RICHLAND SPRINGS — The No. 1 Richland Springs Coyotes are right where they expected to be — one victory away from cementing themselves as a six-man high school football dynasty.
When the Coyotes (13-0) clash with the No. 2 Rule Bobcats (13-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at San Angelo Stadium, Richland Springs will be pursuing back-to-back Six-Man Division I state championships and a third state title in four years — feats that haven’t been accomplished in well over a decade.
Richland Springs is looking to become the first repeat state champion since Amherst captured consecutive titles in 1994 and 1995. Panther Creek also won two straight state championships in 1992 and 1993, which followed a string of four straight and five out of six by Fort Hancock from 1986-91.
Where they rank historically isn’t a concern to the Coyotes right now, however. Their attention is focused on getting past Rule once again, the team they defeated, 78-58, in the state final 12 months ago at Abilene’s Shotwell Stadium.
“Any time you play a team two years in a row they pick up on some things and play you a little tougher,” said Coyotes head coach Jerry Burkhart, who has compiled a 68-2 record at Richland Springs. “Our job as a coaching staff is to make sure they don’t get too familiar with us and to keep them off balanced.”
The Coyotes enter Saturday’s championship tilt in the midst of a 27-game win streak. Richland Springs has also 45’d all 13 of its opponents this season. Meanwhile, the Bobcats — who return 20 lettermen, including four offensive and three defensive starters, from last year’s 12-1 squad — have enforced the mercy rule 10 times.
“I’d say they’re a better football than they were last year,” Burkhart said. “They lost a couple of key players, but they have the majority of their team and a lot of speed back. We know they’re wanting revenge on us and wanting to knock us off, and we’re fighting hard so that they don’t.”
Anchoring the Rule offense are reigning first-team all-state selections C.J. Saucedo at running back and Jay T. Spitzer at quarterback. Saucedo rushed for 1,399 yards and 36 touchdowns in 2006, while Spitzer passed for 1,499 yards and 29 scores.
In last week’s 86-60 state semifinal win over Rankin, Rule — which averages 63.2 points per game — received a 213-yard, five-touchdown rushing effort from Saucedo, while Spitzer tossed three touchdown passes.
“They have a very explosive offense and feel like they can score on anybody, so we’re going to have to pick up our defensive game,” Burkhart said. “They’re making us work on the defensive side as a coaching staff. They have multiple sets, 22 different formations I think. They run a lot of the same plays out of them, but they move their kids around very well and have a lot of speed. They can do a lot of damage if they get out in the open. We have to have the kids in the right place at the right time.”
Defensively, the Coyotes have yielded just 173 points all season — an average of 13.3 per game. After allowing a season-high 43 points to May in the second round of the playoffs, Richland Springs gave up a total of 46 points against state-ranked playoff foes Calvert and Trinidad.
The Coyote defense is led by Mark Williams’ 63 tackles, 59 takedowns from Tyler Ethridge and 48 tackles apiece from Shelby Smith and Patrick Couch. Smith was the state’s defensive player of the year in 2006, while Williams and Couch were first-team all-state selections in the secondary and along the defensive line, respectively.
Stephen Pace, a second-team all-state linebacker from a year ago, leads the Rule defense, which allows 18.1 points per game. Other key contributors include last year’s state newcomer of the year James Wolfe, as well as Jonathan Rincon and Kyle Simpson.
The Bobcat defense has struggled lately, however, especially compared to this time a year ago. Last season, Rule recorded shutouts in two of three games prior to the state championship showdown, but this year the Bobcats have surrendered 146 points in their last three games — including 72- and 60-point outings by Happy and Rankin.
Rankin scored 60 on Rule last week despite turning the ball over seven times. Garrett Avalos finished with six touchdowns and 502 total yards — 351 passing and 151 rushing — for Rankin. Rule trailed 38-24 early in the second quarter, but the flood of Rankin turnovers allowed the Bobcats to build a 70-38 advantage.
Despite the points allowed by Rule in recent weeks, Burkhart expects the Bobcats to put forth their best defensive effort of the season Saturday.
“I think it will be harder to score on them,” Burkhart said. “They’ve been working on their defense a lot this week.”
The Coyotes have had no problem locating the end zone thus far.
Richland Springs has racked up 915 points, an average of 70.4 per contest, in 13 games. The Coyotes are averaging 318.4 yards of total offense per outing. The Coyotes have thrown for 179.3 yards per game, while rushing for 139.1.
Ethridge — who owns the national high school career touchdown passes record with 226 — has had a relatively quiet postseason compared to previous years, but he has shined brightest on the state championship stage. In the 2004 and 2006 title games, Ethridge played a role in a combined 17 Richland Springs touchdowns.
Last year, Ethridge finished with nine touchdowns — five rushing and four passing — and the Coyotes racked up 582 total yards. Richland Springs overcame three turnovers with a pair of onside kick recoveries, and the Coyotes turned Rule’s lone turnover into a touchdown.
Entering Saturday’s action, Ethridge has completed 106-of-138 passes for 2,246 yards and 51 touchdowns this year. He has also rushed for a team-high 879 yards and 21 touchdowns.
More this year than any of the previous three, the Coyotes have shown they have plenty of weapons to complement Ethridge.
Five Coyotes have rushed for at least 100 yards and three touchdowns — Ethridge, Smith (30-477, 16 TDs), Abraham Ahumada (20-183, 6 TDs), Williams (5-109, 6 TDs) and Andrew Fowler (14-100, 3 TDs).
Williams continues to be the go-to receiver for the Coyotes with 40 catches for 864 yards and 21 touchdowns, but Richland Springs has at least seven more game-breaking threats at its disposal in the passing game.
Other receivers who have made their share of big plays this season include Smith (13-364, 6 TDs), Haustin Burkhart (13-214, 3 TDs), Fowler (12-169, 6 TDs), Couch (11-238, 7 TDs), Richie Daniels (6-180, TD), Khalid Khatib (5-110, 2 TDs) and Mitchell Jacobson (6-104, 4 TDs).
“We feel like our offense is clicking right now,” Burkhart said. “I know we’re giving (Rule) lots of sets to work on. We’ve been working on our tight and spread offenses to make sure we can find some things that hurt them. Whether they run zone or man, we’re just trying to develop a game plan that gets our kids in the end zone.”
Special teams is an area that could pay huge dividends for the Coyotes. Daniels, who also serves as Richland Springs’ kicker, has tallied 200 points on two-point kicks alone this season.
“Our special teams have to click,” Burkhart said. “We’ve got to make our extra points.”
With just over 24 hours left until kickoff, Burkhart feels the Coyotes are prepared to once again make history.
“We give glory to God for all the great success we’ve had. These kids have worked hard for the last three or four years and they know what it takes to win,” Burkhart said. “We are going into this game knowing the challenge before us and we hope our hard work pays off. I feel like our kids are ready physically, we just have to get them ready mentally.”