THE NEXT STEP: Lancaster, Academy aim to advance in playoff opener vs. star RB Brooks, Hallettsville
BRINGING THE BUZZ: Senior Jerry Cephus is a starting quarterback and outside linebacker for the Academy Bumblebees (7-3), who battle the Hallettsville Brahmas (8-2) in a Class 3A Division I bi-district playoff game at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bastrop Memorial Stadium in Cedar Creek. Cephus, a three-year starter at QB, has passed for 1,644 yards and 20 touchdowns this season despite missing two District 11-3A D-I games with an injured foot. Last Friday night he threw four TD passes to fellow senior Kollin Mraz to lead Academy to a playoff-clinching 42-21 victory over rival Troy at John Glover Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
LITTLE RIVER-ACADEMY – Chris Lancaster envisions an Academy football program that eventually will contend for district championships and produce extended playoff runs on a consistent basis. For now, though, he's all about getting as much success as possible out of the upstart Bumblebees in his first season as their head coach.
And after ripping past Troy 42-21 in last Friday night's win-or-go-home regular-season finale at John Glover Stadium, Academy (7-3) charges into the Class 3A Division I state playoffs with confidence as it prepares to battle Texas-committed running back Jonathon Brooks and the Hallettsville Brahmas (8-2) in Saturday's 2 p.m. bi-district game at Bastrop Memorial Stadium in Cedar Creek.
“It was the most important game of our season, obviously, because it was a win-or-go-home game. Troy's been our rival for quite a while,” Academy senior defensive end and offensive tackle Tanner Rambeau said. “To be able to do that my senior year, to finally beat them and beat them that bad, felt amazing.”
Said Bees senior quarterback and outside linebacker Jerry Cephus: “It feels pretty good to get to the playoffs (for the first time) since my sophomore year. That's just a whole different feeling that guys in the locker room can experience and for the seniors so we can leave something behind so (the younger players) can have something to look up to to and keep going to the playoffs and go farther and farther every year.”
Boosted by a 5-0 record in their home stadium nicknamed “The Hive,” the Bumblebees already have secured their first winning season since 2014. Now their mission is to achieve their first playoff victory since that same year, along with their first eight-win season since 2005.
As the fourth-place team from extremely competitive District 11-3A Division I, Academy doesn't enter the playoffs as the favorite against 12-3A D-I champion Hallettsville, which went 10-3 last year and reached the Region IV final. Coach Tommy Psencik's Brahmas feature highly elusive and productive senior Brooks, who's rushed for 1,582 yards – averaging 12.5 per carry – and 29 touchdowns.
“We've been watching a lot of film on them,” Lancaster said. “I know they're a good ballclub.”
However, none of that bothers Lancaster, because the Bees already have made good on what he says was his top priority during training camp back in August.
“My No. 1 goal was making sure the seniors have one great year. That was my obligation to them, especially with COVID(-19) and not knowing how long the season would last,” said Lancaster, who was hired to lead Academy's program after serving the past six seasons as Troy's offensive coordinator following a five-season run as head coach at Bruceville-Eddy.
“The rest of it was going to be a short time to try to put my stamp on this program and trying to institute the culture we want to have. We're still a long ways away, but I think the process is starting. I'm very proud of the kids and how they've battled.”
And one more thing: Academy isn't conceding anything against Hallettsville, regardless of seedings and recent playoff history. The Bees are taking a winning mindset into the bi-district duel, not simply playing the “happy to be here” card.
“People say we're a Cinderella story or whatever, but we've worked hard to get where we are. It wasn't easy,” said Lancaster, whose team went 3-3 in district play after winning all four non-district games. “I'm no fool, either. You've got to be realistic. OK, so we're a No. 4 seed and they're a No. 1 seed. I've watched some of their district games. They're a good football team, but how do you compare?
“How do we compare in our district? We beat McGregor, but they're the No. 2 seed. What we've got to focus on and what we've talked about is that it doesn't matter, as long as we're the better team on that particular day in that particular stadium. Win, lose or draw, we're going to learn from this and get better. And we've got to get better.”
Two-way standouts Cephus and Rambeau expressed confidence that Academy can advance past Hallettsville if the Bees put together the kind of sharp all-around performance that propelled them past Troy in last Friday's must-win showdown, highlighted by senior receiver Kollin Mraz's five touchdown catches in the first half, four from Cephus.
“I do think we have a great chance to win,” Cephus said. “I feel like we've been coming into every game as the underdog, with no one expecting us to win. This is just another one of those games where we have to shock someone.”
