WHATEVER IT TAKES: Academy's history-making Bees challenge stubborn Diboll in Region III semifinal
ALWAYS ON THE RUN: Academy wide receiver Scout Brazeal, shown making a 70-yard touchdown reception during the Bumblebees' bi-district playoff loss to Hallettsville in 2020, has produced a stellar junior season with 66 catches for 1,271 yards and 15 TDs along with 89 tackles and three interceptions as a safety. After close playoff victories over Yoakum and Winnie East Chambers, coach Chris Lancaster's 11-1 Academy team carries a seven-game win streak into its Class 3A Division I Region III semifinal against Diboll (9-3) at 6 p.m. Friday at College Station High School's Cougar Field. The Lumberjacks have won eight straight. (File photo by Dean Kibler/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
COLLEGE STATION – As nice as it would be to win playoff games by comfortable margins, that’s just not really how Academy’s football team does things.
In the bi-district round of the Class 3A Division I postseason bracket two weeks ago in Waller, the Bumblebees never led Yoakum until Scout Brazeal’s game-ending touchdown reception from Kasey Mraz in overtime gave them a 28-22 victory.
Then in an area-round battle with Winnie East Chambers last Thursday in Tomball, Academy incurred a 14-0 deficit 8½ minutes into the game before the Bees surged during the middle two quarters on their way to earning a 42-33 win.
Grit and resilience are two vital traits for Academy (11-1), which will play a third-round playoff game for the first time in program history when the Bumblebees challenge Diboll (9-3) in a Region III semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday at College Station High School’s Cougar Field.
As his Academy team prepared to play a stingy Lumberjacks squad that hasn’t allowed a point in two playoff games and has recorded shutouts in four of five games overall, second-year head coach Chris Lancaster said that’s the way his battle-tested Bees like it in their tight-knit community of Little River-Academy.
“That’s the key. We just finished up telling them that they should be very confident. It really shows their true identity, character and integrity, (winning after) being down in both games – and early, too,” Lancaster said after practice, one day before Thanksgiving. “I mean, dang, (against East Chambers) we were down two touchdowns before we could even get our headsets adjusted right.
“But it just shows what they’re made of and their chemistry and the leadership that we have. And again, it shows that we are somewhat talented. If people go scout us, they’ve got to look real close at, ‘Hey, that’s a very talented quarterback (Mraz).’ The running backs are getting better and better. Scout Brazeal, I’d have to look up his numbers, but he’s (excelled all season). And then Darion Franklin’s got a lot of yards catching the ball.”
Entering this postseason, Academy hadn’t won a playoff game since 2014. In addition, three of the Bees’ five wins in District 11-3A Division I competition – against McGregor, Cameron Yoe and Rockdale – were by eight points or less. Therefore, they don’t expect success to come easily, and junior defensive tackle Daniel Munoz-Garcia says it’s Academy’s hard work on the practice field that’s given the Bees the will to overcome difficulties in their first two playoff tests.
“Honestly, it’s just really practice. Some people don’t realize that’s what it really takes to actually keep winning,” said the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Munoz-Garcia (60 tackles), who made nine tackles against Yoakum and eight stops against East Chambers. “It’s never easy and advancing in the rounds is just going to keep getting tougher. Coach says it’s going to be a dogfight and be expecting a tough win.”
The Academy-Diboll winner will move into next week’s Region III final against the victor between fifth-ranked Lorena (10-2) – which beat out Academy for the district championship – and No. 6 Columbus (10-2). They clash at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Texas State’s Bobcat Stadium in San Marcos.
Academy has won seven consecutive games since its district-opening 34-17 home loss to Lorena, the back-to-back unbeaten league champion.
Meanwhile, Diboll has ripped off eight straight victories after it went 1-3 in non-district play with losses to 4A Division II opponents Madisonville and Liberty and 4A D-I Livingston. The Lumberjacks of eighth-year head coach Blake Morrison have allowed points in only one of their last five games, a 28-22 road win over Coldspring-Oakhurst in a Nov. 5 showdown for the 9-3A D-I championship.
Diboll delivered consecutive shutouts against Palestine Westwood and Crockett late in district play, then dominated Buna 56-0 a bi-district playoff and earned a 14-0 victory over No. 7 Hallettsville – the 2020 state runner-up – in area-round action last Friday in Navasota. In 2019, the Lumberjacks won their first 11 games before a 21-6 area-round loss to Cameron Yoe
As Academy plays a 13th game for the first time in program history and shoots for its first 12-win season since the 1961 Bees finished 12-0, Lancaster said it’s OK if most observers consider upstart Academy the underdog against talented, stubborn Diboll. That’s because the Bees have built up enough confidence during their road to the regional semifinal to believe that they can and should win.
