MAY — Separated by a little more than 70 miles and often times just one district apart, as is the case again this year, the District 11 champion May Tigers and District 10 champion Jonesboro Eagles have never faced off during head coach Craig Steele’s 14-year tenure in May.
That changes at 7 p.m. Friday in Dublin as the undefeated, third-ranked Tigers (12-0) continue their quest for a return to Arlington for the first time since 2014 as they challenge the sixth-ranked Eagles (11-1), reigning state finalists, in the Class A Division I Region III championship game.
“I’ve seen them on film over the years and I would consider them very similar to us in what they’re trying to do,” Steele said. “For the most part they’re a tight running team. They have good size, they have good backs with some size and good speed. They’re a team that’s pretty disciplined and that’s one of the things we like to pride ourselves on, but it didn’t show last Friday with all our penalties. But they don’t seem to commit a lot of penalties. They’re a very disciplined team and we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
The only blemish on Jonesboro’s schedule is a 71-44 loss in Week 2 to Milford, which ended Richland Springs’ quest for a Division II state three-peat last week, 62-16. The Eagles own a 60-12 victory over Zephyr, which May knocked out of the playoffs last week, 65-20. Both teams also played Blanket, with Jonesboro notching a 78-34 district win while May chalked up a 54-8 non-district victory.
May is averaging 60 points per game compared to Jonesboro’s 62, but the glaring difference comes on defense where the Tigers have given up 11 points on average while the Eagles are surrendering 30. Five Jonesboro opponents have eclipsed 30 points, including last week’s foe Bryson in a 72-58 second-round win. May, meanwhile, has yielded no more than 26 points in a game this season.
“Jonesboro has probably played a little bit tougher schedule than us, at least in non-district,” Steele said in regard to the difference in points allowed between the teams. “They had a couple of teams on their schedule that can put up some points, so looks can be deceiving in that regard. Again, they’re very similar to us in what they run defensively, similar schemes. They’re a fundamentally sound defense. They’ve played a couple of teams that put up some points on them, so hopefully there’s some things there that we’ll be able to take advantage of.”
The May defense is spearheaded by Daniel Salinas (131 tackles, 17.5 for loss, four fumble recoveries), Wyatt Mote (77 tackles, five interceptions, one fumble recovery), Preston Johnston (76 tackles, 17.5 for loss), Gage Keckler (70 tackles, 15.5 for loss, two fumble recoveries) and Dalton Self (56 tackles, four fro loss, three fumble recoveries).
The Tigers will be tasked with slowing down a Jonesboro offense generating 436 yards — 360 rushing and 76 passing — per outing.
Wyatt Young has been the driving force behind the Eagles offense with 2,191 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns, 252 passing yards and four scores and seven receptions for 167 yards with two trips to the end zone.
Jonesboro is far from a one-man show, however.
Other weapons include Ethan Lilljedahl (897 rushing yards, 18 TDs; 278 passing yards, 6 TDs), Andy Sarmiento (712 rushing yards, 10 TDs; 11 receptions for 97 yards), Payton Merx (492 rushing yards, 8 TDs), Anthony Lopez (306 passing yards, 7 TDs), Trevor Sellers (10 catches, 260 yards, 6 TDs), Alex Sarmiento (10 catches, 141 yards, 2 TDs), and Christian Baker (four catches, 110 yards, 3 TDs).
“They have multiple weapons, again similar to us, with several running backs they run through their offense,” Steele said. “The Young kid, the Lilljedahl kid, the Sarmiento kid are good running backs and they’ve got a good line. It’s one of those deals similar to last week where we have to be in attack mode. We did a good job last week attacking and trying to get the Rogers kid from Zephyr to change direction in the backfield and that’s something that’s going to be very important this week because they really like to come down hill and run north and south. We have to do a good job of getting penetration and making those backs change direction in the backfield to slow them down a little bit.”
May counters with an offense that produces 363 yards — 230 rushing and 133 passing — per game, but often enjoys the advantage of a short field due to the play of the defense. The Tigers will be not be at full strength for the second week in a row, however, as Jacob Brown and Jaden Baker are still recovering from injuries, which will diminish May’s diversity slightly.
“Two kids are out for us again this week, but we had kids step up last week and we’ve had kids step up all year when we’ve had injuries and we’re going to count on that to continue,” Steele said. “We feel like we’re in a good spot with our run-pass combination. Wyatt’s done a good job all year throwing the football and we’ve got multiple backs that can carry it and our line does a good job of blocking. From an offensive standpoint we feel like we present some challenges to defenses when trying to defend us because we can do multiple things.”
The ground game is anchored by Self (758 yards, 16 TDs), Johnston (756 yards, 15 TDs, Weston Chambers (262 yards, 5 TDs), Salinas (254 yards, 5 TDs) and Mote (220 yards, TD).
Through the air, Mote has connected on 57 of 89 pass attempts for 1,434 yards with 34 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Leading receivers include Johnston (14-454, 10 TDs), Keckler (11-223, 7 TDs), Austin McAbee (9-168, 3 TDs) and Self (6-132, 2 TDs).
The Tigers have not found themselves trailing very often this season, and Steele feels a quick start will be among the keys to a May victory over Jonesboro
“We have to avoid getting in a hole early,” Steele said. “We can’t get blitzed in the first quarter and get down two or three touchdowns. We have to at least maintain the status quo the first quarter and first half really, make sure it’s a relatively close game. We cannot turn the ball over, we had two turnovers last week and we can’t afford to do that this week. We also have to tackle well on defense, and we did that most of the game against Zephyr, but there were a couple of times where we had plays in the backfield that we didn’t make. We really have to play well defensively this week and make those plays.”
The winner will face either Tioga (10-1) or Union Hill (11-0), who meet in the Region IV championship game at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Prairieland, next weekend in the state semifinals.
According to sixmanfootball.com, May is a 13-point favorite with a 58.5 percent probability to win.