VERNON – When it comes to physical football teams, the Stratford Elks met their match against a more than ready Tolar squad.
Add on top of that costly mistakes and it wasn’t the night Stratford had hoped for as its season came to a disappointing end by a 35-7 score at the hands of the Rattlers in a Class 2A Division I state semifinal Thursday night on Leo Brittain Field at Lions Stadium.
The Elks, who were making their 12th state semifinal final appearance since 1999, and their second in three years see another tremendous year come to an end at 14-1 overall.
“This was a special season,” Stratford first-year head coach Jonathan Murphy said. “I can’t describe what a year it was for the coaches and the players on this team. “We had a tremendous journey and every single thing that these have guys have done is part of a culture. They carry on the things that are right about Stratford.”
For Tolar (14-1), a team that hasn’t experienced this kind of success, will now play in the school’s first ever UIL state championship game when they battle Timpson (15-0) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“Just look at all the fans we have here,” Tolar head coach Jeremy Mullins said. “You can see how much it means to this community. We had a great crowd here. We have great players and a great coaching staff. The fans support every sport. This is just unbelievable.”
Stratford gambled in the first half starting on its opening drive of the game at midfield. Facing a fourth and one, quarterback Bryce Braden was stood up by the Rattler defensive line giving the ball to Tolar with excellent field position. A few plays later, Tolar ran with that momentum right down the field highlighted by the game’s opening score when quarterback Isaac Blessing hit a dart to Clayton Stembridge for an 11-yard touchdown that gave the Rattlers an early 7-0 lead.
Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, a huge gamble worked for the Elks this time. Facing another fourth down at their own 46-yard line, Stratford ran its second successful fake punt of the half when upback Chase Lantelme took the snap and delivered a pass down the sideline to Izzy Salas for 17 yards to extend the drive. That play came in clutch as Stratford quickly turned it into points when Braden tossed a deep ball up to Julio Valdez who jumped up and took it away from a pursing Garrison Nation as Valdez strolled in for a 29-yard score that cut the deficit at 14-7.
However, that was as close it came for the Elks. Tolar answered back on the ensuing possession when Blessing hit a deep post to Matthew Behrens on a third and 21 of 47 yards extending the Rattler advantage at 21-7.
Before half, a key mistake that doomed Stratford came, turning the tide the rest of the toward Tolar. With 13 seconds remaining to half, the Elks had the ball at the Rattler eight-yard line looking to punch one in, but Braden mishandled the snap and Tolar jumped on it to close out the half.
“We had momentum a couple times,” Murphy said. “We had an opportunity, and we had a chance to put one in that really would have helped. That was a huge fumble, but it didn’t define us. We had other mistakes that hurt along the way.”
That fumble was one of Stratford’s five uncharacteristic turnovers on the night. In the first quarter, Braden was intercepted by Drake Owens that resulted in a Tolar TD that gave the Rattlers a 14-0 lead. Braden was intercepted two more times in the second half with Lantelme throwing the other INT.
The gut punch came on Tolar’s opening drive of the third quarter. The Rattlers made a statement with their physicality running the football. Led by QB Blessing, running back Garrett Nation and fullback Payton Brown, the Rattlers used up seven minutes of clock on 13 plays chewing up 68 yards that resulted in a Blessing one-yard keeper putting the contest out of reach, 28-7, with 4:58 remaining in the third.
Tolar’s ability to run the ball and take away Stratford’s strength was the story. Tolar won the battle up front led by Blessings 105 yards on 19 carries with a TD. Blessing was also efficient when he threw it going 3-of-6 for 65 yards with two scores.
“It was a physical battle,” Murphy said. “The lines both had their hands full. The offensive line has grown so much at that position all year and they did the best they could, but we faced a really good team in the trenches. We love to run the football and they stopped us from doing that.”
Stratford mustered 100 yards as a team on the ground on 27 carries as Tolar’s defense did the job time and time again.
“I’m proud of the defensive line,” Mullins said. “They aren’t super big, but they do their job. The guys behind them are really good. We have some dang good linebackers and some good safeties.”
Braden worked for every yard ending the game 91 yards on 17 carries. Tolar finished the night with 259 of its 324 yards from the ground game. On top of Blessings performance, Nation ran for 72 yards with a touchdown and Brown added 70 yards.