Added Rambeau: “If we play well, I think we can beat a lot of teams. We're fourth place coming out of a really good district.”
Lancaster was pleased to secure a large venue for the playoff game, because seating capacity for Academy fans has been very limited all season by COVID-19-related restrictions.
The Academy-Hallettsville victor will advance to next week's area round to challenge the Diboll Lumberjacks (6-4), who rolled to a 59-22 win Friday night over Buna (4-6).
GLAD TO BE BACK: Defensive end and offensive tackle Tanner Rambeau originally didn't plan to play football as a senior after Academy went 2-8 last season, but he returned to the Bumblebees following their season-opening 20-15 win at rival Rogers. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Rambeau, a district MVP in basketball as a sophomore, has made 50 tackles and helped solidify Academy's offensive line during head coach Chris Lancaster's first season. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Rambeau is a prime example of the transformation that Academy's football program believes it's making with Lancaster's influence. The Bees went 2-8 last year in their second season with head coach Paul Williams, and the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Rambeau wasn't planning to play football as a senior. He was the basketball district MVP as a sophomore and then last season helped lead the Academy hoops squad of coach James Holt to 30 wins and its second straight 3A Region III quarterfinal.
When Academy went on the road and beat rival Rogers 20-15 in this season's opener and Lancaster's debut, Rambeau was in the stands, not on the field. But Rambeau liked what he saw from the Bees that night at Merk Field, and fellow senior defensive end/offensive tackle Tyler Lambert helped persuade Rambeau to rejoin the football team.
Rambeau returned and played the next game as Academy won 17-10 at Clifton, and he's racked up 50 tackles – sixth-best on the team and five behind his friend Lambert, the Bees' other starting offensive tackle.
“I'm really pleased. I don't regret it at all. I had a tough season last year and I was just a little scared to come back in, but I'm really glad I did,” Rambeau said. “At first I didn't even play tackle (on offense this year), but they said, 'We need you there,' and I was like, 'I'll do whatever to help the team.' And I played tackle the past two years. I've played both positions my entire football career, so they just came natural.”
While producing a strong season on both sides of the ball, just like so many of his teammates, Rambeau identified what has made the difference for Academy in Lancaster's first year on the job.
“A whole lot of focus,” Rambeau said. “This team's able to focus but have fun at the same time, which I think is what makes this team so great.”
Said Lancaster about Rambeau: “We wouldn't be 7-3 (without him). He's a big sucker and athletic.”
Academy senior receiver/cornerback Jaylin McWilliams has been one of the area's best all-around players all season. He's made 48 catches for 848 yards and 11 touchdowns and returned three of his six interceptions for TDs. However, he didn't play against Troy because of what Lancaster termed “disciplinary reasons,” and the coach confirmed that McWilliams won't play against Hallettsville.
“Well, it's always a setback. He's a terrific athlete and a good kid, and you just hate seeing that. But we can't sit here and dwell on that,” Lancaster said about McWilliams, last season's district MVP in basketball. “And I hate saying it that way, but I don't want the team to say, 'We ain't got a chance.'
“Evidently the team said differently (vs. Troy): 'We got a chance. We're going to go out and make the best of this.' And we had kids step up. Kollin Mraz stepped up and scored five touchdowns. He moved over to where Jaylin usually plays. (Sophomore receiver/safety) Scout Brazeal stepped up to that spot where Kollin plays, and those kids went to chopping wood and making plays. Scout made a heck of a stretch-out catch. Scout's a very good athlete and he's tremendous on defense, so our perimeter is still steady, with or without Jaylin. I hate to say it that way, but we've got to do that.”
Cephus said Academy had no choice but to move on and adapt without McWilliams in its arsenal.
RISING TO THE OCCASION: Senior Kollin Mraz made only two touchdown receptions in Academy's first nine games, but then he exploded for five TD catches in the first half of last Friday's regular-season finale against Troy in a 42-21 home victory that gave the Bumblebees (7-3, 3-3) the final playoff berth in District 11-3A Division I. Mraz threw the game-winning touchdown pass against McGregor while filling in for injured quarterback Jerry Cephus and also has made his mark on defense this season by grabbing five interceptions. Mraz is pictured after Academy's 13-0 home win over Lago Vista on Sept. 18. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
“We do a lot of 'next man up.' If someone falls, we have to go to the next man up. Someone has to be ready to go. And Kollin was that guy and he stepped up big-time for us. I'm glad he did that,” Cephus said. “I've known Kollin forever and knew he could step up and play that spot. It's just a matter of the chances he got. He didn't get that many chances when Jaylin was playing, so I wasn't really surprised. I was more happy for him than anything.”
