Tigers pull away in second half to avenge last year's season-ending loss

DUBLIN — The May Tigers' 2016 campaign was brought to an end by the Zephyr Bulldogs in the Class A Division I Region III semifinal round. In Friday night's long-anticipated postseason rematch, the favor was returned.

No. 6 May remained undefeated on the season, notching its 12th straight victory, 65-20, over No. 9 Zephyr. A year ago, Zephyr derailed an unbeaten May squad by a 68-44 count en route to the regional final.

“This feels good,” May head coach Craig Steele said in regard to avenging last year's second-round playoff defeat. “Our kids were waiting for another opportunity after last year, that loss really stung. We just wanted to make sure we got our opportunity to have a chance.”

Next up for the Tigers (12-0) is reigning state finalist and fifth-ranked Jonesboro in the Class A Division I Region III championship game, which will be played at 7 p.m. Friday back at Dublin. Jonesboro (11-1) defeated Bryson (9-3) by a 72-58 count in the other regional semifinal, and handed Zephyr (10-2) its only other loss, 60-12, on Nov. 3.

May generated 454 yards of total offense — 304 rushing yards on 31 carries, an average of 9.8 yards per tote, and 150 passing yards on 7 of 12 attempts — with a pair of turnovers. Zephyr, meanwhile, mustered just 185 yards — 147 on the ground on 31 carries, 4.7 yards per attempt, along with 38 through the air on 6 of 15 passing — with three turnovers.

“We did a good job, but we still had too many mistakes,” Steele said. “We had some poor penalties (eight for 80 yards) and a couple of turnovers that we can't have going forward. But when we didn't do those things, we played pretty well — really well defensively.”

Zephyr was forced to play without leader tackler Robert Clark on defense and leading passing Kason King on offense, both out with injuries, but Bulldog head coach Shannon Williams didn't point to their absence as the reason for the defeat.

“We were short-handed, but that's an excuse and we tell the kids never make excuses, just step up,” Williams said. “We couldn't get our offense going. Their defense was really good tonight and they just attack, attack, attack. Hats off to them.”

May's Preston Johnston racked up 110 rushing yards and four touchdowns while Dalton Self added 106 yards and two scores on the ground along with a 35-yard touchdown reception from Wyatt Mote, who threw for 150 yards and added 76 yards rushing.

“I knew going forward we'd have to be able to run some spread and I liked the way we mixed it up tonight,” Steele said. “Wyatt made some good decisions, there was one pass he'd like to have back, but other than that I thought he did a great job at spread back tonight.”

For Zephyr, Mason Rogers led the attack with 136 rushing yards and a touchdown. Devin Williams was limited to just two catches for 15 yards and a touchdown, while Nicholas Moody totaled just 9 yards on six rushes and two receptions. Michael Seider was one of three Bulldogs to attempt a pass, competing 3 of 7 attempts for 17 yards and a score, while Hunter Williams was 3 of 6 for a team-best 21 yards.

The Bulldogs struck first as a four-play, 63-yard drive ended with a 51-yard touchdown run around the right end by Rogers.

Trailing 8-0 just 1:49 into the contest, May responded with the next three touchdowns.

The Tigers traveled 60 yards in nine plays on their initial drive before a 2-yard run by Self and Dakotah Wilkinson's two-point kick knotted the score at 8 with 4:21 left in the opening stanza.

Zephyr's next possession ended at its own 36 after seven plays, where May took over. On the next snap, Mote hooked up with Self on a 35-yard screen pass for a touchdown that gave the Tigers the lead for good, 16-8, with 32 seconds remaining in the first period.

After Zephyr was again denied on fourth down in its own territory, May was poised to extend the lead before fumbling the ball away at the Zephyr 1. Just three plays later, the Tigers got the ball back when the Bulldogs gave it away at their own 4. The next snap was a 4-yard touchdown carry by Self, and a 24-8 May lead with 7:04 to go in the first half.

Later in the second half, with May again driving, Devin Williams picked off Mote at Zephyr 10 and returned the ball 41 yards to the Tiger 29. Seven plays later, Williams was on the receiving end of a 6-yard Seider touchdown pass, which closed the gap to 24-14 with 1:21 left in the half.

May needed just three plays to respond as, after a toe-tapping 29-yard catch by Daniel Salinas at the Zephyr 10, Johnston scored on the next snap to boost the lead to 30-14 with 45 seconds left in the half.

The Tigers continued their domination in the second half, taking the opening possession 56 yards in 12 plays before Wilkinson's 2-yard plunge with 5:02 left in the third stretched the lead to 38-14.

Two plays later, Mote intercepted a Moody pass intended for Williams and returned the ball to Zephyr 38. Six plays after that, Johnston was again in the end zone after a 7-yard carry to boost the advantage to 44-14 with 1:29 left in the third.

Zephyr scored its only points of the second half on the next drive, which was aided by a pair of personal fouls against May, as J.P Gowin plowed into the end zone from 1 yard out to trim the deficit to 44-20 with 9:49 to go.

The Tigers then finished off the victory with three touchdowns in a two-minute span to enforce the 45-point mercy rule.

First, a 44-yard touchdown run by Johnston immediately after Zephyr's final score padded the cushion to 50-20 with 9:39 left.

Next, a May fumble recovery, followed by a 30-yard Self carry, set up Weston Chambers' 6-yard touchdown run just 34 seconds later.

After Zephyr went four-and-out on its last possession, May ventured 37 yards in just three plays as a 6-yard Johnston touchdown carry, coupled with a Mote extra point pass to Austin McAbee, capped the 45-point Tiger triumph with 7:49 left in the fourth.

In the long run, May was gradually able to wear down Zephyr, according to Steele.

“That's a credit to our depth and partly to (Zephyr's) attrition,” Steele said. “When you get injuries in six-man it's hard to keep moving like you were before.”

As for Williams' thoughts on another double-digit win season for Zephyr, he said, “It was a great season. Any time you play in late November or early December it's a great season. We're young. There were a couple of times tonight when we had four freshmen playing. It didn't end the way you want it, and when it ends it always feels like it ends too early. But I'm still proud of our kids, it's just tough.”