May Tigers grateful for another shot at state title
Craig Steele, who coached the May Tigers to Class 1A Division I state runner-up finishes in 2013 and 2014, has encouraged his players to enjoy the moments leading up to Wednesday’s 2020 state championship game.
“We’re telling our kids to enjoy the ride at home and soak up the atmosphere when we get to AT&T Stadium. Don’t have any regrets later on,” Steele said Thursday.
“We’re telling them that, if people in town slap you on the back and tell you how great you are, don’t get tired of that. Don’t take it for granted. Think of all the kids in Texas — or even just in Brown County — that never had a chance to play in a state championship game.”
Third-ranked May (13-1) and top-ranked Sterling City (14-0) are scheduled to play for the 1A DI state title at 2 p.m. Wednesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. May’s only loss this season was 44-40 to Sterling City on Sept. 4 in a game played at May.
Although the two state final losses to Crowell in 2013 and 2014 are freshest in May’s minds, the Tigers did win state in 1977 — some 43 years ago. Sterling City is seeking its first state championship, and the Eagles are favored by 19 points by sixmanfootball.com.
While Steele, who’s in his 17th year as May’s head coach with a 144-55 record, is encouraging his players to enjoy the moment, that doesn’t mean the Tigers are satisfied with reaching a third state final in eight years. They’d like to finish the job.
“We don’t want to be known as the Buffalo Bills,” Steele said, referring to the four-time Super Bowl losers from the 1990s.
May has nine seniors, and most of them have been together since junior high. Though they experience various levels of playing time, they decided last spring to endure the COVID-19 interruptions and return together for one last run at six-man football glory.
“Some of our seniors are just ol’ farm kids,” Steele said. “They have jobs during football season, and staying dedicated is a challenge. Some are close to moving on with their lives. I’m thankful all of them stayed with football. They made this trip (to state) possible.”
Two of those seniors — running backs Rory Bustamante and Isidro Salinas — are dealing with ankle injuries as the state game approaches. Salinas was limited to mostly playing defense during May’s 92-86 semifinals win over Blum, but the smallish player came up with multiple open-field tackles against the high-scoring Bobcats.
Bustamante, who also throws a lot of May’s passes, was injured in the third quarter of the Blum game and didn’t return.
“Isidro is much closer to 100 percent,” Steele said. “We’d love to have him back to playing both ways. But the worst-case scenario is that we’ll have him for defense again. We’re hoping Rory can play both ways. But if he only has so much in him, we’ll make decisions.”
Bustamante already had rushed for 168 yards and three touchdowns before his injury last week. After he left, junior Kaden Halk, a junior, took more carries and finished with 302 yards and five TDs rushing. It marked Halk’s second consecutive 300-yard game in the playoffs.
Defensively, senior linebacker Hayden King, a former 11-man player at Bangs, has taken the lead for May’s defense, which prior to last week was allowing 17 points per game. King and Salinas had multiple tackles in two late defensive stands that made the difference in beating Blum.
“We used six running backs throughout the year, and they’ve all had opportunities,” Steele said. “The others don’t have the same skill set as Rory because he can run and throw. But that doesn’t mean we can’t run the ball. We’ve relied more on our quarterback, Blake Harrell, in the passing game.”
Steele knows how talented Sterling City is, but he’d rather face a familiar team in the state final. In their previous meeting, Sterling City rallied from a 22-16 halftime deficit with a 22-point third quarter.
“We’ll take the devil we know,” Steele said. “There’s a comfort level there because we’ve seen their speed and quickness, so there won’t be any surprises out of the gate.”
Sterling City’s quickness is led by senior running back Cross Knittel, who has rushed for 1,786 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also has thrown for 13 TDs. The Eagles’ defense, which has held opponents to 92 yards rushing per game, is led by end Chance Ferguson and linebacker Jarett Justiss, who both have 100-plus tackles. Safety Damian Calderon has nine interceptions.
“We have a size advantage, but they have a speed and quickness advantage. We see that kind of matchup a lot,” Steele said. “The keys to defending speed are containment and playing assignment football. And when we’re blocking on offense, we can’t run to where they are. We have to run to where they’re going to be.
“We have to anticipate well when we face teams with more speed. We’ve had to do it all year.”
Steele also is glad his team has seen Sterling City’s unusual defense that overloads to one side on the line of scrimmage, but overloads to the other side behind the line.
“It definitely takes away some things. You can’t run like you would against a balanced defense,” Steele said. “They put their middle lineman in a gap, and their three backs guys — I call them linebackers — make a quick read to where the ball is going. They get there in a hurry.
“I think their defense is about to become really popular in six-man football.”