Undefeated May, Abbott prepare to clash in state semifinals

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
May High School's Blake Harrell (14) slips between Water Valley's Chaden Gibbs (22)  and Tallon Hayes (34) to score a touchdown during a Class 1A Division I football state quarterfinal game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Griffith Stadium in Robert Lee.

The No. 1-ranked May Tigers will face an undefeated opponent this Saturday for the third consecutive week in the Class 1A Division I football playoffs.

The unbeaten Tigers (13-0) are scheduled to play the No. 3 Abbott Panthers (13-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Dublin. The winner will advance to the state championship game scheduled for 11 a.m. on Dec. 15 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

May fell to Sterling City in last year’s state final. The last time Abbott advanced this far into the playoffs in 2015, the Panthers won state.

“Abbott is fundamentally sound and well-coached,” 18th-year May head coach Craig Steele said. “They’ve been running the same offense for a long time. Their coach (Terry Crawford) has been at Abbott longer (24 years) than I’ve been at May. They’re confident in who they’re supposed to block, and that allows them to play fast.

“Except for one player (215-pound Isaiah Singleton), they all look alike,” Steele said of Abbott’s players. “They’re all about the same size and they’re all fast. We have more size, but their starting six are probably faster as a group than our starting six.”

May has beaten undefeated opponents from No. 2 Jonesboro (84-55) and No. 4 Water Valley (70-49) the last two weeks. Even though both final victory margins were comfortable, the Tigers fell behind early and needed big plays from their defense to turn the momentum.

Water Valley High School's Gabriel Smith (14) looks to help Nathan Treadaway (23) try to bring down May's Braden Steele (3) as Water Valley head coach Nathan Hayes watches during a Class 1A Division I football state quarterfinal game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Griffith Stadium in Robert Lee.

Against Jonesboro in the area round, Kaden Halk’s 14-yard scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter turned the game in May’s favor after Jonesboro had taken an 8-0 lead and stopped the Tigers on their first two possessions.

“We got stopped twice in a row on offense, and we’re not accustomed to that,” Steele said. “Our kids weren’t rattled, but they were concerned. Kaden’s fumble return completely changed everybody’s attitude. The momentum was on our side after that.”

Against Water Valley last week, a first-half goal-line stand prevented May from falling two touchdowns behind. After the stand, the Tigers drove 79 yards to score and turned the momentum against the Wildcats.

“The Water Valley game started kind of rough for us,” Steele said. “They got an onside kick, and we lost our senior center and defensive end, Brian Kunkel, to an ACL. Our kids were definitely out of their comfort zone.

“If we had fallen behind by two scores, it would have been hard for us to come back. But as the game wore on, we wore them down.”

May’s defense has scored 14 touchdowns and logged 44 takeaways this season, helping the Tigers to a plus-33 turnover margin.

That defense will face another formidable challenge in Abbott. The Panthers’ offense poses multiple threats, including speedy runner Robert Munoz, who scored three second-half touchdowns in Abbott’s 74-27 regional final win last week over Coolidge. Also, Singleton ran 76 and 61 yards for first-half scores last week.

“Singleton moves well for his size,” Steele said. “We’re not used to having to tackle a guy that big (215 pounds). It’s not a lot of fun, but we have to hit him.”

Karsyn Johnson poses a bigger threat, Steele said, because he can run and pass.

“He’s a good lead blocker, too, but the thing he does you just don’t see in six-man is that he can make checks and change the play at the line of scrimmage,” Steele said of Johnson. “It forces you to play them more straight up and not try anything out of the ordinary, because he can check them into a play that runs to your weak side.”

Abbott also has been consistent on defense all season, logging five shutouts and limiting 11 of 13 opponents to 12 or fewer points. Coolidge’s 27 points last week were the most Abbott has allowed this season.

Of course, undefeated and top-ranked May enters Saturday’s game with plenty of threats of its own. Jackson Easterling took Kunkel’s spot at center, and the Tigers used three players at defensive end for Kunkel, who is obviously out for the remainder of the season.

Kaden Halk has compiled 1,229 yards and 27 touchdowns rushing and receiving. Avery Williford averages 12.8 yards per carry and also has 27 TDs rushing and receiving. Blake Harrell has passed for 1,134 yards with 22 TDs against just two interceptions.

Damian Salinas leads May’s defense in tackles with 113, plus he has four interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Harrell has 91 tackles and four fumble recoveries while Williford has 30.5 tackles for loss.

The Tigers average 68 points per game and allow 22.

The winner of this game will play No. 8 Westbrook (9-4) or unranked Happy (10-3) for the state championship. May has played in the state final three times since 2013, but the Tigers are still looking for their first state title since 1977.