MAY — Thirty-six years have passed since the May Tigers captured the 1977 six-man state championship under head coach Grayum Hart with a perfect 12-0 record.
Saturday night, the Tigers carry another unblemished 12-0 mark to Springtown to face the Savoy Cardinals (8-3) in the Division I Region III championship game — also known as the state quarterfinals.
Coming off a 2012 campaign in which May finished with a winning record, yet did not qualify for the postseason, the success of 2013 may come as a surprise to some — but don’t put the Tigers on that list.
“We feel like we’re right where we should be,” said senior Justin Howard. “From the get go, from two-a-days, we knew this was going to be a special season. The work we’ve put into it, this doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
Added fellow senior David Woods, “It started last year. We could tell with the juniors we had last year that we were going to have a pretty solid senior class this year. Through the work everybody put in over the summer, you could tell that there was going to be something different this year and it would be pretty special.”
Going back to the offseason, players began discussing their expectations for the 2013 campaign.
“I feel like we were really underrated because last year we didn’t even make it to the playoffs,” said senior Kendrick Aguerro. “This summer we lifted a lot and always had talks in the weight room like, ‘Hey, maybe we’ll go to state,’ and then after we started playing, it really came alive. We saw it following through. But I don’t think any of us expected it to be this good.”
May head coach Craig Steele, in his 10th season with the program, attributes the success to the chemistry within the team.
“We have a good mix and a lot of role players that know their roles,” Steele said. “We don’t have any one kid that’s a superstar and I think that helps with our teamwork. Egos haven’t been a problem this year and sometimes they have in the past. But not this year.”
At various points throughout the season, it became clear to the May Tigers just how magical this season could become. For some, it occurred in the preseason scrimmage against Rankin and Robert Lee.
“The first scrimmage was a blowout and we didn’t really expect that,” Woods said. “We expected to have some difficulty in it. In the second scrimmage against Rankin and Robert Lee, they were ranked way above us at the beginning of the season and we kind of coasted through that. It was really in the preseason that we found out this could actually work.”
Added Aguerro, “I feel like it started when we played Rankin. Rankin’s a good football team with two good running backs. It was a scrimmage, but we outscored them in the scrimmage. Then we went to Richland and worked well as a team and that’s when we started to see glimpses of it.”
May opened its regular season on the road against Richland Springs, fresh off its third straight state championship and state record sixth six-man state title overall. The Coyotes also owned a 45-game win streak, which was snapped as the Tigers chalked up a 76-52 victory that immediately turned heads across the state.
“The first game against Richland, once we got past that, we knew this was our best chance to go to state this year,” Howard said.
The Tigers added a 46-38 road victory over Newcastle two weeks later, a state-ranked Bobcats team that is still alive in the Division II bracket of the state playoffs.
Then the District 9 schedule began, which was expected to be one of the toughest leagues in the entire state. Zephyr, Santa Anna and Rochelle shared the district championship last year, and Rochelle — by virtue of a coin toss — still missed the playoffs as only two teams advance in six-man.
Heading into the league opener against Santa Anna, the entire district had combined for a 25-4 record to that point. The Tigers slipped past Santa Anna, 38-31, which was a major accomplishment, according to Steele.
“I knew we were pretty good when we beat Richland and Newcastle and those are two tough places to go play,” Steele said. “Santa Anna really put it on us last year and basically returned the same team, so I was really concerned about that game. When we beat them I felt a huge weight come off of me and I think the boys did as well. We relaxed a little bit after that.”
May followed its district opener with wins over Rochelle (58-8), Zephyr (58-36) and Lometa (52-34), then began the playoffs with comfortable victories over Lingleville (58-8) and Blum (66-35).
The Tigers have relied on old school, smash mouth football to reach their 13th game. May is averaging 57 points and 393 yards per game, with 323 of those yards coming on the ground. May’s success on the ground has been by committee as Howard (1,311 yards, 28 touchdowns), Aguerro (1,294 yards, 17 touchdowns), Dakota Chambers (549 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Caleb Hardy (500 yards, eight touchdowns) have all played important roles.
The consistency of the run has also opened up the play-action pass and, when need be, the Tigers are able to move the ball through the air. Isaac Williams has completed 29 of 48 passes for 676 yards with 15 touchdowns, while leading receiving threats for May include Brant Harris (12-267, 6 TDs), Chambers (6-185, 2 TDs), Howard (6-145, 4 TDs) and Caleb Brown (4-57, 3 TDs).
But it’s the rushing attack where May thrives most.
“It’s a lot of ground and pound and we hit the holes hard,” Woods said. “I’m the center so I get to block a lot. Those of us on the line are really proud of what we can do. Even though we may not score all the time, we feel as much pride in what we do as the running backs, who we can open the holes up for.”
Added Howard, “I love it because I love to run the ball, but it’s about the line, too. The line opens gaps with hard blocks and we just do our best to find those holes and run over people.”
The defense for May has been stellar as well, with only 23 points per game surrendered on average. The Tigers have posted two shutouts this season and have given up just one touchdown in three more outings.
The Tiger defense is spearheaded by Harris (133 tackles), Howard (95 tackles), Woods (80 tackles, three fumble recoveries, one for a touchdown), Chambers (69 tackles, two fumble recoveries, one for a touchdown) and Williams (61 tackles, four interceptions).
“We have a lot of guys swarm to the ball,” Aguerro said. “We believe in open field tackling instead of arm tackling. We’re real good at sticking them. We use our heads and shoulders.”
Added Woods, “We’re really good at keeping runners in the open field. We’re good at corralling them into areas and having guys come back to the ball. A lot of times we have four or five guys on a tackle. It’s a big group effort.”
If the Tigers are able to knock off Savoy Saturday night, either Abbott (7-5) or Aquilla (7-5) will await in the state semifinals. A victory there, and May would head to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for the Saturday, Dec. 14 state championship game, slated for a noon kick.
“That’s incredible. That’s history,” Aguerro said. “It’s the first year the game is in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. It would be amazing. It shows what work in the summer does. I feel like it’d be extremely special, playing in that big of a surrounding. I feel like we’d be introducing a lot of people to six-man because it’s there.”
Added Woods, “A state game would be incredible for me. For the last few years we’ve been under the radar a little bit, you haven’t heard too much from May. This year, to see us up there with Ira and Throckmorton and all them, it’s nice to be thought of as a powerhouse. It would be an incredible opportunity to say that May’s actually on the map.”
For Steele, who is 70-37 in his tenure at May, he’s faced a number of teams who have gone on to capture state titles. He would like nothing more than for 2013 to finally be the Tigers’ time to hoist the state championship trophy.
“I’m not sure I could put it into words,” Steele said. “These kids have put in a lot of effort and had a lot of disappointment over the last four years. Even before that, we made the playoffs five times and played the state champion four out of those five times in the first round. It would mean a lot for the program and the school.”