If there is any question what Stratford High School football team is the best in the program’s history, the 1999 Knights have a version of a mic drop in their back pocket to settle any debate on the matter.
With 11 seniors on the roster destined for college football, those Knights wrote themselves into Stratford lore by becoming the first group to successfully climb the mountain and plant a flag at the top.
“They’ll all tell you right now: They’ll say they’re the best team,” longtime Stratford coach Ray Stackley said. “That can’t be denied. They’re the only one with a ring on their finger. Their legacy by that standard, 21 years later, is being the best football team in Stratford history.”
Stackley’s bunch went on to finish No. 22 in the country by USA Today and successfully navigated all obstacles. They proved many doubters wrong along the way on their way to a sparkling 15-0 record. The Knights had been pegged as a program who could get close to the trophy but never secure it.
In 1999, their size and strength put them over the top, though. Both sides of the line of scrimmage had some bullies who didn’t have problems pushing people around in the trenches.
The Knights blanked five foes in the regular season and limited three others to no more than one touchdown to enter the playoffs with a perfect 11-0 record. Stratford scored eight defensive touchdowns, turned opponents over 49 times and recorded two safeties.
Current Stratford coach Dennie McDaniel, a former Knights player, was a first-year junior varsity and B-Team coach out of Charleston Southern that season. He’s seen plenty Stratford teams up close and personal since those days.
“That was, without question, the best Stratford defense ever,” he said. “The slowest kid on the field ran a five flat. Everybody else was 4.9 or better.”
On offense, Stratford employed a bruising running attack behind a stellar front to average 34.5 points per game. The Knights were effective sprinkling in passes at just the right time, too.
“I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me that was one of the best looking offensive lines they’d ever looked at,” Stackley said. “We had tremendous ability across the football and believed we could run the football when we needed to.”
Stratford knocked off three teams which had been No. 1 in Class 4A at some point in the season but was never considered the best team in the state. At least one person who figures into the story later didn’t think they were even top five.
The Knights were 11-2 in 1998 and 11-0 entering the 1999 playoffs.
“We knew we were going to have a good ballclub,” Stackley said. “We thought we had a chance to make a deep run at it.”
Wins over Irmo (24-7) and Lexington (38-21) in the first two rounds of the Big 16 playoffs were business as usual, setting up a rematch with state power Gaffney High School in the semifinal round on Crowfield Boulevard.
The Indians knocked Stratford’s quarterback out of a second-round game in 1998 and promptly booted the Knights out of the postseason.
As expected, Gaffney was a formidable test and had the Knights on the ropes. Stackley flipped to the back of the playbook for a “spark” play to light up the scoreboard.
Trailing 12-7 with under 20 seconds left around the Indians’ 30-yard line, Stratford overloaded the left side with receivers. Unbeknownst to Gaffney, Knights tight end/slot receiver Chris Chestnut, who was in the group to the left, had a strong arm.
He’d been in a tight race for the quarterback spot along with Dashannon Gamble and Chris McGraw in the preseason before moving to tight end.
Gamble absorbed the snap and quickly hurled the ball over to Chestnut. Talented receiver Sterling Hayward released and ran a stop route, getting the attention of the free safety.
The other two receivers blocked a corner and a strong safety. Josh Smeltzer slipped out from the backside tight end position, running a post, and was all alone. Chestnut zipped a strike to Smeltzer in the end zone and Stratford clipped the Indians, 13-12, to earn its first ticket to the state championship game.
Scott Ruggles was the Knights’ defensive line and kickers coach at the time. He recalls looking at the scene later.
“We had people climbing over the fence to get onto the field,” he said. “You know what it looks like when you disturb an ant pile? That’s what it looked like on film.”
Meanwhile, across the state, Dorman High School exacted some revenge of its own in bouncing rival Spartanburg High School 27-20 after losing to the No. 1 Vikings in the regular season.
The Cavaliers were 11-3 going into the state game.
“Our kids were hungry. We knew it was time to take the next step,” Stackley said. “We had been to the quarterfinals two or three times but had never been able to get to the big game.”
More fuel arrived early in the week in the form of a prediction made by Gaffney coach Joe Montgomery. In an interview with the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Montgomery praised Stratford for having a quality program but didn’t think the Knights were on Dorman’s level or in the class of several other Upstate schools for that matter.
The bulletin board material found a home on every wall in the school.
“I think Dorman, going into that game, is a four-touchdown favorite,” Montgomery said in the story. “… Stratford is about the seventh best team we’ve played this year. They’d be fourth or fifth in our region.”
Despite admitting Stratford could have fate on its side, based on his own team’s experience a few days before, Montgomery ultimately compared the Knights to a Cinderella heading toward midnight against Dorman.
That Saturday afternoon offered up perfect skies for football inside Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium and an impressive crowd filled the lower bowl to see the Lower State and Upper State settle a score, starting at 2 p.m.
One attendance figure had the head count at 35,000.
The lone tally by either team in the first quarter was McGraw’s 35-yard field goal. The physical Knights possessed the ball for 14 plays and over seven minutes on their opening drive, converting a fourth and 1 along the way. The other big play was a 34-yard strike from quarterback Gamble to Hayward, who finished with five grabs for 86 yards in the finale.