“Whew. We shouldn’t be sitting here. You shouldn’t be in my office right now. I mean, realistically. I know we were underdogs against Yoakum. I think the ‘experts’ had us picked (to win) against East Chambers, but I know we’re eight-point underdogs in some polls in this one,” said Lancaster, who in two seasons has guided Academy to an 18-5 record and two playoff berths. “That doesn’t matter to me. I’ve been an underdog all my life.
“When you grow up red-headed and ginger and fat and get stuck at a military school, aren’t you an underdog? Yeah. When I coached at Bruceville-Eddy for five years, I was an underdog. I love that role. I don’t play anything up, but I think with the way we work during the week, we don’t care what people think of us. We know the truth, and I think that’s how you’ve got to live your life.”
AIRING IT OUT: In his first season as starting quarterback for Academy (11-1), sophomore left-hander Kasey Mraz has thrown for 2,607 yards and 29 touchdowns against seven interceptions while completing 68.4 percent of his passes. Mraz threw the game-winning touchdown pass to junior Scout Brazeal to give the Bumblebees a 28-22 overtime win against Yoakum in their playoff opener, then he passed for 270 yards and four TDs in their 42-33 victory over Winnie East Chambers in the area round last Thursday. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Academy lost standout quarterback Jerry Cephus, a three-year starter, to graduation after its 7-4 season ended with a 61-26 first-round playoff loss to all-around star Jonathon Brooks and powerful Hallettsville. However, the emergence of sophomore Mraz at QB has allowed the Bees’ offense to make a seamless adjustment.
The left-handed Mraz has completed 68.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,607 yards and 29 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His leading targets are two of Academy’s two-way starters in junior wide receiver/safety Brazeal (66 catches, 1,271 yards, 15 touchdowns) and senior receiver/linebacker Franklin (58 receptions, 764 yards, 11 TDs).
Mraz, Brazeal and Franklin all played key roles as the Bumblebees overcame their 14-0 first-quarter hole to defeat East Chambers last week. After second-quarter touchdown runs by junior Brayden Bartlett and sophomore Zane Clark produced a 14-14 tie, the Buccaneers made a bid to regain the lead a minute before halftime. However, Franklin made a keen read on defense and intercepted a jump pass near the goal line to thwart the threat.
“Our defensive coordinator Eddie Dewbre and I talked about that being kind of the momentum of the game, is picking that off right before half,” Lancaster said.
The coach added that his first inclination was to run out the clock, knowing that Academy would receive the second-half kickoff. But after one running play, the Bees’ leading receiver persuaded Lancaster to roll the proverbial dice to end the first half.
“I call the (offensive) plays and said, ‘Hey, I’m just going to be conservative. We get the ball (to start) the second half. Do what the book says to do, blah, blah, blah,'" Lancaster said. “We run power and then Scout’s going, ‘Coach, let’s go!’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
From Academy’s 13-yard line, Mraz’s long pass was slightly underthrown but a wide-open Brazeal caught it at midfield and was pushed out on the left sideline at the 13 for a 74-yard gain. On the next play, Mraz connected with Brazeal for a 13-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds remaining, and the Bees went from potentially trailing 21-14 at halftime to leading by that score.
“We take a timeout (after the 74-yard pass). My wife even said the natives in the stands were cussing me because I wasn’t ready. Heck, I didn’t know it was going to go that far,” Lancaster half-joked. “We wanted the best play, and then Scout made a touchdown.”
Academy then seized control of the game to begin the second half, using the rushing of Bartlett and Clark to drive into position before Mraz passed to Franklin for a 10-yard touchdown and a 28-14 advantage.
“We come out (on the first possession) and we march down with our running game and scored,” said Lancaster, who’s gotten a combined 927 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground from Bartlett and Clark. “It helps. Go look at Baylor University right now. Why are they winning? Because they’re able to run the football, and they run it very well. That helps any quarterback. I don’t care who you are.”
East Chambers rushed for three second-half touchdowns to remain within striking distance, but Mraz’s TD passes of 48 yards to Franklin in the third period and 6 yards to Brazeal with 4:50 left in the fourth allowed the Bees to secure the win.
STEADY ON THE LINE: Academy sophomore center/defensive tackle Caden Berry (left) and senior defensive end John Tomasek have helped the Bumblebees compile an 11-1 record and a seven-game winning streak going into their Class 3A Division I Region III semifinal against the Diboll Lumberjacks (9-3) at 6 p.m. Friday in College Station High School. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
For Academy’s offense, Round 3 of the playoffs brings a matchup against Diboll’s miserly defense. One year after Hallettsville’s 27-0 win eliminated the Lumberjacks from the playoffs, Diboll stuffed the Brahmas and got its revenge with a 14-0 area-round victory.
