s program from the ground up.
“It helps me a lot because Coach Uzzell gives me one perspective on what everything is, then Coach Cope gives me his (perspective) and I get to use two great minds to make me better, so I can make the team better,” Crews said. “It’s awesome to have an offensive-minded head coach.
“I think Coach Cope kind of treats me like I’m his son. And that’s good, because if he’s not pushing me, then that’s not going to make us better,” he added. “He does get on Boom (Wilcox) because he knows Boom has potential, and also Micah Hudson. Really, it’s equal with everyone. He wants all of us to become better.”
Said Cope: “You always want to push your kids. We always want to raise the bar. Last year I felt like we were setting the standard, and this year we’re trying to raise the bar. And we’ll continue to raise the bar.”
Crews already was 6-2 and 215 pounds entering his sophomore season, but going into Lake Belton’s baseball season around last February’s prolonged arctic storm he dealt with a serious health situation as he contracted COVID-19, causing him to lose approximately 20 pounds. The virus also hit his father, Clayton, very hard, leading him to be hospitalized in the intensive care unit. Connor Crews eventually recovered, as did his dad.
“It was a really hard time for me and my family. My dad went to ICU. It was a very scary time in my life,” Crews said. “I had COVID-19 really bad, so I lost about 20 pounds. I still haven’t fully regained it all back, but I’m stronger now than I was then with more weight.”
Said Cope about what Crews endured: “We checked on him often and his family often. We’re very thankful that everything has worked out for all parties. I know there’s hundreds of thousands of people where it has not worked out. It’s something we’re very thankful for in our family’s case here, because it feels like our football program and athletic program is a family.
“Connor’s worked tirelessly to get (his weight and strength) back. We also managed it when he came back to make sure we didn’t just throw him back in there.”
Crews said it wasn’t until the latter stages of Lake Belton’s successful debut baseball season that his conditioning improved and he started feeling like his normal self again. He pitched and played first base, third base and outfield as coach Cory Beckham’s 23-11-1 Broncos won the District 19-4A championship and reached the 4A Region III quarterfinals.
“That’s when everything started coming back and my hitting started to click again. And when it came to the weight room and we were maxing, I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m back.’ I was able to power clean more than what I had done,” said Crews, who’s played travel baseball for the Waco Storm since age 11.
After he and his family overcame a major health crisis, Crews has even more appreciation for the medical profession as he aims to pursue a career as an anesthesiologist. His courses at Lake Belton include medical microbiology, health science theory, and anatomy and physiology, along with advanced-placement pre-calculus, U.S. history and English III.
While taking a short break from his medical microbiology class, Crews said his academic workload is very rigorous but worth the extra effort he must put into it.
“It is another level of stress you have to add, but if I want to go to the next level for sports, I’m going to have to deal with it then, so it’s good practice now,” Crews said. “My parents have always raised me that school is first and sports are never ahead of school.
“So when it comes to needing to get my homework done, I can’t go get some extra reps. I’ve got to be school first before I go do extra. There’s SAT prep, ACT prep. So sometimes my friends will go, ‘Hey, do you want to hang out?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Sorry, I’ve got to study.’”
Crews said he’s received recruiting interest in football from Baylor, Texas Christian, Rice, Cincinnati and Dartmouth and in baseball from Dallas Baptist and some NCAA Division II programs.
“Right now I’m just going to let it play out. I would love the opportunity to play baseball or football, or if I get a chance to play both that would be really cool,” Crews said. “I was born and raised a baseball kid because my brother played it. Some things happened with him in football, so I was like, ‘I’m going to carry that on, too.’ Any opportunity I get, I would love to take it.”
Another moment of adversity Crews had to overcome occurred in Lake Belton’s Sept. 17 home game against Cameron Yoe. On his 8-yard run 2 minutes before halftime, Crews was stricken by cramps and had to be helped off the field.
“My entire body cramped, and every time I drank water during halftime I’d just immediately throw it up,” Crews said. “I go through cramps all the time. I have a hard time retaining water. I just sweat. I’m a super-sweater. My (baseball) clothes weigh like 20 pounds in the summer. It’s bad.”
Junior backup quarterback Easton Hammond held down the proverbial fort until Crews finally was able to return early in the fourth quarter, then Crews immediately connected with junior Jaydon Leza for a 64-yard touchdown pass that helped the Broncos earn a 28-14 victory.
“Some of the parents who are doctors were checking on me and they said, ‘He’s good to go.’ And mentally I was like, ‘I can’t give up on my team,’” Crews said. “So I came back in and we got another win. It was pretty cool. Easton did a great job. He’s very versatile.”
Crews is a big fan of watching Lake Belton’s deep, formidable defense from the sideline, knowing that group has been vital to the Broncos’ success both seasons.
“Those guys always turn up the intensity, and that’s what’s awesome about our defense. I don’t think there’s a single weak position we have on that side of the ball,” Crews said. “We’re super athletic, from big Adam Walden in the middle on nose to our cornerbacks with Selman Bridges to our safeties with Boom (Wilcox) and then our middle linebacker, Connor Brennan. Everyone has a unique ability, and when they need to turn it on, they always turn it on.”
Cope also identified sophomore free safety Peanut Brazzle, junior cornerback Bruce Onchweri and junior Keshawn Baptiste as productive members of the Broncos’ secondary.
Crews has special praise for the savvy Wilcox, who’s made a team-leading 77 tackles from his weak safety post as essentially the quarterback of Lake Belton’s defense.
“He doesn’t voice it a lot, but you can tell he’s just extremely knowledgeable about the game,” Crews said. “Everyone has his respect and everyone looks up to him. He knows it, but he doesn’t take advantage of that. He always gives everyone else respect, too, which is nice.”
Lake Belton’s juniors have known since before their sophomore season that they’ll have only one opportunity to pursue a district championship, a playoff berth and other things such as all-district awards, when they’re seniors in 2022. They certainly have those long-range goals, but Crews said the Broncos are good about living in the present instead of thinking too much about future possibilities.
“We mainly focus on our task at hand for that week and that game. I can count on one hand the times I’ve talked about the next season, because I’m always focused on the present,” Crews said. “And pretty much everyone on the team is always focused on the now, because if we do well now, that’ll make us better for the future.”
When Llano canceled its scheduled Oct. 1 home game against Lake Belton, that took away the Broncos’ opportunity to achieve their first 10-win season. But an unbeaten campaign remains possible, and the standout junior quarterback says his team's driving force is a chemistry and brotherhood that continues to get stronger.
“At the beginning of last year, it was a whole bunch of individuals, and throughout the first season, we slowly were clicking together. But I feel like this season we accepted the word ‘family’ and united together,” Crews said. “That’s been my main word throughout the year talking to all the guys: family.
“We’ve really connected and we’re starting to click more. Next year when we want to get to the next level for the playoffs, we’ll have to be a unit and a family to get all the way through it. Once we become a cohesive unit, I think we’ll really become unstoppable at that point."