By Ben Ellerbrook
LUBBOCK – They’ll be a new Class 2A Division I state champion in 2023.
Stratford guaranteed that with an exclamation point handing Hawley a lopsided and somewhat shocking 46-6 blowout loss in the Class 2A Division I state quarterfinals on Friday night at PlainsCapital-Park at Lowrey Field on Friday.
The Elks (14-0) will advance to their second state semifinal trip in the last three years and will now face the Tolar Rattlers (13-1) out of Region II at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Leo Brittain Field at Lions Stadium in Vernon.
“Getting back to the state semifinals is are expectation,” Stratford head coach Jonathan Murphy said. “Playing deep in the playoffs is who we are and we want to continue that. We expected to play well and be successful, but it was overwhelming in a way. We wanted to be physical, and we were, and we put them in bad situations. I’m just proud of this team because Hawley is a very athletic team.”
For the majority of the first half, it looked like this Class 2A Division I Regional Final between two small school powerhouses would live up to the billing, but momentum swung Stratford’s way right before halftime.
The Elks and the Bearcats spent most of the first quarter trading defensive stops. Stratford was finally able to open the scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run from quarterback Bryce Braden after Stratford’s defense recovered a fumble deep in Bearcat territory.
Early in the second quarter, it looked as if Stratford was going to take a two-touchdown lead, but Hawley’s defense stopped the Elks on the goal line, momentarily halting the Stratford momentum. On the very first play of the Bearcat’s drive, they scored a 99-yard touchdown on a pass from Keagan Ables to Diontay Ramon.
Stratford didn’t flinch responding with a nine-play, 61-yard drive that ended with Braden’s second touchdown run of the night, this time from 5 yards out.
Here is where the momentum permanently swung in the Elks’ favor. With Hawley set to receive the second half kickoff, the Elks needed points before halftime to give themselves a little breathing room. With 17 seconds left before halftime, Santiago Ibarra ran in a 2-yard touchdown to give Stratford a two-touchdown lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bearcats mishandled the sky kick and Stratford pounced on it on the Bearcat 20-yard line. On their first play of the drive, Braden found Julio Valdez on a screen pass that Valdez took 20 yards for the score, giving the Elks a three-touchdown lead going into halftime.
“It was a huge boost going into the half for sure,” Stratford coach Jonathan Murphy said. “Special teams were going to be a big deal for us; that pooch kick before half was huge for us. The kick was amazing, and we had guys hustling to get on it. It was a big deal.”
Braden was able to find paydirt for his third rushing touchdown in the middle of the third quarter from 12 yards out to extend the Elks lead to 34-6.
Late in the third quarter, Braden was able to find Valdez for his second receiving touchdown of the game, this one from 17 yards out.
Israel Licon scored the lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, an 18-yard rushing touchdown, that pushed the Stratford lead to 46-6 where the scoring would finish.
“Overall, we were the more physical team and that’s what’s going to come out on top every week,” Braden said. “We just have to keep it one week at a time, one day at a time and work every day and continue to get better.”
Stratford’s defense had Hawley in a chokehold all game. The Elk defense was able to put pressure on Ables, sacking him five times and forcing three turnovers.
“All four of their receivers are fantastic young men, fantastic athletes,” Martin said. “For us, we felt like we had to get after the quarterback and try to limit the time he had to get the ball to his receivers. That was huge tonight, to be able to pressure the quarterback.”
Stratford relied on a strong rushing attack, piling up 286 yards. Braden led the charge for the Elks with 157 yards rushing on 28 carries and 132 yards through the air with five total touchdowns. Licon and Ibarra combined for 98 yards on 18 carries, scoring a touchdown a piece.