FOOTBALL 2020: Cope, Lake Belton Broncos ride into first season with an eye on success down the road
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
CREWS AT THE CONTROLS: At 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds, Lake Belton sophomore quarterback Connor Crews has the capability to threaten defenses with both his throwing and running ability. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
READY TO GET GOING: Sophomore running back/linebacker Daniel Hardin (left) and sophomore receiver Jaydon Leza are aiming to help lead newly opened Lake Belton High School to success in the Broncos' first season of football. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
The band America had a hit song in 1972 called “A Horse with No Name.” Lake Belton High School enters its first year in 2020 with only sophomores and freshmen, so its Broncos will ride through their first two seasons with no district games, which means no potential for playoff games.
However, Lake Belton's enthusiastic players and coaches are willing and prepared to play the long game. They're confident that all the time and energy they invest during the next two years while playing an independent schedule will pay major dividends when coach Brian Cope's Broncos finally join a district and compete for championships and postseason berths in 2022.
“We get to start something new, and we can be the first class to go somewhere,” Lake Belton sophomore wide receiver Jaydon Leza said. “We want varsity and all that right now, but we've got to wait until that varsity year, and that'll be our time to shine and maybe do something.”
The Broncos' first regular-season opportunity to do something comes Thursday, when they travel to play Stephenville's junior varsity at 6 p.m. at Tarleton State's Memorial Stadium in Stephenville.
Lake Belton will play at fellow first-year school San Antonio Davenport on Sept. 4, then the Broncos get an open date before their home debut on Thursday, Sept. 17 when the Cameron Yoe JV comes to Belton High School's Tiger Field.
Based on how Lake Belton fared in its scrimmage at Class 4A Division I Burnet last week, sophomore quarterback Connor Crews believes the Broncos are ready to handle their first regular-season test against Stephenville's JV.
“I bet we'll definitely have some butterflies because it is our first one, but going into the Burnet scrimmage it didn't seem like we were too nervous. We came out of the box ready to fire and had some big plays right from the start,” Crews said. “I'd say against a varsity team we operated pretty well. They definitely had more experience on us, and that's what made them better than us. But as a young team, I think we did really well.
“I don't think we're going to be nervous so bad where we don't do well. I think we're going to have the good nerves to get us hyped up and ready to go.”
A first-time head coach after serving the last three years as Belton High School's offensive coordinator for then-head coach Sam Skidmore (now Belton ISD's athletic director), Cope simply added some Lake Belton silver to the red from his previous wardrobe. He said the process of putting together the Broncos' inaugural team and constructing a program that can become a consistent winner has already been exciting and rewarding.
“We have a bunch of talent and it's a lot of fun. We've got some great kids. We've got 130 (players) out right now, and for two classes that's awesome,” Cope said Monday morning during practice on the pristine artificial turf at Lake Belton's sprawling campus in northwest Temple. “They're doing a great job of taking coaching and learning our culture, which is really important to establish right now.”
Discussing how the Broncos performed in their scrimmage at Burnet, Cope said, “These kids are going to give 212 effort every chance we get.”
Perhaps a bit more explanation about that comment, Coach?
“At 211 degrees, water's hot. At 212 degrees, water boils and turns into steam and pushes the train,” Cope said. “You're going to see that 212 a lot with us, along with 'Rise Up.' Our kids didn't back down against (Burnet's) juniors and seniors. We flew around to the football and played four to six seconds each play. We can get better, but that's what I was really proud of with our kids.”
The COVID-19 pandemic didn't allow Cope to conduct a full offseason program after he was hired as Lake Belton's first head coach and campus athletic coordinator in mid-January, but he said he had enough interaction with the student-athletes – both in-person through March and then via online video meetings – to develop a good idea about the talent he had to work with.
Cope also used the time to build his first coaching staff. Dustin Washburn was hired as Lake Belton's offensive coordinator after two seasons as Mary Hardin-Baylor's offensive line coach, and Randy Hooton was brought in from Hutto to be the Broncos' defensive coordinator. Cope and Hooton previously coached together on coach David Raffield's staff at College Station A&M Consolidated.
