No. 1 Balmorhea, defending champ Richland Springs a classic matchup in state final

Paul Harris / San Angelo Standard-Times
Landon Burkhart gains yards in the Class 1A Division 2 state semifinal game on Dec. 6 in Abilene.

The Balmorhea Bears have spent the entire 2020 football season as the No. 1-ranked team in the state.

The Richland Springs Coyotes are the undefeated defending state champs.

So it's difficult to say who's really the favorite in the Class 1A Division II state final at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. 

We do know it's a legendary coaching matchup between Balmorhea's Vance Jones and Richland Springs' Jerry Burkhart.

Jones led Marathon to a state title back in 1976, and he has a chance to win another one 44 years later.

In between, Jones led Garden City to back-to-back state titles in 2009 and '10. He also coached Sanderson to the state final in 2002.

He has been at Balmorhea for nine years and took the Bears to the state final in 2016 and '17.

But Balmorhea has never won it all.

Richland Springs owns a record nine state championships.

That disparity, more than anything, is why Balmorhea still feels like the underdog heading into this game, even if the Bears are No. 1 and Richland Springs is No. 3.

The Coyotes have lost only 10 times in 17 years under Jerry Burkhart — and they're 9-0 in state finals with him as the coach.

They're currently on a 26-game winning streak dating to a 2018 loss to Oakwood in the state quarterfinals.

This year has been different, though. 

Richland Springs didn't run through the playoffs like a wrecking ball with 45-point wins.

The Coyotes nearly lost their first district game since 2001 before surviving 84-81 against Cherokee.

They trailed at halftime of their playoff opener before rallying past Blanket 56-30.

It got closer each week, but Richland Springs kept moving on with wins over Oglesby (70-38), Calvert (48-34) and Strawn (59-56).

"These kids — their work ethic is unbelievable," Burkhart said to the Abilene Reporter-News after his team's win over Strawn in the state semifinals. "Nobody believed we’d get here. I mean nobody.

"All year long (I heard), ‘Richland’s down. Richland’s down.’ But one thing about Richland ... is we keep on fighting.”

Richland Springs returned only three lettermen from last year, compared to 21 for Balmorhea.

That's why Richland Springs was ranked No. 4 in preseason polls, while Balmorhea was No. 1. 

Of course, one of Richland Springs' returners was the Offensive MVP from last year's state final, Landon Burkhart, who has rushed for 1,270 yards and 24 touchdowns and thrown for 1,154 yards and 23 TDs.

Another returner was defensive leader Jadeyn Bryant, who has 70.5 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.

Balmorhea, meanwhile, has backed up its No. 1 ranking.

The Bears dropped their season opener, but the 38-36 loss to Rankin (ranked No. 1 in 1A Division I) only solidified their spot as the top team in 1A Division II.

They've won 10 in a row since, including last-minute wins the last two rounds over Motley County (36-30) and Groom (44-38).

It's not easy to win games like that without a top-flight defense, which is what Balmorhea has after returning all six starters from last year.

The Bears also returned three starters on offense. They're averaging 53 points per game, led by running back Tomas Contreras.

Balmorhea is 94-20 in Jones' nine seasons at the school. The Bears have lost all three times they've played Richland Springs, however, including 96-50 in the 2016 state final.

Is Balmorhea really the No. 1 team in the state this year?

Nothing will prove that more than going through Richland Springs in the state final.