THE WAIT IS OVER: Talented, balanced Lake Belton primed to make playoff push in Broncos' UIL debut
PLENTY OF HORSEPOWER: Lake Belton running back Tristan Robin is back for his senior year after missing much of the Broncos' 9-0 2021 season with an ankle injury. Lake Belton's balanced offense also features third-year starting quarterback Connor Crews and dynamic junior wide receiver Micah Hudson, a five-star national recruit. The Broncos of third-year head coach Brian Cope begin their season at 7 p.m. next Friday at No. 8-ranked Leander Rouse, then host Buda Johnson on Sept. 2 at Tiger Field. In its first season of University Interscholastic League competition, Lake Belton opens District 4-5A Division I play Sept. 9 at Red Oak. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Since Lake Belton High School first opened its doors in August 2020, the Broncos’ top football team has produced plenty of success. Featuring a talented roster and a balanced attack, Lake Belton has played 19 games and won 18, including its current streak of 17.
However, the Broncos of head coach Brian Cope simultaneously have had to play the waiting game.
Because Lake Belton started out with only sophomores and freshmen on its campus in far northwest Temple, the Broncos played a sub-varsity schedule in 2020 and compiled a 9-1 record.
With juniors as their oldest players in 2021, they made the necessary adjustments to challenge a varsity schedule – finishing 9-0 with a 48-34 victory at San Antonio Davenport -- but had to do so on an independent/“outlaw” basis because they didn’t have a University Interscholastic League district in which to compete.
That, of course, meant that on-the-rise Lake Belton had no championships or playoff berths to pursue during its first two seasons.
But now it’s 2022, and that all changes.
In Year 3, the deep, dangerous Broncos are primed and ready to play big-boy UIL football in Class 5A Division I as members of District 4, a nine-team league in far-flung Region I.
In Cope’s mind, this season is all about a highly optimistic Lake Belton squad – paced by standouts such as Texas Christian-committed safety Javeon Wilcox, highly recruited receiver/utility player Micah Hudson and third-year starting quarterback Connor Crews – building on its two winning seasons and breaking into postseason action.
“First and foremost, playoffs. That’s the first goal we have, is to make the playoffs for the first time in school history. You’ve got to get in. And after that, we’ll reset our goals,” said Cope, who was hired in early 2020 to build Lake Belton’s program from the ground up after his stint as Belton’s offensive coordinator.
“You want it for the kids, the coaches and all the community,” he added. “You’ve got to be prepared and make sure that every Sunday as a staff you’re prepared and that every Friday night the kids are ready to go. I don’t think they’re feeling pressure. I think they just want to go out and show what we can do.”
One of the original Broncos is senior running back Tristan Robin, also a part-time linebacker. He said his final high school season feels like it’s gotten here in a hurry.
“Oh, man. It feels like the hourglass came way too quick. Not that we’ve run out of time, but it came a lot quicker than anyone expected. Now I have just a limited amount of time with my friends,” said Robin, who played in only three games last year because of his high-ankle sprain and fracture in the opener against Mexia.
Although his head coach stated that Lake Belton’s clear-cut goal is to earn a playoff berth, Robin has set his aspirations for the Broncos several notches higher.
“Winning a state championship. I think that’s more than doable with this team,” said Robin, whose squad will host Kerrville Tivy at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bronco Field in the second of Lake Belton’s two preseason scrimmages. “Our coaches have told us, ‘Hey, we’ve been with some talented teams.’ We have all the talent in the world and that is a true possibility with this team.
“Being together for three years is something that not many people get to do. A whole squad doesn’t stay together that long. That’s something special we have here, and I think that’s going to put us head and shoulders above anybody else.”
Lake Belton’s skill, confidence and maturity will be put to an immediate test in the season opener at Leander Rouse at 7 p.m. next Friday. The Raiders, 11-2 district champions in 2021, are ranked No. 8 in the state in 5A Division II by Texas Football magazine.
For the Broncos’ seniors, their final home opener at Belton High School’s Tiger Field is against Buda Johnson at 7 p.m. on Sept. 2.
Because Lake Belton’s debut district is a nine-team bunch, league play will arrive quickly.