Raffield left A&M Consolidated after 2016 to become the first football coach/athletic coordinator at Cypress Bridgeland northwest of Houston, and Cope said he's communicated often with Raffield to pick his brain about navigating the process of building a program from scratch.
“Being new and excited is awesome. Watching our coaches build relationships with the kids has been a really awesome experience as a head coach,” Cope said. “The coaches have done a great job of getting to know the kids and overcommunicating with them.”
Sophomore running back/linebacker Daniel Hardin said the Broncos have taken a liking to Cope's balanced coaching style.
“He's a really good motivator. He knows how to be soft when it's time to be soft, and he knows how to be tough when it's time to be tough,” Hardin said.
Cope described Lake Belton's offensive attack as a “power spread,” and the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Crews will be the first quarterback to direct it. The imposing sophomore has the arm strength and running ability to threaten defenses, and aiding the cause are rugged sophomore running backs Hardin and Tristan Robin and skilled receivers such as sophomores Leza, Connor Bartz and Javeon Wilcox and freshman Micah Hudson. The top linemen include Logan Gandara, Christian Kunz and Dominic Simpson.
“We're a very explosive offense. Just because we're young, I think everyone's going to be like, 'These are just little kids, so they're not experienced,' but we have a lot of explosiveness and we're not afraid to use it at all,” Crews said. “We're going to get the ball out there and let our guys work. I think we're strong in every department that we choose.”
After mentoring productive quarterbacks Connor Carothers and Ruben Jimenez at Belton, Cope said Crews has the necessary skill set to become a big-time player for Lake Belton.
“He knows our offensive backward and forward, and he's a really good leader. What I love is he's a multi-sport kid, and that's something we want every chance we can get at Lake Belton High School,” Cope said of Crews, also a baseball player. “One of the reasons this school was built was so we could have more multi-sport kids. I think the more you're involved, the more you get a chance to have a great high school experience. I want them playing everything because I want to win in everything.”
Said Crews about playing for Cope: “It's definitely nice, because it's another offensive-minded guy. At Belton High School he was the quarterbacks coach, so I also got to work with him there.”
Lake Belton's defense will employ a 3-4 alignment and favor an attacking style. Linebackers Hardin and Robin and safety Wilcox project as some of that unit's leading performers. Cope said every player on the Broncos' roster is listed with positions on both offense and defense.
“We've got a little bit of everything,” Leza said. “Connor Crews is a good quarterback and we've got a good defense.”
This season, 930-student Lake Belton plans to play all its games against other first-year programs – two games each against Davenport and Katy Jordan – or JV squads from Stephenville (two games), Yoe, Waco La Vega, Dripping Springs and San Antonio Central Catholic.
Cope said he's striving to upgrade the Broncos' schedule from a sub-varsity slate this season to more of an independent varsity schedule in 2021, when Lake Belton will have juniors and more players throughout its program. Cope projects that the Broncos will compete in a Class 5A Division I district for the 2022 and '23 football seasons.
Although Crews hasn't yet taken his first regular-season snap as Lake Belton's quarterback, he said he and his Broncos teammates already are looking forward to playing for real prizes come 2022.
“That's pretty much the big moment we're waiting for, is that final year when I'm a senior. So all of this is pretty much practice and trying to figure out each other and how we can get our chemistry up,” Crews said. “The independent schedule is definitely different, because we have to go around playing everyone anywhere. But we can pick our competition, so we want the hard competition that will make us better."
LEADING THE BRONCOS' CHARGE: After serving as Belton High School's offensive coordinator from 2017-19, Brian Cope gets his first head coaching opportunity at the new Lake Belton High School, which opens with sophomores and freshmen. The Broncos' regular-season debut is Thursday against Stephenville's junior varsity at 6 p.m. at Tarleton State in Stephenville. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)