TRENT — In a game that featured 182 points, 25 touchdowns, 1,291 yards of total offense, six ties and six lead changes, a single fourth-quarter defensive play proved to be the difference in the May Tigers' 94-88 Class A Division I Region IV bi-district championship victory over the Robert Lee Steers Friday night.
Having just regained an 86-80 advantage with 3:54 left in the contest on a 40-yard scoring toss from Blake Harrell to Rory Bustamente, the Tigers (8-3) were tasked with stopping a Steer offense that had produced 52 points in the half — reaching the end zone on of five of six possessions in the third and fourth quarters, as well as scoring on a kick return.
Following a first down incompletion, Robert Lee spread back Julian Gamboa dropped back to pass from midfield, where May's Gage Keckler gave pursuit. Once Keckler was able to get Gamboa his grasp, he stripped the ball away at the Steer 25, which Harrell scooped and ran into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
May was flagged for holding on the play, but kept possession of the ball with 3:37 remaining. Two plays later, after a 26-yard toss from Harrell to Jaden Baker, Harrell — a freshman — covered the final 14 yards on the ground, diving into the end zone to extend the Tiger advantage to 94-80 with 2:14 left, following Keckler's two-point kick.
“For the entire second half we were pretty much preaching we had to get a stop and I didn't care how we did it, fourth down, a turnover, whatever,” said May 15th year head coach Craig Steele, whose record at the school improved to 121-51 with two state championship game appearances. “We got to them, it was a huge strip and that was the game.”
Keckler said of the play, “We have a lot hard-headed kids, but we have a lot of young kids, too, and I know some of them were getting their heads down. Just that play alone turned the game for us and gave us the confidence that we needed. That won us the game right there. It got our confidence back up and got us working as a team again.”
Robert Lee closed the gap to 94-88 with 1:23 remaining on a Gamboa pass to Daniel Mendoza, who flipped the ball back to Jayton Warren to complete the 37-yard score.
The Steers attempted on onside kick, where the ball bounced off Baker and right into Keckler's hands. The Tigers were able to run the remaining time off the clock after Robert Lee was flagged for a personal foul when May took a knee with 1:11 to go.
“I was hoping it would be more in the 60s,” said Steele, who earlier in the week called the Robert Lee offense a nightmare to prepare for and acknowledged the Steers would be able to put some points up against the Tiger defense. “But if it would have taken 100 points, we would have gone after it.”
Overcoming adversity has been a theme for the Tigers all season, and Friday was no exception. Already playing without starters Isidro Salinas and Chris Finniken, May lost its leading rusher and tackler, Daniel Salinas, due to what was feared to be a leg fracture with 5:19 left in the third period and the game tied at 44. Salinas had rushed for 203 yards and touchdowns of 51 and 56 yards when he exited the contest.
“Daniel Salinas is a man, a key defensive player, a key offensive player and he's been on varsity since he was a freshman,” Keckler said. “It kills me that he's out. Without him, I thought we would tumble and fall, but we worked together as brothers and came out on top and I love them for that. “
Steele added, “We have some resilient kids. Chris is pretty banged, Isidro couldn't go with his ankle and then of course Daniel, so most of the game we're without three starters. That's hard to overcome, but we had a lot of young kids step up tonight and I'm super proud of them.”
Playing even more short-handed than originally anticipated, the Tigers used their entire arsenal of available parts to piece together offensive and defensive units capable of securing a gritty first-round playoff victory.
“We found depth that we weren't even sure we had tonight,” Steele said. “We played a lot of JV kids tonight and obviously they're going to be needed going forward now.”
May overcame three turnovers and finished with 660 yards of total offense — 367 passing and 293 rushing. Along with Salinas' effort on the ground, Bustmante churned out 56 yards and a pair of touchdowns and Harrell finished with 36 yards and two scores.
Through the air, Bustamante connected on 8 of 13 passes for 204 yards and four touchdowns, while Harrell was 6 of 8 for 149 yards and three scores. Salinas also completed a 14-yard toss.
Keckler led May with six catches for 182 yards and four scores, Tyler Wheeler grabbed two touchdown receptions totaling 43 yards, Bustamante caught three passes for 86 yards and a score, Baker added two receptions for 41 yards and Harrell caught a 14-yard pass.
“I've been on varsity a couple of years and I'm not the tallest person or the fastest person, I don't have the best hands, but if you throw it up to me, even if it's a jump ball I'm going to work my hardest to catch that ball every chance I get,” said Keckler, who along with Bustamante and Harrell became more of a focal point of the offense after Salinas went down. “They have faith in me, I have faith in them.”
The Tigers surrendered 631 yards, including 507 through the air, but forced four turnovers, including the crucial takeaway in the closing minutes.
Gamboa completed 22 of 27 passes for 441 yards and nine touchdowns to spark the Robert Lee offense, while Warren caught 10 passes for 252 yards with five trips to the end zone. Lane Fowler chipped in 60 passing yards and a pair of scoring tosses, three catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns, a team-high 43 yards and a score on the ground, and a 60-yard kick return for six points.
Trailing 28-20 after one quarter, the Tigers scored the final 24 points of the first half, blanking Robert Lee in the second period to open a 44-28 halftime edge.
May pulled even on the first play of the second quarter as Bustamente scored on a 5-yard carry and Keckler booted the two-point kick to make the score 28-all. With 2:20 left in the half, May completed a 68-yard drive after recovering a fumble at the Tiger 12 as Salinas galloped 56 yards, and Keckler converted the two-point try to stake May to a 36-28 advantage. The Tigers followed with a pooch kick and recovered at the Robert Lee 29. Later facing a fourth-and-7 at the Steer 13, Bustamente hooked up with Wheeler on a touchdown pass to push May's lead to 16 points at the break.
The Tigers' halftime cushion didn't last long as Robert Lee logged the first two touchdowns of the second half — on a 39-yard toss from Gamboa to Warren, then a 47-yard connection from Gamboa to Fowler — knotting the score at 44 at 5:40 of the third period. From that point on, the see-saw battle was in full effect.
With Friday's bi-district victory, May will move on to face the Leakey Eagles — 66-30 winners over two-time state finalist Jonesboro Friday night. Leakey (10-1) is led by former Zephyr head coach Shannon Williams. The time, date and location of the second-round playoff contest has not yet been set.
“We're going to have a tough Thanksgiving week of practice trying to get ready,” Steele said, referring not only to the challenge Leakey presents but the injuries the Tigers will once again attempt to overcome.