Armadillos defeat district rival De Leon for second time, 31-17, to advance to state semifinals

The undefeated San Saba Armadillos are just one win away from a Class 2A Division I state championship game berth after grinding out a 31-17 victory over the District 7 rival De Leon Bearcats in Thursday night’s rematch at Gordon Wood Stadium.

The Armadillos (14-0) received a tougher challenge from the Bearcats (9-5), who they previously demolished, 62-12, in the regular season finale. This time De Leon came ready to stop San Saba standout running back Eli Salinas, who the Bearcats held to 47 yards rushing and a touchdown following last week’s 305-yard, seven-touchdown performance against Celeste.

“We had a feeling they were going to do that because of the weather and they didn’t think we were going to pass it,” said San Saba quarterback Sean O’Keefe, who completed 7 of 10 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for 133 yards. “We were able to pass it when we needed to and still run it down their throats. The receivers were just athletes. All I had to do was throw it up to them and they were going to come down with the ball and the line was giving me time to sit back there and be comfortable.”

San Saba got on the board first after recovering a fumble near the De Leon red zone. Following a 21-yard run by O’Keefe, Salinas punched in the first touchdown. On the next De Leon drive, defensive end Abel Martinez recovered a fumble, then carried the ball to the 5-yard line. Lineman Clayton Pierce came in as the elephant back to punch it in from the 1-yard line — the first of his two touchdowns on the night.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to win the game and hang our hat on what we’ve done all year long – that’s the guys up front,” said San Saba head coach Jerod Fikac, whose team gave up three turnovers Thursday night. “They packed the box on us, but we continued to methodically move down the field here and there with different chunks of plays. When we needed to throw the ball, we threw it and Sean did what he needed to do. Logan (Glover) and Ruben (Parra) made two unbelievable catches and Joe Watson made some huge plays both offensively and defensively and made some catches in critical situations.”

Despite going down 13-0 early, the Bearcats made a game of it with quarterback Kevin Yeager hitting Kelan Hodges on a fly route for a 50-yard touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, the Bearcats recovered a muffed return at the 1-yard line and punched it in. An interception by Risien Shahan and timely sacks by Watson, Pierce, Erik Argote and Junior Jaimes held the Bearcats to just 10 points in the second half and secured San Saba a place in the semifinals against New Deal.

“We just had to keep our heads up and keep up the intensity. We have a saying, ‘don’t get out hit and don’t get out hustled,’” Pierce said. “We live by that … We had to apply pressure up front and play with an attitude. The main reason they were successful was the conditions. Two blocks of mine I slipped and probably slid about 5 yards.”

After going 0-10 in 2016 and 3-7 in 2017, the first year under Fikac, the Region II champion Armadillos seem to be 2018’s Cinderella story. San Saba next faces the undefeated Region I champion New Deal Lions (14-0), who pummeled Stinnett West Texas, 57-6, Thursday to secure their spot in the semis. New on the stage of Texas’ most elite teams, Pierce said he feels nervous about next week, but also confident the Armadillos can move on to state so long as they focus on what got them to this point.

“It’s nerve racking. My sophomore year we went 0-10. No one would have thought we would have made it this far. The next year, [Fikac] gave us a reset – a better mind. We just kept moving forward. This year, we stuck to it and built a brotherhood. That is what pushed us this far.”