Stratford heroes were everywhere amid the postgame celebration following the Bulldogs’ emotional 27-17 Class A quarterfinal victory over Crescent Friday night.
Quarterback Chase Chamberlain, who carried the Stratford offense on his shoulders for a second straight week and accounted for all four of his team’s touchdowns, seemed to shake hands or exchange hugs with almost everybody in the large group of Bulldog fans who made the long trip north for Friday’s game.
Nick Cosby, whose heady recovery of a “fumble” at the Crescent 11 early in the fourth quarter led to Chamberlain’s game-winning touchdown one play later, was another popular target of the Stratford faithful, who seemed to float from one Bulldog to another on a cloud of euphoria brought on by Stratford’s first-ever victory in a third-round playoff game.
Tommy Lawson, still a little woozy after taking a big hit in the second half, was all smiles after making three huge receptions on offense and two key interceptions on defense.
But on a night when Chamberlain, Cosby, Lawson or a half-dozen other Bulldogs could have been thumping their chests over their individual achievements, all they wanted to talk about was their team.
When Stratford’s current crop of 12 seniors became varsity football players as freshmen back in 2007, folks around town and everybody associated with head coach Michael Blackburn’s program felt that group — which back then numbered 18 — had a chance to do something special.
Those freshmen arrived one year after the Bulldogs’ first non-playoff season in four years, and they didn’t reach the postseason again in 2007. But they helped Stratford get back to the playoffs in 2008, they were part of the school’s first playoff victory in four years in 2009, and as seniors, those former bright-eyed freshmen have finally shaken off the heavy burden that comes with potential.
Stratford hadn’t reached the state semifinals in almost four decades before Friday night’s emotional 27-17 victory at Crescent lifted the Bulldogs into the Class A Final Four for the first time in school history. Blackburn’s 2004 squad rolled into the playoffs with more fanfare (and a No. 6 ranking), but after a 10-0 regular season and an easy first-round victory, Stratford blew a 13-0 halftime lead and suffered a crushing second-round loss to Tonkawa.
The following year, the Bulldogs lost at Wynnewood in Week 9 and wound up second in District A-8 before again making a second-round playoff exit.
This season, great things were expected from Blackburn’s squad, which had 12 seniors on its 24-man roster. But after opening the campaign in the Class A top 10 for the first time in five years and as the favorite to win the District A-5 title, the Bulldogs suffered blowout losses at Elmore City-Pernell in Week 4 and at Wayne in Week 8 and entered the playoffs as the district’s third-place team.
“We felt like we were better than Elmore City and Wayne — we just didn’t have an intensity in those games,” Chamberlain said after Friday’s win. “It all comes down to intensity. When we have intensity, we can do great things.
“As a team, we believed we could make it this year,” he said. “It’s been quite a ride. It feels like we’re all brothers because we’ve been through so much together. When we were younger, everybody said the ‘04-’05 squad was the Dream Team, but we’ve gone farther than they did. We’re the Reality Team.”
And, surprisingly, the ride isn’t over. The Bulldogs traveled to Crescent Friday as the only team in Oklahoma to be playing a third straight postseason road game, and once again they seemed to thrive in their role as visitors, cooling off one of the state’s hottest teams for a second straight week.
Stratford held previously unbeaten (and fifth-ranked) Afton — which entered the game as Class A’s highest-scoring team with 497 points through 11 games — to two touchdowns in a 21-14, second-round upset; Friday, the Bulldogs survived 11 penalties (five of which resulted in first downs) and a dominant first-half performance by the Crescent offense and limited the Tigers — who had scored 314 points in their previous six games — to 72 yards and three points in the second half en route to one of their school’s wildest victories ever.
Chamberlain, who has weathered injuries and hundreds of hits from much bigger players in his four varsity seasons, was, as usual, in the middle of just about everything good that happened for the Bulldogs Friday night. He carried on 19 of Stratford’s 32 running plays for 62 yards and three touchdowns, he passed for a career-high 194 yards (one week after throwing for his previous career high, 184 yards, against Afton) while tossing a career-long 90-yard touchdown pass to Lawson, and he was part of a clutch performance by Blackburn’s defense after intermission.
Blackburn’s original freshman class back in 2007 numbered 18, and although several of those players moved away or stopped playing football, the core group — including Chamberlain, Cosby and tailback Regand Ardery — has remained intact. Although they might not possess the star power of the 2004 team, Blackburn’s current seniors — along with some talented underclassmen and a couple of newcomers to the program — have managed to carve out their own niche in Stratford’s long football history.
“This group has to do it together — it’s a team effort with these guys, Blackburn said. “We’ve lost a few guys along the way, but they all have the same goal. When you can get that going, it means a lot. They just play well together.”
Lawson — one of the area’s best basketball players over the past two years and expected to be one of the leaders of this year’s Stratford cage squad when the football team finally allows the basketball season to begin — has been the most important addition to Blackburn’s team this fall.
The big-play threat in a group of receivers Blackburn called his best ever before the season began, Lawson caught three passes (including the 90-yarder with the Bulldogs facing a third-and-20 in the second quarter) for 145 yards Friday night and also intercepted two passes from his spot in the secondary.
After his career night, Lawson said he was happy with his decision to return to football as a senior.
“I’m so glad I did it this year,” he said. “Coach (Blackburn) has always encouraged me to come out, and I finally did it. I’m honored to be part of this team and to do this for my school and my town.”
Cosby, whose physical style has made him one of his team’s leaders on both sides of the ball, had a huge game of his own Friday, finishing with 13 tackles and recovering two fumbles. The second fumble recovery — of a Chamberlain punt that was inexplicably touched by Crescent freshman Devon Bledsoe after the ball had rolled dead at the Tiger 11 — was probably the strangest of his career and set up Chamberlain’s 11-yard burst up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown with less than 10 minutes remaining.
The heady play by Cosby was part of an impressive second-half effort by the Bulldogs, who gave up 253 first-half yards but held the Tigers to just 72 over the final two periods.
“We just wanted it bad,” said Cosby, one of four Stratford players (Alix Vanlandingham, Tyler Gaines and Cody Watts were the other three) who finished with at least 13 tackles in the win. “A lot of guys stepped up and made plays.”
Friday’s victory lifted Stratford (11-2) into a semifinal showdown with another group of overachievers. Morrison, which eliminated District A-5 champion Wayne, 27-26, in the second round of the playoffs, earned its spot in the Class A Final Four with a 35-27 upset of second-ranked Cashion Friday night.
No matter what happens over the next week or two, Stratford’s 2007 freshman class has taken its fans and its school on, as Chamberlain put it, “quite a ride” this fall. Teams that might have been more talented will be sitting at home or playing basketball while the Bulldogs continue their Cinderalla run Friday or Saturday (on the road again, but this time at a neutral site).
At this point, everything is gravy for Blackburn and his players, but you don’t get the feeling from this team that just being alive in the playoffs is enough. Stratford’s seniors and their supporting cast are starting to view themselves as a team of destiny, and after the last two weeks, it’s tough to argue the point.