Northwestern vs. Stratford

Division II-AAAA state championship

Who: Stratford (12-2) vs. Northwestern (14-0)

When: Noon, Saturday

Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia

Tickets: $10 at the gate

TV: WMMP

Joe Cook can’t stop thinking about his final high school football game.

Cook is a 6-2, 228-pound defensive end for the Stratford Knights. His mind is racing, locking in on Saturday’s Division II-AAAA state championship game in Columbia against Northwestern.

“To think that I will be able to go to Williams-Brice Stadium and play in the final game of my (high school) career is incredible,” said Cook, who is a senior. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Two years ago, Cook was a virtual unknown after transferring from Northwood Academy in time for his junior year. He wasn’t as big or fast as he is today. But he had the drive to get better. That’s never changed.

He worked hard in the weight room, listened to his coaches and dreamed.

That has resulted in 84 tackles this season for Cook, a key cog in the Knights’ success this season.

Stratford enters Saturday’s contest with a 12-2 record and the state’s top-scoring defense. The Knights allow only 12 points per game, recording two shutouts while allowing a touchdown or less in three other games. Their best effort of the year was holding Goose Creek to only 14 points, nearly 36 below the Gators’ average.

Cook’s stats include 13 tackles for a loss and 12 quarterback sacks.

“Getting a sack is the best feeling you can have on the football field,” Cook said. “Some teams pass the ball more than others, but you have to work just as hard every week. You have to be ready for that chance to get the quarterback. When you sack him, it’s the greatest feeling you can have.”

Cook will get his chances against undefeated Northwestern, 14-0 and No. 12 in the latest USA Today Super 25 poll of the top teams in the country. Northwestern quarterback Mason Rudolph passed for six touchdowns last week in a 49-21 victory over North Augusta. He has completed 310 of 425 passes for 3,889 yards and 56 TDs this fall.

Stratford coach Ray Stackley said Cook has developed into a solid, tough and physical player.

“But it took him a while to learn the game,” said Stackley, who has led the Knights to three appearances in the state championship since 1999. “They key was that he was very eager to learn, very coachable. He worked hard to improve.”

Cook’s season culminates Saturday, and then it’s time to think about playing at the next level.

“I think football is in his future,” Stackley said. “But the school will have to have a great engineering program. His dad is a great engineer, and he stresses academics.”

Cook excels in the classroom as well, maintaining a 3.56 GPA and ranked No. 38 in his class of 383.

“My parents tell me to focus on academics,” he said. “Academics are No. 1 in my parents’ book. That’s what I focus on.”