COLUMBIA — Ray Stackley is one of the top high school football coaches in state history. He’s been a coach for 29 years, compiling a 270-99 record at Stratford High School. He’s led the Knights to a state championship and two other appearances in the title game.
Turns out he’s also a pretty good prognosticator, too.
After a few lean years thanks to the creation of Cane Bay High School that siphoned off more than 1,300 students, Stackley took stock of the program after the 2009 season and liked what he saw.
Stackley and his staff evaluated the incoming freshman class, the Class of 2014, and liked what he saw. The class had some rock-solid defensive players, some promising wide receivers and a lean quarterback with a long arm.
“We targeted the class as one that had potential, one that could make a deep playoff run,” Stackley said Monday at a press conference promoting the Weekend of Champions. “We felt this group, if it worked hard, could play for a state championship.”
The Class of 2014 worked hard, stayed healthy and evolved. The lean quarterback was Jacob Park, who moved from New York to the Lowcountry and turned out to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country this fall.
He will guide the Knights in Saturday’s Division II-AAAA state championship game against Northwestern. Kickoff is slated for noon at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. Stratford is 12-2 entering the showdown, while the Trojans are 14-0.
Stackley owns a 270-99 record and had a stretch where his program was arguably one of the top five in the state. In a 10-year stretch, the Knights posted a 118-18 record, won a state title (1999) and finished No. 2 in the state (2004).
But the opening of Cane Bay High School siphoned off some of the Knights’ top talent and the numbers dropped: victories and players. The Knights were 6-6 in 2007, 3-8 the following year and 7-5 in 2009. The Knights won half of their 12 games in 2010, which was Park & Co.’s freshman season.
The Knights went 9-4 in 2011 and showed potential last fall with an 11-2 record.
“We were the 27th biggest school in the state, but we had to play in the Division I-AAAA state championship,” Stackley said. “We lost to the eventual state champion, Gaffney, in the first game. It was a close game.”
The Knights have returned to the form that allowed them to play in five state semifinals in eight years from 1999-2006.
Northwestern and its coach, Kyle Richardson, can relate to Stratford’s struggles when a new school opened.
The Trojans lost a ton of talent when South Pointe opened in time for the 2006 season. South Pointe went 15-0 in 2008 and beat Northwestern in the Division II-AAAA state championship.
“Our enrollment was cut in half and our NFL talent was cut in half,” Richardson said.
South Pointe had six major future college stars on its 2008 roster who would have gone to Northwestern, including Stephon Gilmore, Jadaveon Clowney and Devonte Holloman.
“It could have been ‘Oh poor us’ and other excuses,” Richardson said. “But we went to work.”
The Trojans lost the 2009 championship but won the following year under Jimmy Wallace. The Trojans lost last year’s championship to Greenwood.