The Broncos begin their eight-game schedule in 4-5A Division I on Sept. 9 at Red Oak, and their first home district game in program history is Sept. 16 against down-from-6A Killeen Shoemaker. Lake Belton’s league slate also includes home games against Cleburne (Sept. 30), Granbury (Oct. 14) and Killeen Ellison (Nov. 4) and road duels with Waco (Sept. 23), Killeen (Oct. 7) and Midlothian (Oct. 21).
Last season, Midlothian’s 8-5 team advanced to a 5A Division I Region I semifinal before losing 28-20 to Mansfield Summit. Killeen – whose new head coach is former Temple offensive coordinator Josh Sadler – and Ellison also dropped to 5A Division I after competing with Temple and Belton in District 12-6A.
Lake Belton never has played against any of its 10 scheduled opponents. After a sturdy two-game examination in non-district play, the Broncos will have to overcome plenty of competitors to achieve their primary goal of grabbing one of the district’s four playoff berths.
“We’re going to play the No. 8 team in the state at their place to kick it off, then Buda Johnson’s another good team that’s one year older than us. They had success in 5A and have a chance to be a good 6A as well, so that’s where we’re trying to get to,” said Cope, who projects that Lake Belton will be a 6A program starting in 2024. “I think this district’s going to bring an upset or two each week, and you better be able to bring it every week to have a chance to be successful. In a nine-team district, the margin for error shrinks.
“Midlothian is very talented. Red Oak is a team that has more talent than I’ve seen in a while, and that’s our first district game. And Shoemaker and Ellison are going to be ones to watch. I stopped looking at track times with Shoemaker and Red Oak. And it’s all going to be well-coached.”
Added Robin: “With the way our team is growing every single day, I have no doubts that we’re going to be ready for the first district game.”
If Lake Belton advances to the playoffs, potential first-round opponents from District 3-5A Division I include two perennial state powers: No. 2-ranked Denton Ryan and No. 3 Aledo.
Cope said Lake Belton’s football program has grown from 120 players in Year 1 to 220 last year and 281 this season. That’s sufficient for a varsity team, two junior varsity squads, two freshman groups and a combined sophomore/freshman crew, with no player cuts needed. To keep up with that steady growth, the Broncos’ staff has expanded from nine coaches in the inaugural season to 16 this year.
“We have one of the best staffs I’ve ever been around,” said Cope, whose returning coordinators are Matt Uzzell on offense and Randy Hooton on defense. Coaching defensive linemen is Dallas Robertson, previously Temple’s head baseball coach and a football assistant.
Lake Belton got its first taste of 6A competition last Friday at Waco Midway in a productive three-way scrimmage with Midway and Midland Legacy.
“You’re talking about Midland Legacy, a three-time returning district champion, and not too long ago Midway was in the state championship game,” Cope said. “It made for a longer scrimmage, but it was really good for our guys to understand that, hey, there’s a difference between what we were playing in (the past two seasons) vs. playing two 6As. I think (the biggest difference in 6A) is depth, and that’s what we’re trying to build here each and every day.
“One of the reasons we didn’t do spring ball was we wanted that extra scrimmage. And with Midway and Midland Legacy, that gave us a good test to learn. When you return as many starters as we do, you kind of know what you are, and I think last (Friday night) proved that for us.”
Cope’s coaching background is oriented toward offense, but he made it clear that the Broncos’ proverbial bread will be buttered by the guys on the defensive side.
“We’re going to hang our hat on playing great defense over here first and foremost,” said Cope, whose defense allowed 304.1 yards per game last season. “Yes, we’re going to have some talent on offense, but we want to make sure that defense wins championships.
“We’re going to be aggressive on defense. We’re going to play a 3-4 (alignment) and we want to make sure we’re flying around and playing with 212 effort and that our kids are all rallying together and doing their job to the best of their ability.”
The linchpin of Lake Belton’s defense is savvy senior safety Wilcox, who made a team-leading 96 tackles last year. His hard-hitting style of play earned him the nickname “Boom.”
The 5-foot-5, 160-pound Robin joked that he must keep his head on a swivel when he and the 6-1, 190-pound Wilcox are competing on the practice field.
“Boom could kill me at any time, but he doesn’t most of the time. That’s nice,” Robin said, grinning.
Cope said Wilcox has become “more explosive” as an athlete thanks to another year of training with Kade Cole, Lake Belton’s strength coordinator.
