The No. 2 Richland Springs Coyotes are aiming for a third state championship in four years, while the May Tigers are trying to avoid a third straight season-ending loss to the defending state champions.
District 15 champion Richland Springs (10-0) and District 13 champion May (9-1) will clash at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Comanche’s Indian Stadium in Six-Man Division I Region IV semifinal action.
Richland Springs has put a halt to May’s playoff run the last two years, earning a 48-0 victory in Bangs two years ago while ousting the Tigers, 56-8, in Comanche last year.
“Yes we have won the last three times we’ve met (including a 56-24 regular season win in 2005), but May’s hungry and wants to knock us off really bad,” said Richland Springs head coach Jerry Burkhart, whose team has won 24 consecutive games. “We have to stay focused and understand that they are going to come after us and they are wanting a little revenge.”
May head coach Craig Steele has been on the sidelines for each of the Tigers’ recent losses to Richland Springs, but feels the familiarity his team has with the Coyotes can only serve as a plus.
“We hope the third time is a charm,” Steele said. “Playing them twice before in the playoffs helps a little bit. We know what to expect from them now speed-wise and how fast their game is.”
Richland Springs is coming off last week’s 54-6 victory over Lometa, while May enjoyed a bye. The Tigers have not played a game since Nov. 9 when they defeated Santa Anna, 64-52.
“The bye does help in a way, and in another way it doesn’t,” Steele said. “We would have preferred to keep playing. We can work on our game plan more in practice, but you lose a little bit of sharpness not playing in a game situation for two weeks.”
Burkhart feels the Tigers have a decided advantage in preparation as May has had two weeks to concentrate on Richland Springs.
“Any time a team has two weeks to prepare for you it puts you at a little disadvantage,” Burkhart said. “We had to prepare for Lometa last week and they’ve had two weeks to prepare for us. We’re going to really have to get into gear this week and get ready to go.”
Despite needing just over two quarters to dispose of Lometa, the Coyotes had a few glaring errors Burkhart wants to see corrected. Richland Springs fumbled through the end zone twice for touchbacks, and a third touchdown on an interception return was negated by a penalty.
“We can’t have things like that happen in the playoffs because those things will get you beat,” Burkhart said. “We took three scores off the board and anytime you take points off the board you are shooting yourself in the foot. We have make sure we execute well and complete the plays.”
Steele believes if the Tigers have similar events go in their favor against Richland Springs, it could go a long way toward knocking off the defending state champs.
“We need to catch a few breaks and force a few turnovers,” Steele said. “We need those types of things to make a game of it.”
Entering Friday’s game, Richland Springs is averaging 67.8 points per game while allowing just 8.2 points per contest. May is scoring at a 53.5 points per game clip, while surrendering 25.6 points per outing.
The Coyote offense is led by record-setting spread back Tyler Ethridge, who has thrown a total of 215 touchdown passes in his career. This season, Ethridge has completed 74-of-96 passes for 1,636 yards with 40 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Ethridge is also the Coyotes’ leading rusher with 604 yards and 14 TDs.
Richland Springs has worked on getting more players involved in the offense throughout the season, but May understands that in crunch time, the Coyotes will still turn to Ethridge.
“We know where it all comes back to and who gets the whole thing started,” Steele said. “Ethridge is still the reason it’s working. He will be our key and we’re going to make it our mission to try and slow him down.”
Another weapon for the Coyotes is running back Shelby Smith, who has rushed for 475 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught eight passes for 198 yards and four scores. Smith sat out last week’s game against Lometa, however.
Mark Williams has been Ethridge’s favorite target for four seasons and continues to lead Richland Springs in receptions. Williams has 31 catches — more than double the second-leading receiver — for 740 yards with 18 touchdowns.
Coyotes who have seen more passes come their way as the season has progressed include Haustin Burkhart (11-166, 3 TDs), Patrick Couch (10-237, 6 TDs), Andrew Fowler (7-117, 4 TDs) and Mitchell Jacobson (3-63, 3 TDs).
“Coach (offensive coordinator Harley) Ethridge has done a good job moving kids around and trying to get some mismatches and we’ll continue to do that,” Burkhart said. “The kids we have asked to step up are stepping up. We’ll try and thrown something at May they haven’t seen before.”
The Tigers defense is led by Conner Murphree’s 106 tackles, Timothy Turner’s 94 tackles and Mikey Dickerson’s 77 takedowns. Matt Pruitt has logged a team-high five interceptions, followed by two each from Nathan Howard and Turner.
The 52 points May allowed in its last game was the second-most it has surrendered all season, however.
“We weren’t as happy with the way we tackled in the last regular season game, but we’ve had two weeks to get the bugs out hopefully,” Steele said.
While Steele would like to see an improvement on defense, the Tigers offense has been churning out points all season.
The Tigers are led by Howard at spread back, who has completed 119-of-193 passes for 2,280 yards and 38 touchdowns, while rushing for 962 yards and 21 scores.
“Nathan Howard is a great quarterback that can throw the ball well and he can hurt you,” Burkhart said. “We have to make sure we cover a lot better and apply some pressure.”
Among the receivers at Howard’s disposal are Murphree, who has a team-high 42 catches for 703 yards and 16 touchdowns, and Dickerson, who has grabbed 38 passes for 821 yards and 11 scores. Tyler Hammond also has 16 receptions for 331 yards and five touchdowns.
May has also seen a resurgence in its running game, as Howard racked up 154 yards and two scores in the Tigers’ last outing.
“Against Santa Anna, we only threw the ball four times in the second half and we’ve thrown it a lot all year,” Steele said. “It was good that we could run effectively because we’re going to need to do that Friday night.”
The Richland Springs defense has given up just four touchdowns in its last seven games. The Coyotes are led by Williams’ 47 tackles and five interceptions, while Ethridge has 41 tackles and three picks. Couch has chipped in 25 tackles and two sacks, while Smith has 23 tackle and four sacks.
“We’ll try and give them something different on the defensive side of the ball, something they haven’t seen all year,” Burkhart said. “We want to try and hit them with the element of surprise.”
The key to May’s chance at an upset, according to Steele, will be how the Tigers handle the first half.
“We have to withstand that first rush,” Steele said. “We know they are going to come out fired up and blast us quick. If we can handle that first run and keep it close until halftime, we have a chance to win the ball game.”
Friday’s winner will face either No. 3 Calvert (11-0) or Blanket (4-6) for the regional championship next week.