When Stratford and Tolar do battle in a Class 2A Division I state semifinal Thursday on Leo Brittain Field at Lions Stadium in Vernon, it will be the first ever meeting between the two towns separated by 443 miles.
These two programs are very opposite when it comes to tradition. For the blue-blood Elks, Stratford will be making its 12th state semifinal appearance since 1999 and the second in three years when they won the Class 2A Division II state title in 2021.
“It’s hard to describe this feeling,” said Stratford first-year head coach Jonathan Murphy. “Every team is new team, and every year is a new year, so we see different players in these uniforms. This is a different Stratford team but we’re carrying on the culture and tradition that’s been established and we’re proud of that.”
It’s quite the opposite for Tolar. The Rattlers will make their first showing as an 11-man program in a state semifinal. Tolar did go to the semis as a Six-Man school in 1971 but haven’t been back since though they have been a team on the rise the past three years.
“It’s been a fun ride so far,” Tolar head coach Jeremy Mullins said. “Everyone around here is excited but we’ve been winning over the past few years we’re just finally able to break through our region. We have a very talented group of players with high expectations.”
Where the Elks and the Rattlers are very similar is their play on the field. The Elks are riding high at 14-0 and have rolled over anyone in their way this postseason that even saw a 46-6 thumping of defending state champion Hawley in last week’s quarterfinal. The same goes for Tolar which boasts a 13-1 mark and have pummeled opponents in the playoffs including a 42-19 win over Marlin in the state quarterfinals.
Both teams are also lead by outstanding quarterbacks. Stratford junior Bryce Braden took matters into his own hands against Hawley rushing for 157 yards on 28 carries while throwing for 132 yards totaling five touchdowns. On the season, Braden has racked up 1,314 yards on the ground and 1,848 yards passing with 47 total TDs. Defensively, Braden is a dispruptie linebacker leads the team with 139 tackles and 11 sacks.
Complimenting Braden is Julio Valdez and Israel Licon. Both are versatile offensive weapons with Valdez rushing for 488 yards on the year, has 43 catches for 994 yards and has 114 tackles on defense. Licon pitches in with 928 yards on the ground on top of 258 yards receiving.
“Stratford is very well coached,” Mullins said. “They are a big physical team and are always playing really well this time of year. Bryce Braden is a heck of a football player, and those guys lean on him. He makes everyone around him better.”
Tolar answers with a very talented dual-threat quarterback of its own. Senior leader Isaac Blessing is hard to stop with both his passing ability and his feet. Behind a very good offensive line, the Rattler signal caller has put up 1,689 yards through the air, rushed for 1,068 yards with a combined 47 touchdowns. Other dangerous targets for Tolar include running back Garrison Nation who has 945 yards rushing, receiver Matthew Behrens with 677 receiving yards and junior linebacker Drake Owens who leads the team with 117 tackles.
“Tolar is a hungry team and very athletic,” Murphy said. “They play with excitement and though they haven’t been this far they want it. They run the football and love to do it. Their quarterback is very good, and they are aggressive on defense.”
The Stratford-Tolar winner will play the winner of Timpson and Granado in the Class 2A Division I state championship game at 7 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 13, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.