Apr 24, 2017

Lake Travis Football Players Learn the System Early and Often

Reporting Texas

The Lake Travis Cavaliers throttled The Woodlands 41-13 in December to clinch the Class 6A Division I football championship, their sixth state title. Head coach Hank Carter hoisted the trophy as his team surrounded him at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, gold medals hanging from their necks.

For half of the roster, it was a culmination of a journey that began even before they left elementary school.

Those players got their start in the Lake Travis Youth Football League, which is part of the greater Lake Travis Youth Association (LTYA). The program offers fall tackle football for second to sixth graders and serves as a feeder program to Lake Travis High School in football-crazed Texas.

“It’s like a machine,” said Philip Albright, the league’s president. “We’re lucky that Coach Carter and all the coaches there really want the kids to do good and really love football.”

Carter estimates that 50 percent of last year’s championship team played in the youth league.

The LTYA was founded in 1978, and today it offers 10 youth sports leagues, including football. Scott Cronk, the executive director, said the program had about 150 tackle participants last fall, a number that has stayed consistent over the past three years.

Texas high school football as a whole has seen a decline in participation due to increasing concerns over head injuries and safety. During the 2010-2011 academic year, 168,868 students played high school football, according to the University Interscholastic League. The number dropped to 164,013 during the 2015-2016 year.

Carter said Lake Travis’ high school program, which includes the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams, has stayed between 255 to 300 students since 2008. Carter said many parents and kids at the youth level have been given options other than football.

“I do not think it’s dying,” he said.

Tackle football typically starts at the middle school level when a student enters seventh grade. The youth program offers a chance for students to play fall tackle football before middle school. By the time the kids get to middle school, they already know proper tackling and simple versions of the play-calling schemes. The program also offers flag football and spring 7-on-7, an all-passing, non-contact version of the game played with a running clock.

Surrounding communities such as Dripping Springs and West Lake Hills offer similar programs, but Austin does not offer youth tackle football.

The fall youth association season starts during the last week in July. Players go through a conditioning schedule before practices start. When school starts, the teams have two practices a week, in full pads, that last about 90 minutes. Games are played on Saturday.

Winning isn’t the only goal. High school coaches meet with  youth coaches once a year and discuss the schemes and plays that are being run at the middle school and high school levels. A simpler version of plays is imparted to the youth teams.

“It’s really cool to see a lot of the boys grow up together and play together,” Albright said. “Then the coaches know, hey when this group of sixth and seventh graders, when they’re sophomores and juniors in high school, they’re going to have a chance to compete for a state championship.”

Albright said each youth coach goes through the Heads Up Safety training program offered by USA Football, which teaches safer tackling and other safety techniques. Coaches also have to attend classes that teach health and fitness before they are certified. Each team is required to have someone certified in first aid and safety before they can even practice.

The shadow of injury concerns still looms. Christy Casey-Moore serves on the LTYA board and has two sons. Lucas, 12, and Landry, 7, have both participated in the program. Lucas has played tackle, but Casey-Moore said Landry will remain in flag until she feels he is ready for another step.

“I think it’s very dependent on the child,” Casey-Moore said. “I’ve seen kids where at first or second grade for that matter have little bit more athleticism, a little bit more maturity, maybe a little build than a first grader that is not ready for that.”

But Casey-Moore trusted the safety precautions the program has in place. Lucas and Landry will likely try to play football once they arrive at Lake Travis High School. When they reach middle school and then high school, they will be a step ahead, along with other LTYA alumni.

“They got an ‘LT’ on their helmet,” Carter said. “Whether they’re playing for the Lake Travis Wildcats in the LTYA or Lake Travis Cavaliers in another organization, I think school pride and looking up at those older guys and wanting to be like them someday, I think that’s a neat thing, too.”

Who knows? Someday, they might stand at the center of AT&T Stadium , wearing gold medals.