“Javeon’s been here since the beginning,” Cope said. “The game’s moving slower for him. Not that it ever didn’t, but now it’s moving in slo-mo.”
Sure-tackling linebacker Connor Brennan returns for his senior season after his 68 stops last year ranked second on the Bronco defense. Seniors Kyle Dalton, Manuel Herrera and Rocky Parker also will fill key roles for the linebacker corps, which includes Robin on the outside. Cope is excited about the potential of junior outside linebacker Tre Phillips, a JV player last year.
Athletic defender Ty Legg made 58 tackles and three interceptions as a sophomore in 2021 and Cope believes he possesses the capability to play safety and linebacker at a high level.
“Ty is an athlete – very versatile,” Cope said.
At 6-5 and 360 pounds, junior Adam Walden provides an imposing presence at nose guard and also will get snaps as an offensive lineman when needed. Senior end Keuntaye Williams is steady and gets help from do-it-all performer Hudson, who at 6 feet and 185 pounds can play effectively at end.
Lake Belton’s skill and depth along the defensive line are boosted by seniors Markus Abrego, Nathaniel Bratton, Teevon Jones and Evan Roland and junior Isaiah Koonce.
Senior Bruce Onchweri returns at cornerback after making 48 tackles and an interception last season. Manning the other cornerback post is an intriguing prospect in 6-4, 175-pound junior Selman Bridges. Extremely tall and rangy for his position, the fleet-footed Bridges has scholarship offers from Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Arizona and Arizona State. He was the District 19-4A champion in the 200-meter dash last spring.
“Selman has had a great offseason,” Cope said. “He moves really well and has done a great job with Coach Cole in the weight room.”
As versatile as Hudson is all over the gridiron, he’s rated a five-star recruit and one of the country’s top-ranked players in the 2024 class primarily because of his game-breaking talent as a fast, agile wide receiver with excellent body control.
A starter since his freshman year, Hudson last season made 45 catches for 851 yards and five touchdowns among the 10 TDs he scored overall. The dynamic playmaker also rushed for 187 yards and three TDs on 34 carries and was a big-play weapon on special teams.
“Micah plays defensive end, kick returner, punt returner, quarterback, receiver and running back. He’s pretty good,” Cope said, aware of the understatement. “After elite camp this summer, a lot of days he’d set up the JUGS machine on his own and catch extra passes. He’s learned that. He’s physical, and man, he’s just a great kid and fun to be around.”
Hudson has a coast-to-coast collection of 26 scholarship offers, including not only Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU but also Alabama, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan, Penn State, Oregon and Tennessee.
CREWS CONTROL: Lake Belton dual-threat senior quarterback Connor Crews returns for his third season as the starter. Last season he passed for 1,799 yards and 16 touchdowns and rushed for 495 yards and nine TDs as the Broncos went 9-0 against a varsity-level "outlaw" schedule. This season, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Crews will throw to receivers such as juniors Micah Hudson and Tyus Jackson and seniors Daud Khan and Jaydon Leza as the Broncos seek to advance to the stater playoffs in Class 5A Division I. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Hudson is the main recipient of passes thrown by Crews, who’s entering his third season as the Broncos’ starting quarterback and has grown to 6-2, 220 pounds. An accurate passer and a physical, willing runner, Crews last year passed for 1,799 yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions and rushed for 495 yards and nine TDs on 94 carries.
“Connor is locked in and is being a great leader. I think he understands everybody’s role and what they’re supposed to do in our scheme, not just his own,” Cope said. “He’s shown a lot of growth in football and I’ve been very impressed with what he’s done this offseason and this summer.”
Joining Hudson in the receiving corps are seniors Daud Khan – a tight end last year – and Jaydon Leza along with Wilcox and juniors Tyus Jackson and Cameron Hamilton. Jackson is a gifted move-in player from Kansas. Christian Kunz was an offensive lineman last year but has moved to tight end for his senior season.
The rushing attack should be a major strength for Lake Belton. The shifty Robin had a productive sophomore season before the early ankle injury limited him to 175 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries last year. He will share the backfield workload with rugged senior D’Arius Wilkerson, who rushed 73 times for 460 yards and seven TDs last season, as well as senior Floyd Bristol and Hudson.
