They've dreamed about it for most of their lives, and now it comes down to the reality of which team plays the best 48 minutes of football. Stratford battles Northwestern at noon Saturday in the Division II-AAAA state championship.
Two proud programs with rich traditions, outstanding athletes, strong fan bases and excellent coaches clash at Williams-Brice Stadium, and all that is at stake is the claim of who is best in South Carolina and how the game plays out on the national landscape. Northwestern finished the season as the No. 1 team in the state and No. 12 in the country, according to US Today. Stratford was a top 10 team in the state, and seeks to make a national statement when the teams play at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
Stratford is making its third trip to the championship game since 1999 when coach Ray Stackley led the team to its first state title. The Knights returned to the big game in 2004 but fell to Rock Hill. Northwestern, meanwhile, is making its fifth trip in six years, claiming the big prize in 2010.
Will Northwestern have the advantage?
"I don't think the awe factor will be a problem," Stackley said. "Our kids have played in big venues, all of these kids have watched us when we were playing in state championship games, and the big stadium is not going be a big deal because it's only going to have 15,000-20,000 people like you play in front of in a big high school game."
The game features Shrine Bowl quarterbacks Jacob Park of Stratford vs. Mason Rudolph of Northwestern. Park, who has committed to play for Georgia, has passed for 3,340 yards and 29 scores. Rudolph, who has committed to play for Oklahoma State, has passed for 3,889 yards and 56 TDs.
But Stackley said neither team is one-dimensional.
"Sure, they throw the football, but they can run it, too and that's why you have to be careful. You can't base your defense on only their passing attack. They run, too."
Stratford can also run the football. While wide receivers Tyree Scoggins and Thad Thompson stretch the field, Jordan Johnson is a threat out of the backfield and is talented enough to be selected to play in the North-South game. He leads the team with 662 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns. He's caught 32 passes for 363 yards and four scores.
Northwestern enters the game with a 14-0 record while the Knights are 12-2. The Knights stumbled late in the season, losing to South Florence and Goose Creek. But they have responded with three straight playoff victories.
"We had that stumble late," Stackley said. "I'm not saying a loss is good, but we learned a little about ourselves and worked hard to improve. We played a little better in the playoffs and the kids believe in themselves."
The Trojans lost the 2009 championship but won the following year under Jimmy Wallace. The Trojans lost last year's championship to Greenwood.
Note: Stratford will host a send-off for the football team at 8 a.m. Saturday.
Students, staff, families, friends and community are asked to line the streets from Stratford High School, down College Park Road, to I-26 at 8 a.m.