Stratford receiver Dru Jones celebrates after a big pass play against Falls City during the UIL Class 2A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Thursday. [Ben Jenkins/ Press Pass Sports]
ARLINGTON— The Stratford Elks felt right at home in their return to the big stage of playing in a state championship.
Stratford stepped up under the bright lights of AT&T Stadium putting together a tremendous second half performance to pull away from Falls City, 39-27, claiming the UIL Class 2A Division II state championship Thursday afternoon.
The Elks sign their name to Texas Panhandle prominence winning the program’s fourth state championship, the first since 2008, and the fourth state reign in 21 years.
It’s also the first championship for Stratford seventh year head coach Matt Lovorn.
“We have six seniors on this team and they work their tails off,” said Lovorn, who is 78-21 all-time at Stratford. “We talk a lot as a team of getting to this point. I tell our team, if you’re not enough without it, you’re not enough with it. I thought that was something important to hang on to the rest of the year.”
Stratford, which finished the year at 15-1 overall, ties Amarillo High for second amongst Texas Panhandle football program’s with four state championships. Only Canadian has more at five.
To earn this fourth crown, the Elks did exactly what they did through the entire playoff run.
Stratford won the battle up front on both sides of the ball against the Beavers (14-2), and used timely offense behind quarterback Cody Rinne, and running backs Dru Jones and Zane Burr.
Falls City led 21-13 at halftime using an 85-yard first quarter kickoff return by Jaxson Pipes, to go along with a clicking offense led by Luke Schaffer. The 6-foot, 235-pound truck punched his way in from 1-yard out with six seconds to play in the half that gave the Beavers the 8-point halftime advantage.
However, Stratford changed the tone and took the momentum in a hurry on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. Kicker Vicente Morillon pooched a short kick at midfield recovered by Elks linebacker Bryce Brayden.
“I feel that kick changed it all for us,” Lovorn said. “We had a special teams meltdown in the first half, so this made up for it.”
Rinne and the offense went right to work on a 9-play, 45-yard drive resulting in a Mauricio Duran 5-yard scoot for a score, cutting the Beavers lead, 21-19.
After a Falls City three and out, Stratford took its first lead at the 8:35 mark of the third on a 1-yard plunge by Rinne set up off a 36-yard screen from Rinne to Jones. A connection that became extremely popular by games end.
Falls City made one final charge at Stratford on a quick 52-yard strike from Shaffer to Grant Jendrusch, tying the game at 27 with 11:48 to play in the contest.
Stratford celebrates the UIL Class 2A Division II state championship trophy at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Thursday. [Ben Jenkins/ Press Pass Sports]
From that point forward, Stratford put the clamps down. The Elks answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive as Jones once again was on the receiving end of a Rinne TD toss putting the Elks back on top, 33-27. The Stratford defense then made its biggest play on the ensuing possession forcing a fumble of Shaffer, taking over at the Beavers 40-yard line with four minutes left.
Rinne and Jones called ballgame four plays later. Facing a fourth down and 10, and only 1:33 on the clock, Rinne floated a pass to Jones right over Shaffer’s head resulting in the punctuation 32-yard touchdown.
“We had a completely different play called,” Jones said. “It was suppose to go to Anastacio Ibarra. Somehow, I broke free in the man coverage and they only had one safety. I saw the safety tip it, and then the ball fell right into my hands.”
The Elks were money on fourth downs the entire day converting 5-of-6 on fourth downs, and scoring twice.
Jones, who turns 18-years old on Friday, celebrated his special milestone a day early with a career performance he’ll never forget. Playing in his final game in an Elk uniform, Jones left it all on AT&T Stadium snagging nine catches for 205 yards and two scores. He also rushed the ball 14 times for 87 yards, and made three and a half tackles on defense with an interception on Falls City’s final offensive play.
“This means the world to me,” Jones said. “I get to wake up as a state champion on my birthday. Not a lot of people get to do that.”
Rinne was awarded Offensive MVP honors completing 14-of-17 passes for 282 yards and two touchdown passes. Rinne tacked on 70 yards with another score.
Rinne ended an immaculate senior season rushing for 1,985 yards scoring 33 times, and passing for 2,369 yards with another 21 TDs.
“Cody means everything to us,” Lovorn said. “He’s a great young man, he’s been our leader, and he’s one of the big reasons we’re here. Just watching him get better each week was a true pleasure.”
Stratford’s defense limited Falls City to 201 offensive yards, and only 25 on the ground, well below their season of average of close to 250.
For full game stats, please visit https://www.uiltexas.org/files/athletics/state-football/boxscores/FALL-STR.HTM