Mraz had made only two touchdown receptions this season before snaring five TD tosses against Troy as Academy sprinted to a 42-7 halftime lead. His touchdowns from Cephus covered 5, 31, 9 and 33 yards, and he caught a 22-yard TD pass from freshman running Zane Clark, recently promoted from junior varsity.
“It was Mraz's night, and the ball kept going in his direction,” Lancaster said.
Another example of Academy's aforementioned “next man up” mantra came when Cephus missed the home district opener against McGregor after suffering a foot injury in the non-district finale against Lago Vista and then being slowed in the district-opening 41-27 loss to eventual champion Lorena.
Cephus and Lancaster agreed that Cephus needed a couple of games off to allow the injury to heal, so Mraz stepped in at quarterback against McGregor and passed for 271 yards and four touchdowns. With Academy trailing in the final minute, Mraz scrambled across the field and fired an 8-yard TD pass to sophomore Alex Lawton with 15 seconds remaining to give the Bees a dramatic 45-42 homecoming victory that proved vital in earning their second playoff berth in three years.
Cephus sat out the 37-19 loss at Cameron Yoe – which missed the playoffs – but returned at QB to lead the 48-22 win over Caldwell. The Bees were roughed up 44-13 at Rockdale, but needing a win to extend their season, they responded by dominating Troy a year after the 12-2 Trojans beat them 24-0.
“It felt really good to know that we clinched a spot in the playoffs. That feeling by itself was amazing, being able to see how my teammates were reacting to it and how happy they were,” said the 5-10, 183-pound Cephus, who despite missing two games has passed for 20 touchdowns and an area-leading 1,644 yards along with rushing for 354 yards.
Said Lancaster about Cephus and Mraz: “We're better with both of them on the field, no matter what the combination is. Jerry's got a very live arm and can deliver the football.”
Academy has rushed for only 102.1 yards per game – junior leader Darion Franklin has run for 299 yards and six touchdowns among his 12 TDs overall – but has passed for 210.8 on average. After playing several freshmen on the offensive line early this season, Lancaster settled on a steady starting lineup of senior tackles Lambert and Rambeau, senior guards Daniel Cardoza and Wyatt Gardner and freshman center Caden Berry.
“They've gotten a lot better and created more time for me, and when they do break down I can escape the pocket and create more time. I feel safe back there,” said Cephus, who admitted to being surprised that he hasn't rushed for a touchdown this season after running for 463 yards and seven TDs last year despite missing multiple games with a shoulder injury. “That's weird to me. But hey, if we're scoring touchdowns, we're fine."
Academy's offense will contend with a stingy Hallettsville defense that allowed an average of 18 points in the nine games the Brahmas have played (they were awarded a district-opening forfeit win over Hempstead on Oct. 9). Hallettsville permitted 44 points in its season-opening 10-point loss to 2A Division I No. 1-ranked Shiner and allowed 39 points in last week's 15-point win at Hitchcock.
“I think we can pass on them,” Cephus said. “Our passing game is going to be very effective in this game.”
As for Academy's defense, the Bees allowed only 25 points in four non-district games – including consecutive shutouts of eventual playoff qualifiers Groesbeck and Lago Vista – but weren't nearly as stingy in district competition, permitting an average of 34.5 points in six games. Overall, Academy has allowed 311.5 yards per game (210.8 against the run) under the tutelage of first-year coordinator Eddie Dewbre, who came with Lancaster from Troy.
The Bees face a challenging task against Brooks-led Hallettsville, which has scored 49.9 points per game in its seven on-the-field wins (it lost 24-21 to 3A D-I No. 6 Tuscola Jim Ned on Oct. 2). The 6-1, 185-pound Brooks rushed for 2,144 yards and 39 touchdowns last year, fueling the Brahmas' trek to the 3A-I Region IV final before they lost 48-25 to a Columbus team they defeated 28-26 in non-district play.
Academy's defense competed against two prolific, college-committed running backs in its last two games in Rockdale's Cam'ron Valdez (Texas Tech) and Troy's Zach Hrbacek (Sam Houston State), whom Lancaster coached from 2017-19. Therefore, Lancaster thinks his defense is prepared for the huge test against Brooks, whose blend of size, shiftiness and speed – plus a strong group of linemen blocking for him – makes the Texas Longhorns recruit a threat to score from anywhere.
