THE BUZZ IS BACK: After Academy's strong first season with Lancaster, revamped Bees eye more success
EXPECTING TO WIN: The Academy Bumblebees went 7-4 and earned a Class 3A Division I playoff berth last season in head coach Chris Lancaster's first season. Caden Berry (left) started every game as a freshman center and gained 30 pounds during the offseason, and John Tomasek is making the transition from outside linebacker to defensive end as a senior. Academy begins its season against traditional rival Rogers at 7:30 p.m. Friday at John Glover Stadium, where the Bees notched a 5-0 record last year. Their District 11-3A D-I opener is Sept. 24 at home against defending champion and No. 8-ranked Lorena. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – It is a fact that the Academy Bumblebees qualified for the playoffs last year in Chris Lancaster’s first season as their head coach. However, they did not advance to the playoffs because they spent a lot of time talking about it.
Instead, advancing to postseason play was the biproduct of what Lancaster’s Bees did throughout the season. They showed up, worked hard, pushed each other, continued to improve and made the necessary adjustments to overcome injuries and other obstacles.
The result was a 7-4 record, concluding with a 61-26 bi-district loss to superstar running back Jonathon Brooks and eventual Class 3A Division I state runner-up Hallettsville.
“My whole goal last year was to make sure our seniors had the best year of their lives, no matter how long it lasted (because of the COVID-19 pandemic),” Lancaster said. “I wanted them to play as many plays as they could, because you never knew when the season (would end). Just go have fun.”
Memories of Academy’s breakthrough season – fueled by a crew of reliable seniors and a slew of two-way starters – serve as motivation for returning players such as senior defensive end John Tomasek.
“It was great. The senior group from last year really helped push us forward. They did a great job and took us under their wing,” said Tomasek, who last year was a second-team All-District 11-3A D-I selection at outside linebacker. “We worked very hard and the experience was awesome, unlike anything I’d experienced before. It was definitely fun.
“I think the goal is always to work our way up, and that’s where we’ve set our goal this year. We want to be up there high in the district. We just want to make a run.”
Academy begins its trek against traditional rival Rogers at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the friendly confines of John Glover Stadium, where the Bees went 5-0 last season and beat Troy 42-21 in the regular-season finale to seize the district’s fourth and final playoff berth. Academy earned a season-opening 20-15 victory at Rogers last year.
The 54-year-old Lancaster has absorbed some things in 32 years of coaching in high school and college, and one of them is that teams succeed when they focus on maximizing each day instead of worrying too much about long-range goals.
“You start small, and then you get big. I do know this: When you’re dealing with youngsters, you’ve got to focus on the main thing, and if you’re taking care of the main thing, the rest of the stuff will come. It will happen,” said Lancaster, whose squad built momentum by going 4-0 in non-district action with consecutive home shutouts of Groesbeck and Lago Vista. “That’s our motto this year: Hard work pays off. If you aim small, you miss small. If you aim big, you miss big.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen last year. I hadn’t been around these boys. We had the COVID-19 (situation). We just didn’t know,” he added. “What we had to do was fight. I had some character, and some characters. We still had our problems and our warts, but our coaching staff did a great job of hiding all that and we just keep focusing. So let’s just worry about today, and if you take care of today, the next day’s easier. If we sit here and start talking about playoffs, then we’re going to get bitten in the butt somewhere.”
SEASONED PERFORMER: Academy two-way starter Darion Franklin is primed for a big senior season at inside receiver and strongside linebacker. As a running back last year he made 39 receptions for 471 yards and four touchdowns, and his 90 tackles ranked second behind the 102 of then-sophomore linebacker Lane Ward. Bumblebees head coach Chris Lancaster called Franklin, who helped Academy's basketball team advance to last season's Class 3A state semifinals, "probably the most influential person in this community to our youth." (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
A firm believer in Lancaster’s seize-the-day approach is versatile senior Darion Franklin, a first-team all-district linebacker who also scored 13 total touchdowns last year. After helping lead Academy’s basketball team to last season's state semifinals, the confident Franklin – a district Co-Most Valuable Player and All-Region III player on the court – is hungry to make the most out of his final football run with his Bees.