Season statistics for Diboll were not available, but 5-10, 290-pound senior lineman/linebacker Jeremiah Gums and senior safety Jaylen McMillan (6-0, 205) are among the leading performers for a sturdy defense that’s permitted only 69 points during the Lumberjacks’ eight-game winning streak.
“Diboll’s scheme is good. They run an odd-man front with the ability to get four down linemen in there,” Lancaster said. “When they’re in an odd front, their fourth lineman, Jeremiah Gums, plays middle linebacker. He’s about 285 or 290 pounds and he is a player. They’re a seven-man forcing unit, but they’ve also got good skill in the back area.”
Diboll’s rushing-heavy offense wasn’t overwhelming in the rematch with Hallettsville, but it produced enough to complement the defense’s shutout performance.
Quarterback Rey Arellano threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to fellow senior Jacoby Watts in the second quarter for a 7-0 lead, then senior running back James Johnson Jr. rushed for a 4-yard TD in the third period to make it 14-0. The 5-10, 215-pound Johnson posted 88 yards on 18 carries. Gums also gives Diboll a hulking presence at fullback, something Munoz-Garcia said he's very aware of.
Lancaster said Diboll’s attack reminds him of how Troy played when he was the Trojans’ offensive coordinator from 2014-19, highlighted by his three seasons with prolific all-state running back Zach Hrbacek (Sam Houston State).
“I like the Diboll offense. They’re doing a lot of things that I did (at Troy). They’re relying on James Johnson Jr.,” Lancaster said. “The majority of their linemen have a lot of girth, so they get in those tight splits and they run the ball very efficiently. But yet, when you try to outnumber them, the quarterback can throw it and they’ve got good playmakers on the outside, so they’re well-balanced.
“(Watts) will play some Wildcat (quarterback), and they’re very similar to what we did at Troy when we had Zach Hrbacek – run it, run it, run it, and then show you that we can also throw it enough to keep you honest. That’s what they’re doing. (Arellano) can throw it decent, especially when he scrambles and you let off your coverage, then he’ll throw it over your head. That’s how they got one touchdown against Hallettsville, and the same thing happened to us against Cameron.”
Junior inside linebacker Clayton Lawson has been strong all season for Academy’s defense, making a team-leading 102 tackles, five more than senior safety Blake Bundy. Junior linebacker Lane Ward ranks third with 92 stops despite missing three games after he suffered a broken collarbone in the Bees’ 32-28 comeback win at home against Yoe on Oct. 8. Ward returned for the playoff opener against Yoakum.
“Those two are awesome. Lawson not only plays linebacker but we also do a lot of putting him down as a fifth man on the defensive line. He’s very similar to Munoz-Garcia in that he’s very quick, so he’s been a plus to have. And then just getting Lane Ward back has really helped us. He’s 100 percent,” said Lancaster, who also commended the steady play of senior ends Cole Stewart and John Tomasek, who have made 58 tackles each.
Munoz-Garcia was thrown into the defensive line mix after sophomore tackle Tyler Burnett suffered a broken ankle in Academy’s 30-28 win at Lago Vista in the Sept. 17 non-district finale. Despite being drastically outweighed by most of the players he competes against, Munoz-Garcia has become a vital defender for the Bees, as evidenced by his 17 tackles in two playoff victories.
“I didn’t start playing until I think our fifth week after Tyler (Burnett) got hurt,” Munoz-Garcia said. “Since most of the teams we’re playing have been just run, run, run, I don’t think it’s that hard for their linemen to block me out, because I’m undersized. I’m 160 pounds and the kids I’ve been lining up against are 200 or a little bit more.”
Added a smiling Lancaster about Munoz-Garcia: “Crazy, isn’t it? And he’s making plays. What East Chambers coaches are telling Diboll is that he was the difference in the game, why they didn’t win. He’s awesome – slippery.
“We had to make some adjustments there when Burnett (was injured) and now you’re seeing the emergence of Dylan Edelbrock, a sophomore, also playing a lot of defensive line. That has helped us really freshen up our offensive line, now that (sophomore starters) Caden Berry, Adam Caddell and Jake Jones doesn’t have to play D-line. It’s not eight two-way starters like last year. That’s why we’re a little bit better.”