“I feel like we’re kind of like lightning and thunder. We have two different running styles, but we both get it done,” Robin said about himself and Wilkerson. “And we have a dude (Hudson) on the outside who’s going to allow us to absolutely do our thing. All of our receivers, actually, are great and allow us to do our thing. And if people want to come into the box to stop the run, they’ll do their thing. I think we’re going to exploit a lot of weaknesses from a lot of people.”
Although Robin and Wilkerson are expected to get the bulk of the carries, the Broncos won’t hesitate to use the legs of Crews, whose combination of size and mobility makes him a punishing threat for an offense that rushed for 206.9 yards per game last season.
“We’ve got Tristan Robin, D’Arius Wilkerson, Floyd Bristol and of course Micah Hudson, who are pretty good back there in the backfield. But Connor does give us a weapon, so we’re going to take what the defense gives us. Coach Uzzell does a really good job on that,” said Cope, whose offense cranked out 416.3 total yards per game last year. “We want to be multiple, but we also want to be two-dimensional. So if they’re giving us the run, we’re going to take the run. If they’re giving us the pass, we’re going to take the pass. That’s how we’re going to try to win games.”
The offensive line will play a vital role in Lake Belton’s winning formula. Cope and Robin said the line performed well in last week’s scrimmage.
Left guard Challen Maileoi, right guard Logan Gandara and right tackle Dominic Simpson are seniors and returning starters. Junior Kaden Bradshaw is at left tackle after getting some starting experience last season. The new starting center is sophomore Brett Harmon, son of Mary Hardin-Baylor first-year head coach Larry Harmon, previously the Crusaders’ longtime defensive coordinator.
“What I’ve been really proud of is those seniors. Their leadership with those young guys has been really fun to watch. That started in the State Lineman Challenge and they’re really working together. Coach (R.J.) Bacon and Coach (Chris) Loper do a great job with those guys,” Cope said. “It’s a work in progress. I think the whole team is a work in progress. We want to continue to get better each and every week.
Senior Cole Jackson returns for his third season as Lake Belton’s kicker after making two field goals and 43 extra points last year.
MAN WITH THE PLAN: With head coach Brian Cope at the helm, the first two seasons of Lake Belton's football program have generated an 18-1 record. His Broncos now are primed to pursue their first playoff berth as they compete in a University Interscholastic League district for the first time. Lake Belton's first home game in nine-team Class 5A Division I District 4 will be against Killeen Shoemaker on Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at Belton's Tiger Field. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Cope said he’s identified a game trend that the Broncos are aiming to master.
“To me, the game has come down to explosive plays – runs over 12 yards and passes over 16 – and turnovers. I’ve done a study in the last 11 years, and if you win those two battles, 99 percent of the time you win the game,” Cope said. “So it comes down to how can you generate explosive plays and make sure you can hold onto the football or get the football back. We’re going to continue to put an emphasis on it and make sure our kids understand how important that ball is to our program.”
Although the Broncos’ football team hasn’t competed in a UIL district until this season, most of its players already have made their mark in 4A in sports such as baseball, basketball, soccer and track and field.
“That’s very important,” said Cope, also Lake Belton’s campus athletic coordinator. “That’s a great time for them to learn what varsity competition is about, especially in the playoffs and area and regional track meets.”
Winning 18 of the first 19 games in program history has given Lake Belton a strong foundation, but Cope knows that the first year of competing in a UIL district and 5A Division I will throw a new experience at the the up-and-coming Broncos.
“We had our first senior parent meeting, so that’s a different feeling. I think the crowds are going to be bigger, the bands are going to be louder and it comes down to making sure we focus,” Cope said. “We played on Friday nights last year, just now it’s going to be on a bigger stage.”
Robin had a message for anyone who hasn't given Lake Belton much credit for posting an 18-1 record in its first two seasons.
“Our whole team has a massive boulder on its shoulder,” he said. “(What doubters say) doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong.”
Robin’s father, Lake Belton team physician Dr. Brett Robin, won a state championship in 1996 as a running back with Austin Westlake. With the Broncos finally able to pursue their first playoff berth, Tristan Robin said his school’s first senior class is hungry to set the tone and establish a legacy.
“We’re going to be the ones who set the standard and show up on Saturdays to get a workout and be good examples,” Robin said. “If our hopes and aspirations don’t happen this year, then hopefully we set a foundation where they can build off that and they can lead and get the job done.”
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