No. 1 May, No. 2 Jonesboro set to clash in second round of playoffs Thursday

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
Avery Williford (25) rushes the ball for May during a game against Sterling C ity on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021.

The May Tigers and Jonesboro Eagles have become well acquainted on the football field over the last few years. They’ve scrimmaged against each other the last six years, and on Thursday, they’ll meet for the third time in five years in the playoffs.

Both May and Jonesboro are 11-0 for their latest meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Dublin in the Class 1A Division I regional semifinals. Top-ranked May has been in the No. 1 spot most of the season while Jonesboro has moved up to No. 2, according to

“We know each other pretty well,” 18th-year May coach Craig Steele said this week. “Jonesboro is like they always are — big, physical, well-coached and fundamentally sound. They can run the ball. They can throw it. They’re pretty much everything you want in a football team.”

The Tigers have won nine of their 11 games this year by the 45-point rule while Jonesboro has won its last five games by the six-man mercy rule.

May and Jonesboro both have finished as the state runner-up multiple times in recent years — May in 2013, 2014 and 2020; and Jonesboro in 2016 and 2017.

To win this year’s game, Steele knows exactly what his Tigers can and can’t do.

“We have to take care of the football — and that includes against onside kicks,” the coach said. “They got two onside kicks back to back against us last year, and in 2017, they recovered a pooch kick against us that was a huge play. A lot of times when they get a turnover like that, they score on the next play. We can’t fall into that situation with them.”

Last year’s back-to-back onside kick recoveries helped Jonesboro pull within 28-16 early in the third quarter. May, however, regrouped and scored the final 34 points to win 62-16 in the 1A DI regional semifinals.

“We have to tackle well,” Steele said, continuing on his checklist. “All their backs are downhill runners that can break tackles. And we have to eliminate big plays. Other teams might stop them for three straight plays, but then on fourth down, Jonesboro will break a long one for a touchdown.”

Jonesboro’s main threat this season has been Caleb Christel, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound junior who has rushed for 924 yards and 17 touchdowns, and passed for 657 yards with 13 TDs against just one interception. Ian Shoaf, Jacob Cisneros and Tyler Wilson have combined for another 30 rushing TDs. Nat Hilliker has produced 10 touchdowns on his 21 pass receptions.

May lost nine seniors from last year’s state runner-up team, but the Tigers’ returning starters have taken on larger roles and new starters have plugged in nicely. Senior Avery Williford, an accomplished player at Brookesmith, transferred to May and made an immediate impact.

May has been ranked No. 1 since beating Sterling City, the team the Tigers lost to in last year’s state final, in the second game this season.

“We were ranked a little higher than I thought we would be in the preseason. Then, beating Sterling City catapulted us into the No. 1 spot,” Steele said. “We’re not as big as we were last year, and we’re not as deep. Last year, we went 14 deep as far as guys that could play.”

On offense, Steele moved three-year starting quarterback Blake Harrell to running back. Luke McKenzie, a 6-1, 179-pound junior, took over at quarterback. Harrell is averaging 9.1 yards per carry with nine touchdowns, and the 5-8, 200-pound senior still does a majority of the Tigers’ passing with 908 yards and 18 TDs. McKenzie made his 18 pass completions count for 11 TDs.

“Blake’s a good passer, and some of our other backs aren’t,” Steele said of moving Harrell. “Luke is a good passer, and he’s improved as a blocker. We can still run all our tailback option stuff through Blake. Blake gives us more depth at running back, and moving him allowed us to get both him and Luke on the field.”

May’s go-to runner is still Kaden Halk, a 6-0, 175-pound junior who is averaging 14.5 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns this season. Williford is averaging 14.4 yards per carry with 16 TDs. Steele has spread around the running so far, with Harrell, Williford and Halk all having 40-44 carries for the season.

Twelve different Tigers have caught passes this season and nine have scored receiving touchdowns. Halk has 13 catches and six TDs while Williford has 11 catches and seven scores.

The Tigers also lost six of their seven offensive linemen from last year, but seniors Brian Kunkel and Kaysen King, along with junior Damian Salinas, have filled in nicely this season. Salinas moved from running back, but he still has five rushing touchdowns and five receiving TDs.

May’s defense has been outstanding this season, forcing 39 takeaways and scoring 12 touchdowns. The Tigers’ defense scored a touchdown in the first nine games this season. The takeaways have helped May compile an impressive plus-31 turnover margin.

Williford, Kunkel and Harrell have formed a solid front line, with McKenzie and Salinas playing cornerbacks and Halk at safety. Salinas has logged 83 tackles, four interception and four fumble recoveries. Harrell has 69 tackles, three fumble recoveries and one interception. Halk has four interceptions and three fumble recoveries, and he has scored four defensive TDs.

The May-Jonesboro winner will play the Water Valley-Lometa winner in next week’s Region IV final. Water Valley is ranked No. 4.