As the Lake Travis football team left the Cavalier Activity Center to begin the program’s traditional “walk of champions” in advance of a home game against Vista Ridge on Nov. 3, another group of Cavaliers gathered at the school’s field house for a quick barbecue dinner.
Roughly 20 players and coaches from the Lake Travis squad that won the Class 4A, Division II state championship in 2007 would make that familiar champions walk a short time later. Between bites of barbecue and talk of the past and present, some of those coaches and players reflected on the start of what has become one of the present-day dynasties in Texas high school football.
Ten years after that first champion season, the Cavaliers will face Allen on Saturday in the Class 6A, Division I final at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. A victory would bring Lake Travis its seventh state title since 2007 and the school’s second straight in the University Interscholastic League’s highest classification. For now, though, let’s hear about that breakthrough season of 2007 from those who spent it on the field and on the sidelines.
In 2003, Lake Travis athletic director Jack Moss plucked football coach Jeff Dicus from Mission High to try to jump-start a stalled Lake Travis program that had recorded just six winning seasons and only one playoff victory since the school kicked off football in 1983 as a Class A squad.
Ryan Erxleben, punter and defensive end for the 2007 team: “We were 1-9, 0-10, 3-7 (in 2001-03). I remember going to games when I was in elementary school (at the old stadium). I’m not saying they didn’t take football seriously, but (Dicus) just came in and changed the mentality. It was incredible. What he did, I can’t even describe it.”
Jeff Dicus, Lake Travis’ head coach in 2003-07: “Those first four classes don’t get enough credit for the things that we built here. Nick Bird and his classmates, they were the ones who got all of these seeds planted, and look at how it’s flourished.”
As 2007 began, Lake Travis had won back-to-back district championships and welcomed back some top players in quarterback Garrett Gilbert and receivers Jason Bird, Cohl Walla and Cade McCrary. The Cavaliers also had a solid offensive line and an opportunistic defense that relied more on speed than size. The season started slowly; the Cavaliers overcame a deficit to defeat Texas City 32-31, but they couldn’t rally past Westlake, losing 28-21.
Dicus: “You think back on the Texas City game, being down at halftime and coming back to beat a good Texas City team on the road. Then going to Westlake, we had turnover after turnover there, and we still had an opportunity to win that ballgame. A lot of credit goes to our kids to persevere through all of that adversity.”
Taylor Wrinkle, a sophomore who played as a running back, wideout and defensive back: “I think after district (play), every game that we won was kind of a surprise. After every game, we would think, ‘We can do this.’ ”
The Cavaliers didn’t lose again after the setback against Westlake. They cruised through the regular season and advanced out of the second round of the postseason for the first time in school history. In a third-round playoff game, Lake Travis shocked state-ranked Corpus Christi Calallen, led by legendary coach Phil Danaher, winning 44-14.
Andy Erickson, a junior kickoff returner in 2007 who would blossom into an all-state running back and receiver as a senior: “The tide really turned when we beat Calallen. That was a huge game for us. No one believed in us. All bets were off, though. We brought our music, and they brought theirs. We tied up our cleats, and we beat ’em pretty good.”
Dicus: “They were rated No. 2 (in the state), and I don’t think very many people picked us to beat Calallen. Once we beat them, I think we all understood that we had a chance here to do something really special.”
Victories over Beeville Jones and Dayton brought the Cavaliers to their first title game against Highland Park, another storied program. Lake Travis won 36-34 when in the game’s closing minutes, the Cavaliers stopped the Scots on a fourth-down play at the Lake Travis 25 to clinch the victory.
Gilbert passed for three touchdowns and raised his season total for passing yards to a state-record 4,826. Chris Aydam rushed for two TDs and scored the Cavaliers’ first touchdown on a 12-yard reception, and Bird made 11 catches for 102 yards to finish the season with a state-record 153 receptions.
Wrinkle: “That Highland Park team was royalty.”
Erxleben: “The thing was, we weren’t expecting to win state that year. If you would have told us after we won the district that we were going to make it all the way to state and win, I would have told you that you were crazy. We just went into every game expecting to win that game. It just ended up that we kept winning.”
Dicus: “I remember getting the jug of water (dumped on him during the postgame celebration). I wish every coach who coaches football can have the opportunity to win a state championship. There’s no better feeling.”
Erxleben: “That first feeling doesn’t ever leave you.”
Erickson: “The thing about the first one that stands out to me is that we kept breaking barriers every round in the playoffs. From what I remember, some of those weeks, we were a pretty big underdog.”
Jon-Michael Paul, a junior defensive end on the 2007 team: “Walking out of the stadium, knowing it was all done and the season was over. For me, that was my junior year, and I knew we had a lot coming back.”
Though some of the players on the 2007 championship squad played through the 2009 season, many had not seen the renovated Cavalier Stadium — with its artificial turf, videoboard and seating capacity for 7,000 fans — before returning Nov. 3. They recalled playing on a grass field with a standard high school scoreboard, but the memories, and the friendships, were familiar.
Wrinkle: “Being here is unreal. The setting is a little different because we didn’t have the turf, we didn’t have the Jumbotron, all these nice things like the different-colored helmets. It’s good to be back, especially to see a lot of these guys.”
Paul: “I love how everyone is still out and there is support from everybody. It’s a great community, and it’s great to see all of the coaches who are still here. Just to know that we’ve built such a great program or helped build a great program. Especially coach Dicus himself.”
Erickson: “It’s hard for me to come watch Lake Travis play football. I get pretty pumped up and excited. I want to be out there, still. I learned a lot in ’07, and playing football here definitely helped shape me as a person.”
Since the start of the 2007 season, Lake Travis has compiled an overall record of 151 wins and just 13 losses. The Cavaliers had a postseason winning streak of 30 games in 2007-11, and they boast an active streak of 11 straight victories in the playoffs. Once Dicus left after the 2007 season, Chad Morris — now the head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks — won state titles in 2008 and 2009 with the Cavaliers while compiling a 32-0 record.
Lake Travis’ current head coach, Hank Carter, led his teams to state championships in 2010, 2011 and 2016 — and just might do it in 2017. He has a career winning percentage of .897, thanks to an overall record of 104-12.
Erxleben: “I think there has been a lot of amazing coaches who have gone through this program, but I think what coach Dicus did, from where Lake Travis was (when he arrived) to where it was when he left, speaks volumes. I played for both coach Dicus and coach Morris, and they were both unbelievable coaches. What coach Dicus did as far as turning the program around was unbelievable.”
Dicus: “Lake Travis is well-known, not just in the state of Texas but around the country.”
Paul: “I get reminded all of the time because everybody knows Lake Travis now. From my senior year, I still wear the shirts around and people recognize it. I’ll never forget it.”
Wrinkle: “You think back as a teenager, and back then, you never thought you’d get to the point where you’d look back at something 10 years later. We started something fantastic. After we lost to Westlake, I never lost another game my whole high school career. It was the start of something great. I was happy to be a part of it. To come back and feel like it actually happened, it still kind of blows my mind. The things we were able to do, that stuff doesn’t happen all the time.”
American-Statesman staff writer Thomas Jones contributed to this report.
CLASS 6A, DIVISION I FINAL
Lake Travis (13-2) vs. Allen (15-0)
3 p.m. Saturday, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, FSSW, 104.9