RUN AND SHOOT: Football talents translate to hoops as Cephus, Mraz help boost Academy playoff charge
SEASONED PERFORMERS: Academy senior guards Jerry Cephus (left) and Kollin Mraz have helped lead the 16th-ranked Bumblebees (20-7) to 13 consecutive wins and a berth in the Class 3A Region III semifinals against No. 7 New Waverly (26-1) at 6 p.m. Friday at Madisonville High School. Both players are tenacious defenders, while Cephus is a streaky shooter who averages 11.1 points per game and Mraz leads the team with 5.7 rebounds per game. Academy is 39-1 in District 19-3A play during their three varsity seasons together. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – With his shooting and passing skills and confident, take-charge personality, junior point guard Darion Franklin easily could be described as the quarterback of Academy's highly successful boys basketball team.
The irony in such a description is that although Franklin is also a skilled football player, his fellow starting guards Jerry Cephus and Kollin Mraz actually are quarterbacks for the Bumblebees. Cephus is a three-year starting quarterback who's committed to play football at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, while his fellow senior Mraz is a wide receiver who's caught many a pass from Cephus and also has often filled in capably at QB when Cephus had to miss time because of injury.
For the record, all five players in Academy's starting basketball lineup also were multifaceted standouts on the gridiron for last fall's playoff squad: Cephus at quarterback and outside linebacker; Mraz at receiver, cornerback and punter along with part-time QB duties; Franklin at running back and inside linebacker; senior wing Jaylin McWilliams at receiver and cornerback; and senior power forward Tanner Rambeau as a lineman on both defense and offense.
Nobody who's seen the 6-foot-2, 165-pound Mraz fire a long, one-armed pass toward the other end of the basketball court to a sprinting teammate – usually McWilliams, Franklin or Cephus – to lead to a layup would be surprised to learn that playing quarterback is a big part of his athletic background.
“It's fun just throwing it, and we're all pretty good at it. I think that's just us being eager to score the ball. We're all fast-paced players and we enjoy doing stuff like that,” Mraz said after Tuesday afternoon's practice as No. 16-ranked Academy (20-7) prepared for its Class 3A Region III semifinal clash with No. 7 New Waverly (26-1) at 6 p.m. Friday at Madisonville High School.
Academy fifth-year head coach James Holt has seen enough of Mraz's aggressive, long-range passes to make sure they're a weapon that the Bumblebees take full advantage of.
“Kollin's got a great arm. He plays baseball, and he filled in for Jerry (vs. McGregor last Oct. 2) and had one game with four touchdown passes. And so when he gets that rebound, the first thing he's thinking is, 'Is somebody open? Is somebody breaking?'” Holt said of Mraz, who also leads all Bees players in rebounds. “And then he's confident enough in his ability. He's going to take a look at it. He's good at making the decision of, 'Should I throw it, or should I give it to the point guard and let's get up the floor?' He doesn't force a ton. His decision-making in that style is pretty good.”
Added Franklin: “Kollin can rebound the ball and throw it down the court. He's very valuable. I'd say he's our Dennis Rodman.”
FROM WAY DOWNTOWN: Academy senior shooting guard Jerry Cephus has NBA range as a 3-point gunner and ranks second on the Bumblebees with 34 3-pointers made. The three-year varsity player averages 11.1 points per game and is a go-to defender for head coach James Holt, who often tasks Cephus with guarding the opponent's best or second-best offensive threat. Cephus also was a first-team all-district performer at quarterback and has committed to continue his football career at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
As for the 5-11, 170-pound Cephus, he's a streaky shooting guard whose 34 3-point field goals rank second on Academy's team to Franklin's 51. Although Cephus is a skilled offensive player who averages 11.1 points per game – fourth on the squad behind McWilliams (15.2), Franklin (14.3) and Rambeau (11.2) – it's his performance as a tenacious defender that has impressed his coach the most.
“I think even better than Jerry's shooting is his defense. He is a really good defensive player,” said Holt, whose Bees have allowed 47 points or fewer in five consecutive games, including playoff wins against Teague, Scurry-Rosser and No. 17 Franklin last Saturday. “We've got a lot of good defensive players on this team, but one of his things he's just great at is if you say, 'Hey, don't let this guy get a shot,' then the kid's not getting a shot.
“Against Franklin he guarded (6-1 forward Hayden Helton), who I thought was their best 3-point shooter, and I'm not sure he got a clean look all game. I think the first shot he took was probably halfway through the second quarter and it was contested and he was falling out of bounds. Jerry does a great job defensively. He's a guy that we put on the other team's best player or second-best player.”