“This is my last camp, so I’m taking all of it in. Every practice I go 100 percent, because you never know when it’s your last game, last practice, last anything,” said Franklin, who’s moving from running back to slot receiver to further utilize his pass-catching skills. “I feel like I have a bigger role this year. I have a lot of stuff on my plate that I need to clean up and make sure everybody’s good to go.”
Franklin and Tomasek are two of only 10 seniors on Academy’s initial roster as the Bees entered their lone scrimmage last Thursday against Hillsboro. There are 11 juniors and also 11 sophomores, five of whom got varsity playing time as freshmen.
One of them is starting center Caden Berry, who’s grown from a 5-foot-8, 195-pound freshman into a 5-10, 225-pound sophomore thanks to a rigorous offseason training regimen.
“I got called up during camp (in 2020). My goal was obviously to be on varsity,” explained Berry, an honorable mention all-district pick. "But my door opened up when our starting center got injured and I got an opportunity to play the first snap against Rogers. Since then I’ve been starting. It was a whole bunch of wanting to have a different outcome this year and a whole lot of coaches helping me out with making sure I got good protein and stayed in the weight room.”
Academy’s projected starting offensive line includes Berry and four other sophomores: right tackle and returning starter Jake Jones, left tackle Adam Caddell and a rotation of Tyler Burnett and Orlando Feregrino at right guard. The other starting lineman is senior left guard Dylan Gardner. Juniors Ryan Meredith and Daniel Munoz-Garcia also are in the line mix.
“I think our personnel is very similar to what we were last year. We had a lot of concerns last year about whether we could actually run the football,” said Lancaster, whose offense generated only 104.6 rushing yards per game. “And this year that’s still my concern, because we’re all sophomores and one senior on the offensive line. We’ve got sophomores who played as freshmen, and a lot of them have put in a lot of work this summer.”
Although Academy’s school district as a whole is experiencing continuous growth and might soon move up to 4A along with constructing new academic and athletic facilities, Lancaster said quality depth remains a concern.
“I’d love to have three teams,” he said, “but we’re just not there yet.”
Academy utilized at least eight two-way starters last season, including Franklin, then-sophomore Scout Brazeal and then-seniors Jerry Cephus, Wyatt Gardner, Tyler Lambert, Jaylin McWilliams, Kollin Mraz and Tanner Rambeau.
“No doubt (we would like to bring that number down),” Lancaster said, “but we’re in the situation again where we’re going to have to play a lot of people on both sides of the ball.”
Said Tomasek: “As sad as it was to see those seniors go, I’m not too worried. We’ve got a good group of people who work hard. Our numbers are short, but these are the guys you want.”
The Bees’ overall depth was depleted during the offseason when at least five returning and/or projected varsity players either decided not to play football or moved away.
“Those names right there would really benefit our roster and help us depth-wise and starting-wise, where we could free up some guys to just play one way,” Lancaster said. “(But) I’m always an optimistic guy. When adversity’s hitting you . . . OK, move on. That’s all you can do. If you’re going to sit here as a coach and get frustrated, then you need to get out of this business, because it is not going to change.”
One major change for Academy will be at quarterback, with dual-threat standout Cephus having moved on to Mary Hardin-Baylor after starting the better part of three seasons for the Bees. Last year he passed for 1,877 yards and 23 touchdowns and rushed for 465 yards – also playing well at outside linebacker – despite missing multiple district games because of injury.
“Jerry was probably the best all-around quarterback I’ve ever coached,” said Lancaster, who shifted then-senior and productive receiver Kollin Mraz to QB – he threw a last-minute TD pass to then-sophomore Alex Lawton to beat McGregor – when Cephus was sidelined.
Academy’s new starting quarterback is sturdy sophomore left-hander Kasey Mraz, who’s Kollin’s brother and is a skilled thrower with no varsity experience but plenty of potential.
“He got every snap on JV. We plucked our best freshmen to come up on varsity last year, so poor Kasey on JV had to run for his life. He had to adapt and grow up,” Lancaster said. “His demeanor is awesome, where nothing spooks him and he doesn’t get rattled. He played a lot of 7-on-7 tournaments (this summer), but I have to jump on him every day: ‘Hey, this is 11-on-11. You’ve got to make different decisions and things move faster.’