“Every back's a little bit different. He's like a thoroughbred,” Lancaster said of Brooks. “It starts up front. They run a lot of counters with guard/tackle pulls. They're going to spread you out and make you try to defend the pass, then try to eat you up with the run game. They throw decent enough.”
Said Rambeau about defending Brooks and the Brahmas: “They've obviously got a really good back, but our game plan . . . if we do what we're supposed to do, I don't think there's many teams that can stop it."
Hallettsville junior quarterback Trace Patek has passed for 1,219 yards and 10 touchdowns (with five interceptions) on 69-of-113 accuracy and has rushed for 299 yards and six TDs. Ty Gerke (29 catches, 399 yards) is the top receiver.
Boding well for the future of Academy's defense is the fact that none of its top three tacklers – sophomore inside linebacker Lane Ward (69 stops), junior inside linebacker Franklin (68) and sophomore safety Brazeal (62) – is a senior.
“Lane's been a tremendous surprise for us and a very good tackler. We always kid him that he's small and I don't think the offensive linemen can see him half the time, so he sneaks around and puts himself in great positions,” Lancaster said. “Coach Dewbre's done a great job coaching our inside linebackers.
“Darion is a very smart football player. He has a knack of reading your formations and tendencies. If you do something once, he remembers it and can react to it just like that. He's out there calling out half the plays that the offense is running.”
Cephus said he's been impressed by the versatile, athletic play of two-way starter Brazeal, who's made three interceptions plus 14 catches for 118 yards to help Academy overcome the loss of injured junior Blake Bundy, who started at receiver, cornerback, kicker and punter.
“Scout's been playing very good from the start,” Cephus said. “I did not expect him to play that good on both sides. He's surprised me.”
Burly lineman Gardner is another two-way starter, and Academy's defense also has gotten a boost from junior linebacker/safety Jacob Macias (36 tackles), junior end John Tomasek (35) and sophomore safety Lawton (33), who might be the Bees' starting quarterback next season.
Academy limited all-state performer Hrbacek to 64 rushing yards with a touchdown in the first half, and he didn't return after halftime. He entered the finale with an injured shoulder and sustained a concussion during the game.
EXPECTING SUCCESS: Chris Lancaster has guided Academy to a 7-3 record and a Class 3A Division I playoff berth in his first season as the Bumblebees' head coach. He was hired by Academy after serving for six seasons as Troy's offensive coordinator, including the Trojans' 12-2 trek to last year's Region III final. Lancaster and the Bees beat Troy 42-21 last Friday at home to earn a playoff berth and will take on the 8-2 Hallettsville Brahmas in a bi-district duel at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bastrop Memorial Stadium in Cedar Creek. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
“I thought overall we did a very good job of corralling Zach Hrbacek defensively. We knew he was banged up,” Lancaster said of his former star runner at Troy. “It's a bittersweet kind of deal. I love all those kids and I helped raise them for the last six years. Those kids are special to me. But my job and my obligation is here. I love these kids and I'm going to do the right thing for these kids.”
Lancaster is trying to guide Academy to the kind of consistent success that Hallettsville has enjoyed in 11 years under Psencik, who's steered the Brahmas to five seasons of 10-plus wins, including three perfect regular seasons and three 14-game campaigns.
“The proof's in the pudding. They played four rounds deep last year and their running back's better and their line's got to be better,” said Lancaster, who's impressed by the size and strong-looking physiques of Hallettsville's players. “I told our guys, 'You go four rounds deep, that's extra practice with all your kids, so all of them are getting better.' That's exactly what we're trying to do. This is an extra week of practice for us. That helps.”
A football playoff run by the Bumblebees might delay the start of the season for Holt's state-ranked basketball squad, but guys such as Cephus and Rambeau who play both sports insist that it's a mutually beneficial situation.
“Actually, Coach Holt's been liking us playing football. He said, 'I will cancel every game while y'all are in football,'” Cephus said. “He likes watching us play football, and I think that creates a better program for everyone.”
Added Rambeau: “I think that winning in basketball really does translate over. Having an overall winning culture within a school can really translate to all programs.”
In Lancaster's mind, it's a great all-around situation for Academy.
“Here's the way we look at it: (Holt's) basketball players make us a better football team, and our football players make them a better basketball team,” he said. “We get tougher in football, and I think basketball still relies on toughness on the floor, too. Coach Holt helps us, and I'm going to help him any way I can. That was the partnership when I took this job."