PANHANDLE- Stratford and Panhandle met up in a battle of unbeatens for a defacto District 1-2A Division I title clash, and this game didn’t disappoint in any way possible.
With an electric crowd at Panthers Stadium, the first half was two heavy weights feeling each other out before the No. 5-ranked Elks were able to put the Panthers on the mat behind a commanding second half for a 34-24 victory on Friday night.
Stratford takes full control of the district lead at 2-0 while staying perfect at 7-0 overall. The Elks also run their impressive regular season win streak to 22 straight dating back to the 2021 season.
“We want to sit well in the district,” Stratford head coach Jonathan Murphy said. “That’s the goal. “We wanted to play well for the sake of playing well. We need to do that in the playoffs. We want to be geared for that time of the year. The way we played in the second was helpful and we grew up a little bit.”
Panhandle, which suffered its first loss of the year falling to 6-1, 1-1, couldn’t have asked for a better start against the rival Elks. The Panthers struck early in the first quarter when Brayson Choate came through clean to block a Stratford punt. Fortunately for the Elks, they were able to recover the ball in the endzone for a safety to only allow two points.
In the final minute of the first, Panhandle pushed that lead to 9-0 on a quarterback Broxton Robinson found a huge hole up the middle off a zone read for a three-yard TD run.
From that point forward that’s when the momentum started to turn toward Stratford.
After both teams traded possessions, the Elks took over at their own 24-yard line with just over nine minutes left to halftime. Stratford’s offense started to settle in giving Panhandle a heavy dose of quarterback Bryce Braden chewing yards, and Braden hitting Julio Valdez on multiple occasions down the field that resulted in a Braden to Valdez scoring connection on a 13-yard sliding catch from Valdez that cut the lead at 9-7.
By the time that 17-play drive ended, Stratford had taken seven minutes off the clock and were starting to gain confidence.
“That drive got us back in the game,” Murphy said. “At that point we needed to hang on to the ball and possess the ball and we did that. It was also a really physical drive and we needed to establish ourselves. It gave us something to hang our hat on and get us going in the second half.”
Stratford used that clutch score into the third quarter as part of 21 unanswered points to take full advantage of the contest. On the opening drive of the second half, Isreal Leecon punched in a touchdown from two yards out extending the lead, 15-9 following a Braden two-point conversion.
After a Panhandle three-and-out, Stratford opened the playbook on a reverse pass from freshman backup quarterback Chase Lantelme to Treyton Smith of 33 yards and all of a sudden it was 21-9 Elks with 5:35 left in the third.
“We made a lot of mistakes in the first half,” Murphy said. “But the defense bailed us out and kept us in the game in the first half. That was huge. When we started taking away the negative plays in the third quarter and figuring out what we needed to do that was difference. We ended up being more productive because we put ourselves in the right positions.”
Panhandle had one final gasp in them. Robinson threw a pinpoint deep ball to Landon Durst down the sideline for a 58-yard pitch and catch to open the fourth quarter puttin the score at 21-16, but that was as close as the Panthers came.
The Elks quickly answered on the next drive when the offense wore down the Panthers defense leading to a Braden busting loose on a 15-yard run to paydirt that has Stratford back up 12 points, 28-16.
The stamp on the victory then came via Valdez. With the ball at their own five-yard line, Valdez took a handoff and used his speed to hit the sideline going 95-yards for an incredible score that put the game away 34-16.
“Guys have stepped up all year,” Murphy said. “Bryce shines even if he’s not making the big play. He’s a dealer but we’ve had guys step up all year. If it’s Isreal one week or Julio against Panhandle. We always have playmakers, and it was Julian against Panhandle.
Stratford totaled 447 yards on the night to Panhandle’s 337.
Valdez had a career night hauling in six catches for 108 yards with a touchdown and added 135 yards on the ground with most of those coming off the 95-yard TD. The linebaker also added 10 tackles, three for a loss with a sack.
Braden carried it 24 times for 101 tough yards with a touchdown and went 10-of-19 for 148 yards with a touchdown toss. Defensively, Braden ended up with a monster game with 21 tackles with two sacks. Teammate Karston Long added 15 tackles with a sack.
“I think that second quarter touchdown gave us a lot of momentum,” Braden said. “Julian was clutch on that drive and he was big all night. He’s so athletic and reliable.”
Valdez echoed Braden’s comments.
“Our mentality changed in the second quarter and we quit making negative plays,” Valdez said. “We started playing like we know we can, and we all stepped up to get this win.”
Panhandle’s Robinson rushed for 51 yards with a touchdown and Durst finished with 158 yards receiving with a score.