COLUMBIA - Sheldon Reid, a Stratford High School senior cornerback often assigned to cover dynamo wide receiver Dupree Hart, got an early taste of Northwestern precision. His near-perfect coverage wasn't enough to stop Hart's one-handed touchdown grab to start the scoring in the Trojans' 63-35 victory Saturday in the Division II-AAAA state championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"He's a great athlete," Reid said of 5-6 Hart, who caught 21 passes and scored four touchdowns. "He just made some awesome catches."
Down 35-14 at halftime, Reid said the Stratford message was simple: "Believe. Keep fighting. Have faith."
That's what worked all season for the Knights, and for most of the games and practices Stratford seniors took part in since they left middle school. With this lunch-bucket group, head coach Ray Stackley's program gradually got better: 7-6 in 2010, 9-4 in 2011, 10-3 in 2012, 12-3 in 2013.
The seniors played their last football game together Saturday.
"This is a tight-knit group," wide receiver Thad Thompson said, waving his hand toward the long line of Knights watching Northwestern officially receive the state championship trophy. "These are my brothers."
It rained, and Northwestern kept pouring it on.
But games like this are less about what just happened, more about a journey that will get pieced together in rehashed stories and dusty scrapbooks.
Classy senior class
"We've been playing together since we were little," senior defensive lineman Steven Hill said. "I love each and every one of them. We're going to cry a little."
Right guard Connor Dayton was among the Stratford seniors fighting back tears before leaving the field.
All that after-school weight lifting, all those summer mornings, so many running drills on steamy summer evenings.
"We did a heck of a job," Dayton said. "We played great as a family. I'm going to miss them. All these guys have done an amazing job."
Jacob Park, the Stratford quarterback committed to a Georgia scholarship offer, probably will get to play in stadiums like this again. For most of the rest of the senior Knights, there might not be any more football after the team banquet.
Thompson wants to play football in college, but is still looking for a scholarship offer. Hill wants to play college ball, too.
"But I haven't talked to anybody yet," he said.
Reid hopes to get some recruiting letters.
Dayton plans to attend Trident Tech with an eye on advanced culinary training.
What a run. Stratford won 11 of its 12 games by double-digits (28-26 vs. Summerville).
The Park-led offense scored 40 or more points five times.
The defense pitched a pair of shutouts.
The Knights were the last Lowcountry team standing.
'A tough day'
"We accomplished a lot, working hard every day from Week 1 and working hard throughout the off-season," Reid said. "The whole goal from the beginning of the season was to go to state, and we made it here. We came up short against Northwestern, but it was good to be here."
Hart, a junior who also plays shortstop and might be a better college baseball prospect, already has broken former Summerville star A.J. Green's state record for career receptions.
But Steven Hill got to play at Williams-Brice Stadium, still decked out with "CAROLINA" in one end zone and "GAMECOCKS" in the other.
"Just the lights, and the crowd and the whole thing," Hill said. "It was great."
Park will get many more football opportunities. He had the senior blues, too.
"It was a tough day," Park said, "but not so much that we lost, that this was the last game that these guys are together. I grew up with these guys."
Years from now, the Stratford seniors will remember Dupree Hart and a dreary Saturday afternoon in Columbia, sure. But only as one part of a hearty four-year effort.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff