A year ago, the May Tigers carried an unblemished record into a second-round showdown with Brown County rival Zephyr, where the Bulldogs emerged with a 68-44 victory en route to a berth in the Class A Division I Region III championship game.
Twelve months later, the same scenario is revisited as the undefeated, sixth-ranked Tigers (11-0) look to avenge last year’s loss against the ninth-ranked Bulldogs (10-1), who are shooting for a third straight trip to the regional final. May has not played for the regional championship since back-to-back state finals appearances in 2013 and 2014.
Kickoff in the Class A Division I Region III semifinal playoff game is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday in Dublin.
“We could play Zephyr now, on Thanksgiving weekend, or the first game of the year and it’d be important to the kids from both schools,” said May head coach Craig Steele. “It’s just the way this game is and the way the communities are. There’s a little extra there because it’s Zephyr, but we’re in the second round of the playoffs trying to protect an undefeated season so we better be motivated already.”
The District 11 champion Tigers are coming off a 70-25 bi-district victory over District 12 runner-up Forestburg. Meanwhile, the District 10 runner-up Bulldogs handed District 9 champion and previously undefeated Medina its first and only loss of the season, and Zephyr would like to duplicate that result again versus May.
“When Zephyr and May play you throw everything out the door,” said Zephyr head coach Shannon Williams. “It’s one of those deals that comes down to whoever is healthiest and whoever has the best plan. On paper, it’s a very good matchup.”
May enters the game generating 59 points and 352 yards — 220 rushing and 132 passing — per game, while allowing just 10 points on average, with four shutouts. The Tigers have allowed no more than 26 points in any game, and only five times have opponents reached double digits in points.
The Tigers have gone with a running back by committee approach, as five ball carriers have shouldered the bulk of the load — Dalton Self (643 yards, 14 TDs), Preston Johnston (637 yards, 11 TDs), Jacob Brown (448 yards, 9 TDs), Daniel Salinas (254 yards, 5 TDs) and Weston Chambers (249 yards, 4 TDs).
Through the air, Wyatt Mote has connected on 50 of 76 passes for 1,291 yards with 33 touchdowns and only one interception. Leading receivers include Johnston (13-442, 10 TDs), Brown (11-293, 6 TDs), Gage Keckler (10-211, 7 TDs) and Austin McAbee (7-145, 3 TDs).
“We have a lot of kids contributing especially at the running back position,” Steele said. “We have some depth there. I feel like our line play is probably a little bit further along than it was at this time last year. I feel like our quarterback, last year he wasn’t full healthy and this year he is and hopefully that’s going to be a big advantage for us.”
Williams said of the May offense, “The scariest thing about them is how well they block, and when you play May you have to be able to stop the sweep, the dive and the counter.”
Leading the charge defensively for the Tigers are Salinas (120 tackles), Johnston (67 tackles), Mote (66 tackles), Keckler (62 tackles), Brown (47 tackles) and Self (42 tackles).
Coach (Chad) Dail and Coach (Derek) Stevens have done a great job on that side of the ball,” Steele said. “The kids have a good game plan every week, then it just comes down to executing the game plan and playing fundamental football. We didn’t do a very good job of that in the first half of the Forestburg football game last week. We came out in the second half refocused on what we needed to be doing and the kids did a great job. Hopefully we’ll carry the second half defense from last week into the whole game this week.”
Williams added, “Defensively they’re better than they have been in the past. They’re really getting after teams this year.”
Zephyr comes into the contest producing 63 points and 578 yards — 420 rushing and 158 passing — per game, while allowing 28 points per outing.
“I feel like our younger kids have really stepped up and our older kids have embraced that leadership mentality,” Williams said. “They’ve been good mentors for the younger kids. When they make mistakes instead of jumping all over them they’ve been there to support them and let them know it’s going to be OK and they have their back.”
The ground game is led by Mason Rogers (2,236 yards, 35 TDs), Nicholas Moody (1,499 yards, 35 TDs) and Hunter Williams (711 yards, 10 TDs). Through the air, Kason King (53 of 86 for 1,180 yards, 27 TDs) and Hunter Williams (22 of 41 for 490 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs) have led the way, while leading receivers include Devin Williams (34-1,012, 25 TDs), Moody (13-329, 5 TDs) and J.P. Gowin (13-284, 6 TDs).
Defensive standouts for the Bulldogs include Robert Clark (93 tackles, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries), Hunter Williams (80 tackles, two for loss, five interceptions), Moody (67 tackles, 17 for loss, three sacks, three fumble recoveries), Devin Williams (58 tackles, six for loss, four interceptions, three fumble recoveries), William Simpson (43 tackles, three for loss, one sack, one interception, one fumble recovery), King (38 tackles, five for loss, two sacks), Rogers (30 tackles, six for loss, three sacks), Michael Seider (29 tackles, four for loss, two sacks, two fumble recoveries)and Gowin (26 tackles, seven for loss).
“They’re going to be well-coached. Coach Williams does a fantastic job over there,” Steele said. “They lost their big tailback from last year, Bishop Norman, but they’ve replaced him with a freshman (Mason Rogers) that’s very good at the running back position and he’ll cause us lots of problems if we don’t get to him quick and get him to the ground. They have one of the best receivers in the state. How we decide to defend him is probably going to be pretty pivotal in the way the game goes because he’s a game changer. They’ve got pieces, they’ve got a good line, two fast backs, they’re good and we’re going to have to play really well.”
The keys to a Tigers victory, according to Steele, include, “We have to avoid turnovers, and we have to avoid giving them extra possessions on special teams with onsides kick, things like that,” Steele said. “Last year we got in a lot of third- and fourth-and-long situations and we have to do a better job of gaining yards in increments and not putting ourselves in those tough down and distance situations offensively.
“Defensively, we have to cover Devin Williams well, and do a good job of tackling – a better job than we did last week against Forestburg, otherwise it could be a long night for us.”
For the Bulldogs to be victorious, Williams said, “We have to contain the sweep, make everything stay inside, and avoid the big plays. They’ll run sweep after sweep and next thing you know they’re throwing the ball deep for a touchdown. We also need to force Mote to get rid of the ball faster than he’s used to try get some turnovers.”
The winner will face either Jonesboro (10-1) or Bryson (9-2) in the regional championship game next weekend.
According to sixmanfootball.com, May is a 16-point favorite.