Cephus plays with an attacking style on offense and has a quick trigger and NBA range from beyond the 3-point arc, but he knows that defense – he averages 1.5 steals per game – is his bread and butter.
“I like shutting down the (opponent's) best player, so I'd say defense,” he said as to which end of the floor he enjoys more.
“Jerry's a shooter, and he will hustle. Jerry's a hustler. Defensive-wise, he's just always going. His motor's never stopping,” Mraz said when asked to describe Cephus' game. “Offensive-wise, we know he's going to shoot the ball. He's not scared to shoot it, at all.”
Sitting nearby, Franklin chimed in on what he likes about Cephus, although some good-natured ribbing was part of the deal.
“Jerry's a dog. He's not a dog as much as I think he is, because he can't guard me, but yeah, he's a dog,” joked Franklin, who could join Rambeau (2018-19) and McWilliams (2019-20) as the third consecutive Academy player to win District 19-3A's Most Valuable Player award. “I'd say he's very streaky and very valuable to this team. Without Jerry, I don't know where we'd be.”
Both Cephus and Mraz have played three seasons of varsity basketball together, helping Academy compile a 39-1 district record (26-0 the last two years) while winning three 19-3A championships and making three straight trips to at least the Region III quarterfinals. Friday's semifinal bout with New Waverly – winner of its last 26 games – is the Bees' 10th playoff game in three years.
Cephus was a first-team all-district selection last season for 30-7 Academy, which was stopped by Crockett in the third round for the second straight year. He averaged 9.2 points and 1.6 steals per game during district and postseason competition while shooting 39.5 percent on 3-point attempts.
Although his shooting percentage from 3-point range this season was 23.4 percent through the bi-district playoff round, Cephus at times can be Academy's most prolific offensive player on the floor, whether that means firing 3-pointers or penetrating for layups.
In the Bees' regular-season finale at rival Rogers, Cephus broke open a close game by making three 3-pointers and scoring all 13 of his points during a third-quarter barrage to pace a 53-32 victory. After scoring six first-half points against Franklin, Cephus suddenly exploded for three 3-pointers and 11 points in the third period to help Academy build an insurmountable 56-34 lead. He tied Franklin for the team lead with 17 points as the Bees rolled to a 69-47 win over the 20-3A champion Lions.
“I think I've always been like that. I feel like I'm a streaky scorer. If I get hot, I get going,” Cephus said.
Cephus also was a first-team all-district selection at quarterback during his senior football season, which included 38 tackles on defense. The dual-threat performer passed for 1,877 yards and 23 touchdowns with eight interceptions and rushed for 465 yards despite missing Academy's second and third district games because of a foot injury.
Mraz stepped in at quarterback against McGregor and passed for 271 yards and four touchdowns, capped by his scrambling, 8-yard pass to sophomore Alex Lawton with 15 seconds remaining to give the Bees a dramatic 45-42 victory on homecoming.
Needing to beat Troy in the regular-season finale to earn the final playoff berth in District 11-3A Division I, a healthy Cephus threw four first-half touchdown passes to Mraz – who caught a fifth TD before halftime from freshman running back Zane Clark – to spark Academy's 42-21 win that gave the Bees a perfect home record.
Academy didn't have enough firepower to keep up with Texas-committed running back Jonathon Brooks and eventual state runner-up Hallettsville in a 61-26 bi-district playoff loss one week later, but Cephus and Mraz still connected for touchdown passes of 16 and 13 yards.
A first-team all-district choice at receiver and punter, Mraz finished with 31 receptions for 366 yards and nine TDs along with 634 yards and eight TDs as a passer, plus six interceptions (second on the team to McWilliams' eight picks) and 31 tackles on defense.
Mraz said the camaraderie and toughness the 7-4 Bees developed during their first football season with head coach Chris Lancaster helped pave the way for the many things Academy's basketball team has achieved this season.
“Personally, I think football this year brought us closer than any other year,” Mraz said. “Usually after football season's over we're a little roughed up and hate each other, but this year we were just ready to win some more. We weren't so beat up.”
Mraz isn't necessarily known for his scoring on the basketball court, although he doesn't need to be with McWilliams, Franklin, Rambeau and Cephus fully capable of providing the bulk of Academy's points. Mraz ranks seventh on the Bees team with 4.5 points per game, but where he really shines is as a rebounder. The slender, athletic Mraz leads Academy with 4.0 defensive rebounds and 5.7 total boards per game and complements his glass work with stellar defense and passing, ranking second on the squad with 2.9 steals and 2.8 assists per game.
