When May lost narrowly lost to Sterling City in the second week of the regular season, coach Craig Steele didn’t really imagine he’d see the Eagles three months later in a much bigger setting.
Steele believed his Tigers had a chance to have a special year. He also felt that Sterling City was a top contender in its region.
“But there’s so much season left, and you don’t know about injuries and things that can go wrong,” Steele said. “They’re good enough to get there, but there’s lots of good teams in the west. And I thought we could be good enough, but there’s lots of good teams in the east.”
After dramatically surviving semifinals, now May (13-1) and Sterling City (14-0) will hope to replicate their early-season showdown at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium.
The Tigers are shooting for their second title in school history as the program is 1-4 in championship games, having most recently fallen to Crowell in 2013-14. May won it all in 1977 with a 42-35 victory over Marathon.
“We had nine seniors coming back, and we knew if some things would go right, we’d have a shot,” said Steele, who is finishing up his 17th year leading the program. “We had the type of squad that can make a run, veterans and some young kids who were ready. It was the perfect storm this year.”
What makes May’s playoff run more impressive is that it’s been forced to overcome adversity with injuries to senior running backs Isidro Salinas and Rory Bustamante in recent playoff wins. Steele is hopeful both will be ready to go on Wednesday.
But even if they’re not, Kaden Halk has proven to be a worthy replacement as the junior eclipsed the 300-yard mark in wins over Leakey and Blum. Junior Aaron McGinn and sophomore Damian Salinas have stepped up on the defensive side during the seniors’ absence.
“We’re fortunate we’ve had a lot of depth this year, and it’s showed up the last two weeks,” Steele said. “Kaden’s playing his best football right now. His vision and patience have gotten better, and he’s got a great burst.”
Once the final was set, Steele went back and watched film from the Tigers’ 44-40 loss. May led 22-16 at the half, but the Eagles took control with a 22-6 third quarter.
“We had a chance to be up two scores, but we ran out of time before the half,” Steele said. “We didn’t play particularly well in the second half. It was a very competitive game.
“I expect something similar this time around. They’re very well-coached, athletic and quick. They’re good.”
In that setback to Sterling City, Bustamante led the way with 144 passing yards and 61 rushing yards, while Halk had 98 receiving yards and a score. Hayden King led the defensive effort with 13 tackles.
After that Week 2 defeat, May rattled of 12 straight victories, including last week’s 92-86 overtime takedown of defending champion Blum. Appearing in a state title game is an impressive accomplishment any year, but the fact it occurred in 2020 is extra special.
“Football aside, it’s been such a challenging year with COVID,” Steele said. “For these kids to protect themselves and their teammates, with all the restrictions and regulations, it’s been a memorable year in more ways than one.”
And if May can avenge its only loss Wednesday, it wouldn’t solely be a crowning achievement for the school. The Brown County community supports the Tigers in droves, often outnumbering the home team’s fans at away games.
“We have great community support, and (winning it all) would mean a lot to them,” Steele said. “I don’t know how to put it to words. They’d be celebrating all through the Christmas holidays.”