Thomas Copeland picked the perfect moment to have the game of his life.
Copeland shifted from battering ram to hot rod, running for 227 yards and four touchdowns to power Live Oak to a 64-30 win over New Braunfels Christian in the TAPPS Six-Man Division II state championship game on Thursday at Midway’s Panther Stadium.
Live Oak (10-3) claimed the third state title in the program’s 10-year history, and the first since moving to TAPPS from TCAL in 2014. The Falcons had fallen in the TAPPS state final the previous two years.
“It says it all on the color. Blue is so much better than red,” said junior Chase Hill, fingering the blue ribbon that held the state championship medal around his neck. “I can’t stand the color red. I just love this color so much more.”
The six-man game has a reputation as wide-open, playground-style football, but the label is not always accurate. Honestly, Live Oak seasoned its state title-winning stew with two primary ingredients — a sturdy running game and a tenacious, fundamentally-sound defense.
Live Oak coach Jordan Barker said the Falcons executed the game plan to precision. He wanted to control the clock, control the tempo and, hopefully, control the scoreboard.
“We saw they like to spread it out, and for everyone’s sake we didn’t want it to be a four-and-a-half six-man game,” Barker said. “We’re big. Our four seniors are blocking fools. That first couple of drives, we wanted them to have the ball first and we wanted to come out and just wear them out. They scored first. We basically thought, ‘Let them think that what they’re going to do is going to work for four quarters.’ ”
Indeed, the Wildcats (10-2) zipped downfield and scored the opening TD in just four plays. Matthew Nicholas connected with Alex Lawrence on an 11-yard pass for the score over the middle, sending New Braunfels Christian to a quick 6-0 lead.
But Live Oak answered in five plays — all on the ground — capped off by Copeland’s 2-yard TD run. The Falcons would employ that strategy throughout the game, chipping away with a relentless ground assault.
Live Oak’s defense also contributed mightily. The Wildcats frequently lined up in a spread formation and opted for a direct snap to the QB Nicholas. In six-man football, if the passer takes the snap directly, he is unable to run the ball. That allowed the Live Oak pass rushers to provide pressure in the backfield without fear of getting beat on containment, and the Falcon defensive backs made a number of plays on Nicholas’ long tosses.
Barker praised the arrival of Bryce Helton, formerly of Dallas Covenant, as the engineer of the defense.
“Bryce has changed our entire defense first,” Barker said. “But I’ve basically got Ryan Bounds, who was at Holy Trinity, Bryce Helton, who was at Covenant, myself, then Coach (Steve) Howard and Jesse Fanning, who was very supportive early, coached junior high. We’ve got five people who should be head coaches. I kind of looked this year as a unit.”
Live Oak’s opportunistic defense actually provided the team’s second score of the game, as senior Stephen Hollis scooped up a Wildcat fumble and chugged 16 yards to paydirt.
The Wildcats had an emphatic answer, as Nicholas corralled a deep ensuing kickoff, then zig-zagged his way 78 yards for a touchdown that brought his team to within 15-14 in the opening quarter. Live Oak learned its lesson from that play, and opted for pooch kicks and onside attempts thereafter.
Meanwhile, Live Oak kept cashing in on its offensive chances. Hill added a 1-yard TD run early in the second quarter and Carter Mencken capped off a scoring drive with a 5-yard untouched TD run midway through the quarter, helping the Falcons open a 27-14 lead.
After another hard-nosed defensive stop, the Falcons seemed to take the air out of New Braunfels Christian with a late scoring drive just before the half. Hill jitterbugged into the end zone from eight yards out with 25 seconds before the break, giving Live Oak a 35-14 advantage.
“We call ourselves a spread team, but we just do what we need to do,” Hill said. “We saw on film that we wanted to get the ball past 12 (Braison Rudd) or 19 (Lawrence), they were athletic freaks. We knew that we had Carter (Mencken), me, Thomas (Copeland), Cole (Jarhmarkt), Will (Wallace), Jackson (Wiethorn), who could all the run the ball. We just grounded and pounded. It was awesome.”
The Wildcats changed quarterbacks in the second half, going with Lawrence, whose 14-yard strike to Rudd with 5:01 left in the third quarter pulled the visitors within 35-22.
But Live Oak kept banging away, and eventually the Wildcat defense crumbled. Copeland scored three of his four touchdowns in the second half, including tackle-breaking jaunts of 45 yards late in the third and 41 yards in the fourth to ice it.
“To have (Copeland) come out and play like he did, I’m glad for him,” Barker said. “We have probably seven different running backs that we could use. The last game of their careers, so we’re going to go with them. Thomas has really played well. He’s our banger back. We’ve got Hill, who is more of a playmaker back. But when you banged on for four quarters like that, at any level, it’s just hard to keep it together.”
Like any team, Live Oak was not impervious to adversity this year. Case in point – Copeland had a multi-fumble game in a loss to Methodist Home in which he suffered a concussion.
But, in the end, the juice was worth the squeeze.
“It’s one of the best feelings, honestly,” Copeland said. “Being a senior, it just completes that for me. Winning after the freshman year (in 2013), winning that state championship, was great, but I didn’t get to contribute too much. Knowing that I could help carry the team this week with my brothers was just great. I love it.”