“Luckily I enjoy the defensive side of the game and getting rebounds. I enjoy those little hustle plays,” said Mraz, an honorable mention all-district player last season who broke into Academy's starting lineup this season after the graduation of hustle player Rian White, last year's lone senior. “I would much rather have Jerry, Darion or any of them shooting the ball and me under the basket getting rebounds. We need a rebounder. They're all natural scorers.”
Cephus said Mraz is a good shooter and dunks easily during practices but made it clear that Mraz's relentless effort as a rebounder is what gives Academy the biggest lift.
“He can pull any board that I've seen. He gets a lot of boards for us and that's huge,” Cephus said. “He's a good facilitator, too.”
Holt said Mraz's role as a consistent rebounder is vital for the veteran, balanced Bees.
“Kollin's taken pride in being a really good rebounder. He leads us in rebounding for the year and really works at doing that,” Holt said of Mraz, one of four Academy players to play in all 26 games (one win was by forfeit). “If the opposing teams don't account for him, he's going to go get offensive rebounds. He's able to get up, and that's part of the reason why he's such a good rebounder. But more important than him having the athleticism to do it, rebounding is so much of a desire thing.
“If you want to be a good rebounder, you will attack and try to go get rebounds. And he wants to be a good rebounder, so that's why he gets so many rebounds. He's run in and gotten rebound putbacks before. He'll go get a rebound and kick it out and then we'll get another shot at scoring on that possession.”
Whereas talented scorers such as McWilliams, Franklin and Cephus rarely pass up an open shooting opportunity, Mraz is much more likely to turn down a good shot in favor of trying to pass the ball to an open teammate for an even better shot – even when his teammates and Bees fans are urging him to shoot.
“I don't think my first reaction once I touch the ball is to score. It's more of look and observe. I think that goes back to football, just always growing up being a quarterback,” said Mraz, who owns Academy's best assist-to-turnover ratio. “I believe in the other guys on my team a lot more than I do on my end of scoring, so I would much rather see them get a bucket.”
Said Holt: “Kollin's going to attack the basket and go get a layup every once in a while. He's probably not looking to score a ton of points, but he picks his spots when he has an opportunity. Like against Franklin, he broke the press and dribbled in. He didn't score, but he dumped it off to Tanner and we got a layup.
“I think his teammates are telling him to shoot it sometimes, because they're confident he can make the shot. But I also think he's not really worried about his points. He's worried about us getting the best shot possible and if that's him, it's him. If it's somebody else, then he's willing to find the open player.”
Mraz has committed a team-high 2.3 fouls per game and picked up his third foul early in the second quarter against Franklin, but Academy's confidence in junior reserve guards Trae Rambeau and Chris Preddie as well as other backups gives Mraz the freedom to keep playing his aggressive all-around game without fearing the consequences of foul trouble.
“I say it all the time: If Trae started over me right now, that's nothing but extra points on the board,” Mraz said. “All the guys throughout our team, we're solid. I believe in them.”
While Cephus will continue his football career at UMHB, Mraz has no plans to extend his days as an athlete beyond high school. He will enroll in the two-year welding program at Texas State Technical College in Abilene. That will get him much closer to his sister, Kamryn Mraz, a 2018 Academy graduate who as a playmaking point guard helped lead the Lady Bees to the 2016 state semifinals. She's a redshirt sophomore guard at Abilene Christian University and has averaged 8.5 points while starting all 20 games this season.
“I'm going to trade school in Abilene to get certified in all my welding gigs. I've always just been around that stuff,” said Mraz, who estimated that he has “15 to 20” tattoos. “I miss being around Kam. That's the whole reason I'm going to Abilene. (TSTC has) the same school in Waco, but I'd rather be closer to Kam.”
With Academy needing one win Friday evening and another Saturday afternoon to earn the Region III crown and its first state semifinal berth since the 2001-02 Bumblebees captured the 2A state championship, Mraz said he and his teammates find themselves in a great position after their previous two seasons were stopped by Crockett in the Region III quarterfinals.
“It's been a struggle these past two years. I mean, we've wanted (to advance to) state since we were little kids,” Mraz said. “Getting past that (third round), we all think we've got a good chance. We're just having fun while we're doing it."