Dorman answered with its longest scoring drive in terms of plays and yards to even it 3-3, keeping it over five minutes on a 14-play, 70-yard drive to score early in the second quarter on Zack Stewart’s 21-yard field goal.
With 42 seconds before the half, Stratford grabbed a 10-3 lead on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Gamble to Hayward in the front corner of end zone over a pair of Dorman defenders. Hayward set it up by picking off Dorman quarterback Curtis Nash at the 45 and running back Gaven Varner scampered 10 yards on a reverse on third and 7. Gamble finished the season with 1,400-plus yards passing, 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
The Knights secondary picked off Nash again with under six minutes left in the third period. Diminutive corner Efren Irick was Johnny on the spot to snag a tipped pass along the sideline near midfield and returned it to Dorman’s 38.
Six plays later, fullback Jamaal Calloway capped a drive with an 11-yard run right up the middle and McGraw tacked on the extra point as the Knights led 17-3 with 3:01 remaining in the third period.
A 60-yard return by Jamal Nelson gave Dorman prime field position on its next drive and the “four-touchdown favorites” finally punched one in the end zone on a 16-yard pass from Nash to Brandon Turner on fourth and goal with 51 seconds left in the third.
Dorman injected even more enthusiasm into its fan base when defensive back Trey Rodgers picked off Gamble near midfield and returned it 29 yards to Stratford’s 14. Five plays later, Nelson scored on a 2-yard run to pull Dorman even, 17-17, with 10:05 remaining.
The Cavaliers had all the momentum. Stratford didn’t panic, though. Stackley turned to the first page in the playbook and kept it there.
“It didn’t take any hollering and screaming by the coaches,” Stackley said. “They just knew if we were going to do this, they were going to have to play better. They knew we had to straighten up.”
The Knights used their physicality advantage to get it done.
Eleven straight times Gamble fed either Varner or Calloway on run plays. Stratford converted a pair of third downs and Gamble found daylight on an option keeper on a second and long, racing 14 yards to Dorman’s 14.
The next play Calloway faced no resistance on a give up the gut, racing 14 yards untouched to put Stratford back on top, 24-17, with 3:43 left. Calloway finished with 44 yards and the two touchdowns.
Resilient, Dorman stayed alive behind Nash. He completed passes to convert a pair of third and longs then ripped off a 25-yard run to move the chains on fourth and 10.
“He made some great plays with his feet,” Stackley said. “We had him dead to rights several times and he made something happen.”
Three plays later, the Cavaliers were a mere five yards away with 27 seconds left. Dorman coach Dave Gutshall told Stackley later the Cavaliers would have gone for the jugular instead of an extra point if they scored.
“He said we couldn’t stop you in a 10-yard overtime situation,” Stackley said.
Dorman burnt its last timeout after Nash’s 5-yard pass to the Stratford 5, setting in motion a frenetic finish. On second down, Nash rolled left, looking for a receiver, but had to retreat.
Stratford defensive end Rashad Johnson was the first to greet Nash at the 12 and teammates Sinclair Wallace and Branden Wade helped finish him off for a seven-yard loss.
The clock rolled under 10 seconds left and Dorman receiver Brandon Turner hauled in a slant on the final play but fell harmlessly at Irick’s feet, two yards away from paydirt as time expired.
A sea of red rushed to midfield to celebrate while Dorman players fell to the turf.
Midnight never visited the Knights, only a representative from the South Carolina High School League with Stratford’s first championship trophy in football. Memories of past failures were erased.
“That put us in a different category,” Stackley said. “We had been to two quarterfinal games, one we lost with four seconds on the clock and another with 12 seconds on the clock — heartbreakers. This team got us over the hump.”
The Knights weren’t through being physical. Stackley recalls the celebratory dumping of the water cooler leaving a mark. He had told his players earlier in the week he expected to get wet.
“As we were walking across the field to shake hands, they put them big buckets over my head and the rascals hit me in the back of the head,” Stackley said. “I turned around, gave them a funny look and they hugged me.”
Varner, who finished with almost 1,900 yards and 22 touchdowns after fighting for 88 tough yards in the championship game, went on to play in the North-South All-Star game along with defensive back T.J. Rose.
Stratford offensive lineman Jon Alston played on the South Carolina Shrine Bowl team and made his mark for the South Carolina Gamecocks before a short NFL career with the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks.
Stratford just celebrated the 20-year reunion of its only championship last fall. It’s a proud group. Their bond is undeniable. More than 20 players on the roster went on to play in college are now grown men with families but the 1999 championship comes up a lot.
“For young men — as far as a life lesson, excitement and developing memories – winning a close game like that is more memorable than blowing somebody out,” Stackley said. “Either coming back from behind or holding on to a win creates a lot more excitement for your ballclub and your fans.”
Past Stratford players and coaches will tell you there were other squads who could have hung with the 1999 Knights on any given Friday night, and maybe even won.
But the 1999 bunch has bragging rights until Stratford goes trophy hunting again.
Stackley retired after the 2013 season and ended a 29-year career with 270 victories, finishing state runner-up in 2004 and 2013. From 1997 to 2006, the Knights were 118-18. In one stretch, they won 58 straight region games and eight straight region titles.
Stackley’s last day at Stratford was May 30, 2014. The 63-year-old already had a new job lined up and set the bar high for that duty, too.
“I want to be the best granddaddy in the world,” he said.