Defense leads No. 1 May in playoff win over No. 2 Jonesboro

Mike Lee
Special to the Bulletin
May football helmet

May’s defense, which has set the Tigers apart all season, came to the rescue again Thursday night in a regional semifinal matchup between the top two ranked Class 1A Division I (six-man) football teams in Texas.

No. 1 May beat No. 2 Jonesboro 84-55 as the Tigers scored two defensive touchdowns – one on Kaden Halk’s 14-yard scoop-and-score fumble return and another on Damian Salinas’ fumble recovery in the end zone.

Undefeated May (12-0) advanced to play the Water Valley-Lometa winner in next week’s Region IV final. Jonesboro, which lost to May in this same round of last year’s postseason, finished 11-1.

After recovering four fumbles and getting an interception by Avery Williford on Thursday, May’s defense now has 44 takeaways and has scored 14 defensive touchdowns this season. The defensive takeaways have helped the Tigers to a plus-35 turnover margin.

“We put players in position to make plays, and we'll tell them the rest is up to them,” May head coach Craig Steele said. “The five turnovers we forced tonight were the difference in the game. They (Eagles) had five turnovers and we had one.”

Salinas picked up the football in the end zone when teammate Brian Kunkel jarred it loose from Jonesboro’s Caleb Christen, who was attempting to pass. Salinas’ defensive touchdown extended May’s lead to 62-31 with 9:09 left in the game.

“I really think that our forcing turnovers is because of our team chemistry and that we band together and work together,” Salinas said. “We do a lot of work outside of the season, and I think the defensive touchdowns are a result of that.”

It was Halk’s 14-yard scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown in the first quarter that turned the game in the Tigers’ favor. Jonesboro scored first on Christel’s 46-yard run to take an 8-0 lead. Jonesboro’s stopped May on its first two possessions before Halk’s fumble return gave the Tigers an 8-8 tie and turned the momentum.

“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.”

Halk’s scoop and score began a streak of four consecutive May touchdowns. Avery Williford scored on a 5-yard run and a 41-yard pass from Blake Harrell, and Halk broke a 29-yard touchdown run as the Tigers built a 32-8 lead with 3:26 left before halftime.

Jonesboro never got closer than 23 points for the remainder of the game. Even though the Eagles forced May to play a complete game for just the fourth time this season, Jonesboro never seriously threatened the Tigers. Even when the game got a little crazy with 67 points in the fourth quarter, the Tigers were able to keep their distance.

“Once we got the three-touchdown cushion, we were able to keep it,” Steele said. “We felt good at that point. We had to recover their onside kicks and not turn the ball over. That was the only way they were going to get back in the game.”

After his fast start on offense and defense, Williford left the game just before halftime with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. Steele said Williford could have played if necessary.

Halk, who finished with 162 combined yards rushing and receiving and scored four touchdowns three different ways, took up the slack in Williford’s absence. So did Harrell, who ran for 99 yards and completed 6-of-9 passes for 165 yards and three touchdowns – one each to Kunkel, Salinas and Williford.

Salinas scored three touchdowns three different ways on a run, a pass reception and the fumble recovery in the end zone. Kunkel scored on a 31-yard pass reception, and he forced the fumble that Salinas recovered for the touchdown.

Christel rushed for 197 yards and three touchdowns – including a pair of 46-yard runs – to lead Jonesboro. Teammate Jacob Cisneros ran for a touchdown, passed for a TD and returned a kickoff for another score.

But the night clearly belonged to May.

“If we play like we did tonight, we’ll be fine,” Harrell said. “But right now, we’re only worried about who we play next week.”

As for the defensive touchdowns, Harrell said, “We’ve got fast guys who can run to the football. If we forced a turnover, whoever gets the ball for us is fast enough to go score.”

May 84, Jonesboro 55

May    16    24    8    36 — 84

Jonesboro    8    8    8    31 — 55

First Quarter

JON — Caleb Christel 46 run (Manuel Torres kick), 7:49

MAY — Kaden Halk 14 fumble return (Kaysen King kick), 4:53

MAY — Avery Williford 5 run (King kick), 0:07

Second Quarter

MAY — Williford 41 pass from Blake Harrell (King kick), 6:01

MAY — Halk 29 run (King kick), 3:26

JON — Christel 1 run (Torres kick), 2:10

MAY — Brian Kunkel 31 pass from Harrell (King kick), 0:46

Third Quarter

MAY — Damian Salinas 39 pass from Luke McKenzie (King kick), 8:20

JON — Layton Blanchard 5 pass from Jacob Cisneros (Torres kick), 3:25

Fourth Quarter

MAY — Salinas 3 run (King kick), 9:41

JON — Jacob Cisneros 72 kickoff return (Zach Chapman run), 9:29

MAY — Salinas fumble recovery in end zone (kick failed), 9:09

JON — Cisneros 16 run (Torres kick), 8:10

MAY — Halk 38 pass from Harrell (King kick), 5:12

JON — Ian Shoaf 3 run (Torres kick), 4:48

MAY — Braden Steele 49 kickoff return (King kick), 4:40

MAY — Salinas 29 run (kick failed), 2:30

JON — Christel 46 run (Torres kick), 2:21

                        May    Jonesboro

First Downs        15           11

Rushes-Yards    33-25    39-268

Passing Yards    204        75

Total Yards        455         343

Comp-Att-Int    7-12-0    5-13-1

Punts                  0-0        0-0

Fumbles-Lost      1-1        5-4

Penalties-Yards    6-45    3-20

Individual Statistics

RUSHING: May – Blake Harrell 13-99, Kaden Halk 11-87, Avery Williford 6-29, Damian Salinas 1-29, Braden Steele 1-8, Team 1-(-)1. Jonesboro – Caleb Christel 21-197, Jacob Cisneros 6-40, Ian Shoaf 4-37, Jaden Domel 3-11, Nat Hilliker 1-10, Garrett Young 1-2, Team 3-(-)29.

PASSING: May – Harrell 6-9-0 for 165, Luke McKenzie 1-3-0 for 39. Jonesboro – Christel 3-8-1 for 46, Shoaf 1-1-0 for 24, Cisneros 1-2-0 for 5, Young 0-2-0.

RECEIVING: May – Halk 2-75, Salinas 2-46, Williford 1-41, Brian Kunkel 1-31, McKenzie 1-11. Jonesboro – Demarcus Acoff 1-38, Cisneros 1-24, Shoaf 1-5, Layton Blanchard 1-5, Young 1-3.

RECORDS: May improved to 12-0. Jonesboro finished 11-1.