“He’s got an arm. Our biggest concern is he’s left-handed, so I’m tweaking protections and this and that. I’m trying to learn what Kasey feels comfortable with. He says, ‘Coach, just keep it all the same. I’ll adjust.’ And that’s really the attitude I wanted to hear.”
Said Franklin: “Kasey matured fast during 7-on-7 and he’s going to mature fast in pads.”
Slated as a starting receiver and cornerback, Lawton also will serve as the backup QB.
“This year Alex Lawton probably could be our quarterback, too, but I need Alex and Kasey to be on the field. I can’t play two quarterbacks,” Lancaster said.
Mraz has a plethora of capable receivers to throw to, including Lawton. Franklin made 39 receptions for 471 yards and four touchdowns last season and is excited about his move to slot receiver.
“Coach Lancaster wanted to get the ball in my hands more without me getting beat up and to get me in space,” the 6-foot, 195-pound Franklin said. “I love to catch the ball. I don’t like getting the ball handed to me.”
EMERGING TARGET: Academy wide receiver Scout Brazeal makes a 70-yard touchdown reception as part of his four-catch, 106-yard performance during the Bumblebees' 61-26 bi-district playoff loss to eventual Class 3A Division I state runner-up Hallettsville last November. This season the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Brazeal will start at receiver and also safety, where he made 83 tackles and two interceptions as a sophomore in 2020. (File photo by Dean Kibler/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
The fleet-footed Brazeal (6-1, 175) will be counted on at outside receiver after making 18 catches for 224 yards as a sophomore. He grabbed four receptions for 106 yards with a 70-yard touchdown in the playoff loss to Hallettsville.
“Scout’s got the deep threat, he’s got the speed and boy, his route running is just impeccable,” Lancaster said. “Good route runners know how to create separation. The light has clicked on and he’s probably going to get a lot of recruiting notice.”
Said Tomasek: “Scout works really hard and has great stamina from running for basically his whole life. He knows how to keep up with himself on the football field and does it really well on both sides of the ball.”
Added Franklin: “Scout’s really fast, and he’s streaky. He could be having a bad game, and then he’d have the best game of his life.”
Another intriguing prospect at inside receiver is Trae Rambeau, who hadn’t played football since middle school before he decided to return to the gridiron for his senior season.
“He’s so athletic, he just glides out there,” Lancaster said about Rambeau, who's also a standout guard in basketball. “Now, we’ll know more after (the Hillsboro scrimmage) when we’ve actually got to tackle and all that.”
Said Tomasek about Rambeau: “I’ve got complete and utter confidence in him. He’s got great athleticism, and I think he knows enough about the game to take him where he needs to be.”
Senior Blake Bundy is back after a recurring foot injury sidelined him for the Bees’ final nine games. He’ll start at outside receiver and safety along with handling the kicking duties.
“He’ll be the best kicker in the district, I think,” said Lancaster, whose other receiving options include senior Cole Stewart and junior Evan Lewis.
Academy’s offense seeks to upgrade its running game with the tandem of junior Brayden Bartlett – a regional qualifier in the 100-meter dash – and shifty sophomore Zane Clark, who earned late-season playing time on varsity.
“I don’t know yet if Kasey is a runner but I do know he’s a thrower, so we’re going to have to find a way to run the ball with our tailbacks. I feel good about our two tailbacks,” said Lancaster, who calls the plays for Academy’s pro-style attack. “Zane’s great out of the backfield and is a good route runner with good hands. That allows us to move Darion to inside receiver, and he’s another tailback that I can always bring to the backfield.”
Burnett played tight end/H-back last season, but he’s grown into a 240-pound sophomore who’s now a right guard and also practicing at left tackle. That opens the door for sophomore Luke Tomasek to start at fullback/H-back, backed up by sophomore Cartier Nealy.
On defense, Academy is switching its base formation from a 3-4 to a 4-3 after allowing 234.5 rushing yards and 323.9 total yards per game last season. In the playoff game against powerful Hallettsville, the Texas-committed Brooks ran for 246 yards and five of his seven total touchdowns that day.