After Academy often employed seven or eight two-way starters in Lancaster’s first season, the Bees this year have been able to limit that crew to Franklin (76 tackles, three interceptions), Brazeal (89 tackles, three INTs) and Bundy (three INTs), who plays receiver and safety in addition to handling all of the kicking and punting chores. Junior Alex Lawton (29 tackles, two INTs) is a starting cornerback and rotates in at receiver.
Bundy has kicked nine field goals and scored 87 points as a senior after missing most of 2020 with a foot injury, but he left the East Chambers game with an injured knee and as of Wednesday his status for the Diboll game was unclear. Lucas Sanderson kicked the Bees' final extra point against East Chambers.
BUILDING SUCCESS: Chris Lancaster's first opportunity as a head football coach resulted in a 9-41 record at Bruceville-Eddy from 2009-13, but he's provided a spark to Academy's program in his two seasons at the helm. Lancaster's Bumblebees are 18-5 with two Class 3A Division I playoff berths, highlighted by this year's 11-1 record and Academy's first-ever trip to the third round of the postseason. The Bees battle Diboll (9-3) at 6 p.m. Friday at College Station High School's Cougar Field. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Lancaster said Academy must continue to be resilient in its third-round battle with Diboll, a quality that has served the Bees well. Yoakum gained more than 500 yards and Academy totaled less than 300, but the Bees’ defense stood firm after Mraz threw a late interception in a tied game.
“The defense comes out and says, ‘Kasey, don’t worry. We’ve got your back.’ And that’s the brotherhood we’ve been playing with all year – no heads dropping, no finger-pointing,” Lancaster said. “We held them, they had some penalties that helped us in overtime and the rest is history.
“We’ve got to be able to take advantage in all four phases – offense, defense, special teams and then the adversity phase,” he added. “We’re going to be playing in a stadium we’ve never played in and we’re going to have officials that have never officiated our boys, just like we did against East Chambers. We had to overcome that. We’re going to play field position. That’s the key, and we’ve been able to do that somewhat in every game.”
Third-round victories by Academy and Lorena would set up a district rematch for the Region III championship. Munoz-Garcia said the Bees need to keep their focus squarely on Diboll to possibly earn another opportunity against the Leopards. While Lancaster certainly agrees with that stance, he knows that another Academy-Lorena clash would be highly intriguing.
“I don’t look ahead. But at my age, when I drive home I’ve got to plan where my restroom stops are, so we’re going to always plan. You’ve got to plan for the next week in case you’re in it,” Lancaster said. “You can’t just wake up Saturday morning and say, ‘OK, we’ve got a new game.’ It’s too late then. So we’re going to always plan. Wouldn’t it be awesome, especially for Central Texas? If it does happen, just think of the crowd that would come to that game – the kids that played both of us, or a family that says, ‘We’ve got two Central Texas teams. Let’s go watch them.’
“What I told the team earlier was, ‘If we can somehow, some way get into next week, that’s the month of December and you’ve made them remember November,’ which is the cliché you’ve always been raised with in this business. This has been an odd week because our kids have not been in class. We’ve practiced in the mornings. They haven’t been in class after a great victory against East Chambers, so the teachers and student body haven’t told them, ‘Great job.’ Everybody’s been doing their own thing. There’s no pep rally this week, so I said, ‘How great would it be to get into next week and make more history, but yet enjoy it a little bit with everybody and get back in a normal routine?’ That would be awesome.”
Lancaster said it’s been “exciting but also very rewarding” for him to have success with Academy after his first head coaching stint resulted in a 9-41 record at Bruceville-Eddy from 2009-13. He identified the Bees’ improved work ethic and commitment to weight training and also growing community support as key factors in this breakthrough 11-1 season.
“I’m coaching the same here as I did at Bruceville-Eddy. The difference is that we’re very fortunate that our talent is a little bit (more at Academy). I don’t want to be negative about anything; I just couldn’t get it done there. I couldn’t get a winning season,” Lancaster said. "Sometimes as a coach, you ask, ‘Does my stuff work. Is my philosophy sound? Will it hold up?’ I spent a lot of years as a college coach, not calling the shots. You sit there in a staff meeting room and you start questioning what is being told down. ‘Well, I would do it this way.’ Well, now’s your chance, big boy.
“Again, it’s reassuring and rewarding to see (success at Academy). And I’m not saying I’m the difference by any stretch of the imagination. I’m just another coach, OK? But it’s nice to see the staff we’ve been able to assemble working together. It’s a process that started last year when COVID-19 hit, and there’s some key factors. No. 1 is the players, No. 2 is that weight room and No. 3 is the support these players get from their parents, the community and our booster club, our administration, our teachers and our janitorial help. That’s what’s rewarding, and I hope that it can continue.”
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