Despite surrendering 55 points, the Class 1A, DI’s top-ranked May Tigers pounce on five turnovers to outscore the third-ranked Jonesboro Eagles in Region IV semifinal
DUBLIN – Just when it seemed like everything was going right for the Class 1A, Division I’s third-ranked Jonesboro Eagles, it all went terribly wrong. And when the opportunity presented itself, the top-ranked May Tigers pounced on it.
Capitalizing on five turnovers, the Tigers quickly overcame an early deficit and took control of the contest with 32 unanswered points as May outscored Jonesboro, 84-55, last Thursday night in a Class 1A, DI, Region IV semifinal playoff at Bob & Norma Cervetto Stadium.
May senior Kaden Halk score four touchdowns, Blake Harrell tossed three scoring strikes and junior Damian Salinas scored three times as the Tigers (12-0) took another step toward returning to the state title game for the second straight season to set up a State Quarterfinal showdown with second-ranked Water Valley (12-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Robert Lee.
On Jonesboro’s first offensive play from scrimmage, junior Caleb Christel turned the corner and sprinted for a 46-yard touchdown for an early 8-0 lead. Then after the Eagle defense shut down the Tigers for a second consecutive possession to open the game, Jonesboro appeared on the verge of seizing control of the contest.
But on third-and-11 from their own 10-yard line, the Eagles (11-1) were stripped of the ball and Halk quickly grabbed the loose pigskin and darted 14 yards for the Tigers’ first score as senior Kayden King’s two-point conversion kick tied the score with 4:53 left in the first quarter.
“It was the turning point of the game,” May head coach Craig Steele said. “I thought it was really important how we responded to that with them scoring on one play. The kids had their heads down, but we didn’t stay down. We made a big play on defense.
“They got two stops on us to start the game, which was uncomfortable for us. But I told the kids to stay the course, relax and everything will be alright.”
Riding the momentum of the defensive game-changing play, the Tigers scored on their next three straight possessions to build a comfortable 32-8 advantage they never relinquished.
“I was disappointed in our untimely turnovers,” Jonesboro head coach Eddie Gallegos said. “That had been a strength this season. I think we had only lost three or four all year. But credit Coach Steele and his team, they took advantage. I’m extremely proud of the season our group of kids had. A lot of kids stepped up who had very little varsity experience.”
Despite surrendering seven touchdowns, the physical Tiger defense turned the tide by forcing five turnovers and returning two of them for scores.
“The turnovers were the difference in the game,” Steele said. “We had one, they had five. And if you look at the scoreboard, that’s the difference in the game. That pretty much says it all. It wasn’t our best defensive game. We didn’t get off blocks as well as we should have, and we probably didn’t tackle as well as we should have. But we made plays when we needed to.”
Following the first big defensive play and a hold on Jonesboro’s ensuing possession, May’s offensive attack went to work. Giving the Tigers their first lead of the game with seven seconds left in the first quarter, senior Avery Williford capped a five-play, 30-yard drive by powering into the end zone from four yards out.
With the Tiger offense finding its footing, Harrell tossed a screen pass to Williford, who turned it into a 41-yard scoring strike. Then after senior Brian Kunkel intercepted a Jonesboro pass, May quickly struck again as Half broke off a 29-yard touchdown run.
Finally putting a halt to the onslaught, Jonesboro responded as Christel cashed in on a one-yard touchdown dive. But May promptly answered as Harrell tossed a 31-yard scoring strike to Kunkel to give the Tigers a commanding 40-16 lead before intermission.
“I thought we did a good job offensively,” Steele said. “The kids ran hard and for the most past took care of the ball. We had that one turnover, but the kids did a good job executing what we needed to execute. We had a lot of stuff in that we didn’t have to use. The kids were able to run pretty much our base stuff and did a great job at it.”
After Jonesboro suffered yet another turnover on its first possession of the second half, junior Luke McKenzie connected with junior Damian Salinas for a 33-yard scoring toss to give the Tigers a 32-point lead. But the Eagles refused to go away as the two teams exchanged scores through the rest of the game as Jonesboro could never make it less than a three-score game down the stretch.
“That’s a credit to Coach Gallegos and their staff, the way they coach their kids,” Steele said. “That’s a really good football team, and Coach Gallegos has done a wonderful job there. It showed tonight. Their kids played with a lot of pride.”
Playing from behind almost the entire game, the Eagles compiled 361 yards of total offense, 287 on the ground and 74 through the air. Christel led the way with 186 rushing yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for another 45 yards. Sophomore Jacob Cisneros fought for 51 yards on the ground, running for one score, returning a kickoff for another and tossing a touchdown pass. Sophomore Ian Shoaf ran for a score, and senior Layton Blanchard caught the lone Jonesboro touchdown pass.
“There’s still more games to play,” Steele said. “But I know we beat a good team tonight, a quality team. And we’ll take that any time.”
But after losing in the 2020 state championship game, the Tiger offensive attack proved to be almost unstoppable in advancing to the state quarterfinals.
Featuring a balanced attack, May finished with 463 yards of total offense, grinding out 254 rushing yards and airing it out for 209 passing yards. Engineering the Tiger attack, Harrell completed six of nine passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for 103 yards.
Halk added 87 rushing yards and two scores while leading the Tigers in receiving with two catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Williford scored two touchdowns and Salinas ran for a touchdown, caught a scoring pass and tossed a touchdown strike to McKenzie, while senior Brian Kunkel caught another scoring toss.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t sting not getting it last year,” Steele said. “But it’s been a real motivating factor for the kids during the off season, through the season, paying attention to details, it’s really been important to them. But it’s a one-step-at-a-time thing. So, we’ll need to worry about next week, keep doing what we’re supposed to do. The state championship game will take care of itself.”
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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