ABILENE — Top-ranked Richland Springs ended the Strawn Greyhounds' two-year reign as Class A Division II state champions, 62-14, in state semifinal action Friday night at Shotwell Stadium, and now the Coyotes will look to further build upon their storied legacy as they play for the program's ninth state championship.
Head coach Jerry Burkhart guided the Coyotes to their first eight state titles before leaving after the 2017 season to test his mettle in the 11-man ranks. A winding road led Burkhart back to Richland Springs after a one-year absence, and the program now finds itself in a very familiar position.
“Sometimes you just try and take your own life in your own hands and try and go a direction you think is the best,” Burkhart said. “What you have to do is just let God take over and we're just so blessed to come back and be a part of this, we give Him all the glory. I'm also just so thankful for my wife always letting me work hard. I know I don't get to spend a lot of time with her but she supports me so much. That saying, 'behind every great coach is a great coach's wife,' that's the truth. We've got some awesome kids and I love them so much. I'm just so proud of them tonight.”
Richland Springs (12-0), which is making its 10th state title game appearance overall and seeking its ninth state crown since 2004, will clash with the Motley County Matadors (11-3) — a 56-44 winner over previously undefeated Blackwell in the other state semifinal game — at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, which was the site of the Coyotes' last state championship victory in 2016.
Following a 72-12 victory over Oakwood last week — which ended Richland Springs' 2018 campaign — the Coyotes' performance against Strawn (9-5) may have been even more impressive.
Defensively, Richland Springs forced four turnovers — including two returned for touchdowns by Matthew Rigdon — and limited Strawn spread back J.W. Montgomery to 123 total yards — 134 passing with two touchdowns, completing just 6 of 15 attempts, and -11 rushing on 10 carries. A week ago in Strawn's 64-40 victory over Gordon, Montgomery rushed for 119 yards and three touchdowns to go with 120 passing yards and three more scores.
As a team, the Greyhounds finished with 194 total yards and were held 35 points below their season average by the Richland Springs defense, which has now created 35 takeaways on the season. Lane Shannon led the Coyotes with eight tackles, including three for loss, with 1.5 sacks and a pick, while Massiah Clarady chipped in seven tackles and intercepted a pass.
“Coach (Dewaine) Lee does an awesome job, he's a top coach in my book and he's always got his kids ready to play,” Burkhart said. “We just tried to take away what they do very well. I didn't get much sleep this week and that's the case any time you face Coach Lee. We were trying to prepare and not do too much scheme-wise, just let the kids go play.”
On the offensive end, the Coyotes' depth was again on display en route to generating 324 total yards — 173 rushing and 151 passing — with no turnovers.
Landon Burkhart completed 4 of 7 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown, while rushing for 76 yards and a score; Matthew Rigdon tallied 36 yards and two touchdowns on the ground while passing for 14 yards; Shannon rushed for three touchdowns and 28 yards and caught a 36-yard touchdown; Griffin Rigdon contributed 28 yards on the ground; Wade Appleton grabbed two receptions for 75 yards; Clarady hauled in two catches for 32 yards; and Jadeyn Bryant made an 8-yard reception.
“We're very blessed in that we have a lot of depth this year,” Burkhart said. “We've got backs we can rotate, we've got linemen we can rotate, and these kids have put a lot work in trying to get the scheme right, and studying film.”
The Coyotes jumped out to a 22-0 lead just 3:55 into the contest and never looked back.
Richland Springs took the opening drive of the game 55 yards in five plays with Matthew Rigdon scoring on a 3-yard run, followed by the two-point kick from Kelton Tippie.
Strawn then turned the ball over on downs at the Coyote 26 when Montgomery was sacked by Shannon on a fourth-and-3 pass attempt. After a 42-yard pass from Burkhart to Appleton, Shannon's 1-yard run and Tippie's kick boosted the lead to 16-0.
The next drive for the Greyhounds lasted just one play as Montgomery, under duress, threw across the field into a glob of players, and Matthew Rigdon emerged with the ball and 25 yards later staked Richland Springs to a three-touchdown advantage with 6:05 left in the opening stanza.
“We wanted to go out and make a statement,” Burkhart said. “We knew the Strawn Greyhounds never give up and they will fight to the end, but we came out on top tonight. They graduated a lot of good players from last year, but they had another good team. Any time you line up against those guys you better be ready to play because they're going to be physical, they're going to block, and my hat's off to Coach Lee, he does an awesome job.”
Strawn responded with its first touchdown — a 50-yard pass from Montgomery to Marco Lopez — at 5:53 of the first quarter.
Richland Springs increased the lead to 28-8 before the first period ended as Matthew Rigdon scored on a 29-yard scamper.
` After a pick by Shannon, the Coyotes traveled 70 yards in nine plays before Shannon finished off the drive with a 7-yard touchdown run for a 36-8 lead, following Appleton's two-point kick just 45 seconds into the second period.
The lead reached 44-8 with 2:31 left in the first half on a 45-yard gallop by Landon Burkhart, which occurred right after Strawn was turned away on downs despite advancing to the Richland Springs 19 at one point.
Another Greyhound drive sputtered with 1:28 left in the first half, and Richland Springs once again cashed in with just one play as Burkhart and Shannon connected on a 36-yard scoring toss, stretching the lead to 50-8.
Clarady then picked off Montgomery two plays later, setting up the Coyotes at the Strawn 3, where Shannon scored again to push the lead to 56-8 with 37 seconds left in the half.
Strawn was able to extend the game into the second half on a 60-yard scoring toss from Montgomery to Luke Eli with 26 seconds left in the second quarter.
Leading 56-14 at halftime, the Coyotes' defense putting the finishing touches on the victory as Shannon jarred the ball loose from Montgomery on a third-and-12 pass play, and Matthew Rigdon returned the fumble 10 yards to enforce the 45-point mercy rule just 1:25 into the third period.