When Woodland tailback Willie Zachary dove into the end zone on his team’s first play in overtime for the only touchdown in Saturday night’s Class A championship game in Stillwater, he ended a dream — and a dream season — for the Stratford Bulldogs.
During their unlikely run to the title game, Michael Blackburn’s overachievers had captured the imagination of football fans across Oklahoma and the respect of opponents and opposing fans for the way they carried themselves into what, for Stratford football, was unknown territory. When Saturday’s game finally ended their winning streak and the state’s 2010 football season, the Bulldogs and their coach showed the same kind of class that had made them the darlings of the underdog set over the past four weeks.
“The kids played with so much heart — they left it all on the field,” Blackburn said after seeing his club lose the first Oklahoma state championship game in history to go to overtime in a scoreless tie. “They played great, and I was proud of them.”
Blackburn wasn’t alone.
The Bulldogs seemed to gain a legion of new fans as the season went along, and by season’s end, the believers outnumbered the doubters by a wide margin. A core of hometown fanatics that grew with each game followed Blackburn’s club — the only team in Oklahoma in any class to play five road games in the playoffs — on its postseason odyssey. Long before Zachary’s touchdown finally ended it, people across Oklahoma who had never heard of the tiny town in Garvin County were googling “Stratford” to find out just where it was located.
Only six weeks earlier, Saturday’s championship appearance seemed virtually out of the question to anybody except maybe Blackburn, his players and coaches and the most diehard fans.
Ranked No. 7 in Class A before being blown out at Elmore City in their District A-5 opener, the Bulldogs dropped a 26-0 decision at Wayne (the eventual district champion) in Week 8 to lose all chance at a district title and a home game in at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
To make their road even tougher, Stratford’s second-round opponent was fifth-ranked Afton, which entered the game undefeated and No. 1 in all of Class A in points scored. After Stratford rallied for a 21-14 victory (while Elmore City and Wayne were eliminated by Woodland and Morrison, respectively), though, the buzz around the team started to grow.
Blackburn’s squad had a chance to finally play at home in the quarterfinals but was sent on the road for a third straight week by virtue of Crescent’s second-round victory. Again the Stratford defense faced a red-hot offense (the Tigers had scored 314 points during a six-game winning streak) and one of the best players in all of Class A in Crescent tailback Darian Bennett.
But after surrendering 253 first-half yards (including 179 to Bennett), the Bulldogs shut down the Tigers in the second half and, with the help of two huge mental mistakes by the host squad, rallied for a 27-17 victory.
For the semifinals, Stratford was on the road again, traveling to Moore to meet a Morrison club looking for its school’s 15th state title since 1984. Again, the Bulldogs dominated the second half, holding the Wildcats to 50 yards after intermission while scoring 19 unanswered points en route to a convincing 33-14 upset.
As good as it had been, though, throughout the team’s six-game winning streak dating back to the Wayne loss, Blackburn’s defense — which allowed only 10 second-half points in its first four postseason games — was absolutely phenomenal Saturday night.
Facing a diverse Woodland offense that had scored 520 points, Blackburn and defensive coordinator Paul Savage came up with a game plan that worked to perfection through four quarters. The Bulldogs gave up a few big plays, but also came with a few of their own; as a result, the Cougars managed to penetrate the Stratford red zone just once in regulation.
Blackburn’s offense, meanwhile, seemed to move up and down the field almost at will against a tough, physical Woodland defense. But aach time the Bulldogs threatened to score, either they or the Cougars found a way to keep the game scoreless.
One of the keys to the playoff winning streak was Stratford’s ability to keep critical mistakes to a minimum. Saturday night, the Bulldogs — who had won the turnover battle, 9-2, in the wins over Crescent and Morrison the previous two weeks — committed a couple of huge turnovers to kill scoring threats and had two devastating false-start penalties to short-circuit two others. Blackburn, though, showed his usual class, noting that the effort his senior-dominated squad showed against Class A’s No. 1 team simply outweighed any mistakes the Bulldogs might have made in the heat of battle.
“I’m not going to fault the kids for anything,” Blackburn said. “I think the adrenalin was going and the kids wanted to make a play, and they jumped the gun a little bit. It was just bad timing.”
The timing of Stratford’s playoff run was perfect, though, for a dozen seniors who, as Blackburn said over and over during the past few weeks, “just don’t want it to be over.”
Stratford’s upperclassmen did, indeed, play like they wanted the season to last forever. Led by quarterback Chase Chamberlain, tailback Regand Ardery, wideout Tommy Lawson and an offensive line that was a force in its own right down the stretch, the Stratford offense — despite Saturday’s shutout — moved to ball week in and week out.
Chamberlain, who had come back from injury time and again since his freshman year to establish himself as the team’s undisputed leader, had a spectacular senior campaign. He threw for more than 1,400 yards and ran for over 1,000 to finish his career as one of a handful of Oklahoma players ever to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 3,000.
Ardery, a 5-6, 130-pounder who missed the first six games of the season but had four 100-yard rushing games over the final eight weeks, proved to be both effective and durable in his role as feature back, and Lawson consistently made big plays on both sides of the ball during his first and only varsity football season.
Defensively, seniors Chamberlain, Lawson (who intercepted his sixth pass in three weeks Saturday), Nick Cosby, Cody Watts, Devaunté Barber, Tyler Scoles, Dakota Miller, John Sinnett and Jacob Wade joined juniors Tyler Gaines, Alex Vanlandingham and Matt Sinnett to give Stratford the most efficient and opportunistic defense in Class A this postseason.
Although the Bulldogs’ season didn’t end quite the way they and their fans had hoped, it was a magical ride. Blackburn’s seniors wanted their final playoff run to last as long as possible, and they accomplished that (with overtime, even managed to extend it a little bit farther).
Most high school players have only memories to take with them when they graduate, and the Bulldogs certainly made a few of those over the past three months. But this team also left its fans — and some new fans gathered along the way — with the memory of things accomplished that almost nobody thought possible when the season began.
In the end, the Bulldogs showed us all what can be achieved when a group of players believes in itself and its coach. Thanks, guys. It was one heckuva ride.