COLUMBIA – There was no happy ending to speak of for the Stratford Knights.
The Knights had too much Mason Rudolph and turnover drama to overcome on Saturday, coming up empty in the Class AAAA Div. II championship game to nationally ranked Northwestern, 62-35, at Williams-Brice Stadium in front of about 7,000 fans.
The defeat ended the best season for Stratford in nearly a decade on a down note but the positives are what stick with Stratford coach Ray Stackley. The Knights finished 12-3 and made it to the final for the first time since 2004. Stratford won its only championship in 1999.
“The kids are hurting and they’ll probably hurt for a long time,” he said, “but they’ve got to remember there are a lot of teams that didn’t get here. They just didn’t play well today.”
Northwestern finished 15-0 for the second time since 2010.
Stratford had eight turnovers on the day, and fell behind 21-0 in the opening eight minutes. Northwestern’s quick start got the Knights out of their gameplan, which was to try to control the clock.
“They got us behind the eight ball,” Stackley said. “We had to throw it more than we wanted to and they knew it. We tried to hang in there as long as we could but you can’t turn it over like that against anybody and expect to win, especially against a good offensive football team like (Northwestern).”
Stratford cut its deficit to 28-14 on Jacob Park’s 11-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Givens with 9:55 left in the first half but the Trojans came right back with a 74-yard scoring drive, converting a third-and-10 and fourth-and-3 on the 13-play drive capped by Rudolph’s 9-yard pass to Dupree Hart.
Rudolph and Hart had a mind-numbing day together, combining for some dizzying stats.
Rudolph, an Oklahoma State commitment, was 38 of 54 for 483 yards and eight touchdowns. The diminutive junior Hart made 21 grabs for 255 yards and four touchdowns.
Hart, just 5-feet, 6-inches, was the key, Stackley said.
“We had no answer for him,” he added. “He’s a very special player. He’s one of the best small-in-stature players that’s been in this state in a long time.”
Hart’s touchdown scores covered 21, 29, 9 and 24 yards. His first two scoring grabs, sandwiched around Rudolph’s touchdown run, gave Northwestern its 21-0 lead.
Three more Rudolph touchdown passes gave Northwestern a 55-21 lead late in the third and the rest was formality.
Rudolph’s other four touchdowns went to senior Quadarius Fair, who made seven grabs for 175 yards.
The day started with a rousing sendoff from the school at 8 a.m. and ended with a group of Stratford seniors unhappily hoisting the runner-up trophy.
It was the last game for 20 Knights seniors, including Park and most of a defensive unit that powered the Knights into the championship game.
Park was 21 of 39 for 325 yards and four scores but was intercepted four times and lost two fumbles. He ran for 84 yards and scored on a 34-yard run. He will play in the Shrine Bowl game in two weeks before playing in the Army All-American game in January before enrolling at Georgia.
Park had over 3,600 yards passing and 33 touchdowns this season.
Senior receiver Thad Thompson played his last game too, catching nine passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior receiver Chris Allen had the other Stratford touchdown in the game, a 6-yard touchdown reception off a deflection in the fourth quarter.
“My hats off to them,” Stackley said of the Trojans. “They’re a great football team.”
Senior Michael Simmons led the Knights with 11 total tackles, while seniors Taylor Morrison, Sheldon Reid and Cecil Smith, and junior T.J. Deveaux added five apiece. Steven Hill had an interception.