“We struggled a little bit in a three-man front. You’ve got to be able to control the gaps,” Lancaster said. “So with our personnel this year and our weight room improvements, we decided to be a four-man front. It looks better.”
Dependable junior Lane Ward returns as the weakside linebacker after leading Academy with 102 tackles.
“He’s so small that nobody can see him,” Lancaster joked about Ward, a second-team all-district performer. “It’s boom and he’s there. That’s a kid we need to stay healthy. It’s a rough, violent game, but he does a great job of avoiding blockers in a way where it doesn’t get him out of his gaps. He’s just real smart about it.”
Franklin will man the strongside linebacker spot after making 90 tackles last year, and junior Clayton Lawson (29 stops) moves from nose tackle to middle linebacker.
“Sometimes Clayton runs too fast and overruns a cutback, so we’ve got to slow him down a bit. But he’s a hard charger and a great guy. We have to kick him out of the weight room,” said Lancaster, who gets linebacker depth from senior Carson Costa.
After a long summer on the travel baseball circuit, John Tomasek (6-2, 195) has embraced his transition from linebacker to end.
“I’m liking it very well. I’m just trying to fit in the best possible way to help the team,” he said. “I’m still standing up, but you’ve got to be fast off the line to get in the backfield.”
Stewart will start at the opposite end. As for the interior linemen, look for a two-man rotation at each spot. Burnett will play at a tackle position after gaining significant size and strength during the offseason. Feregrino also is contending there. Dylan Gardner and Berry are competing at the nose tackle post.
The starting cornerbacks are Lawton (35 tackles) – a second-team all-district safety last year – and Trae Rambeau. The safeties are second-team all-district pick Brazeal (83 tackles, two interceptions) and Bundy.
Texas Football magazine predicts Academy to again capture the fourth and final playoff berth in seven-team 11-3A Division I, behind reigning champion Lorena and Milam County archrivals Cameron Yoe and Rockdale, respectively. Texas Football placed Lorena at No. 8 and Yoe at No. 20 in the 3A D-I state rankings.
The Bees have a favorable district schedule, beginning league play Sept. 24 at home against Lorena and also hosting Yoe and Rockdale.
“That’s a big district opener right there. I have a lot of respect for Lorena and its coach, Ray Biles,” Lancaster said. “You really don’t know until you watch film, but I would think Lorena is going to have the step up on everybody.”
STEADY LEADER: A veteran of 32 years in coaching at the high school and college levels, Chris Lancaster guided Academy's 2020 team to a 7-4 record and a Class 3A Division I playoff berth in his debut season. Because of the Bumblebees' limited roster depth, Lancaster plans to utilize a large group of two-way starters for the second straight season. Academy opens its season by hosting traditional rival Rogers at 7:30 p.m. Friday at John Glover Stadium. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
John Tomasek noted the positive direction of Academy’s program under the guidance of Lancaster, who seeks to lead the Bees to their first back-to-back playoff berths since 2014-15.
“He’s come in and really taken us under his wing and showed us love as a coach,” Tomasek said. “He provides a father figure to some. He’s helped us a lot, just being a guy we can turn to.”
Lancaster enjoys joking around with his players and keeping the mood jovial when possible. For example, he laughed as he said about the loquacious Franklin: “We should call him Loudmouth or Mouthpiece, because he’s running that mouth steadily. But he backs it up.”
However, the Bees’ coach also often becomes serious and philosophical.
“I’m going to tell you what about Darion Franklin, and I told him this: I’ve been here a year and a half, and he’s probably the most influential person in this community to our youth,” Lancaster said. “He’s out there with our little league football players on Saturdays. He loves kids and they all look up to him. Every action he does, he’s leading – and I try to tell him to make it positive, because he can change the whole culture around here by doing things right.”
A major believer in young people learning life lessons through football, Lancaster said Academy’s current camaraderie gives the Bees a chance to produce another special season.
“This is my 32nd year to coach, probably half high school and half college, and in high school this locker room is probably the most unified and cohesive as far as leadership and just pushing one another,” he said. “But we still have the ability to have fun with each other and tease. We know everybody’s important."
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