WOODROW – The Stratford streak, that fourth current longest winning streak in all of Texas high school football, ended in the chill air Friday night.
In an instant classic of a Class 2A Division I Area playoff game, No. 8-ranked Cisco won as physical of a ground-and-pound game you will see in 2A all year, using defense and the 213 yards running of quarterback Hunter Long to fend off No. 5-ranked Stratford 14-8 at First United Park at Pirate Stadium with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees chill factor.
Stratford (11-1), the defending Class 2A DII state champs, saw its massive 23-game winning streak dating back to September of 2021 and its undefeated 2022 season come to an end.
“Hats off to Cisco they are a great, great football team,” said Stratford coach Matt Lovorn, a class act in defeat as the loss brought many of his players to tears. “We knew this was the type of game it was going to be. Tough game. Real low scoring, just two really good defenses getting after each other, and they just had the one extra play. That’s what it came down to.”
Cisco (10-2) advances to the regional semifinals against New Deal (9-3) at 2 p.m. Friday in Colorado City.
Cisco coach Kevin Stennett shook his head back and forth after the game talking about the physical play and praised Stratford.
“Man, I’m proud of our kids and I’m proud of them Stratford Elks,” Stennett said. “That’s a tough football team. Every day I watched they got more and more physical. So, seven days worth they turned out to be everything I expected.”
Offensive possessions were at a premium throughout this display of premium smash mouth football, where the passing game was pretty much an afterthought.
And defense stole the show.
Stratford held the ball three times in the second half, Cisco owning four possessions with its last one the final 57 seconds to kneel down the ball and secure the victory.
During the game Stratford reached the Cisco 2-yard line and had a 1st-and-10 at the Cisco 26 but came away with no points.
Cisco saw drives reach the Stratford 8-yard line and 21-yard line without producing any points.
“That was a dog fight,” Cisco head coach Stennett said. “It was a battle.”
Stratford held an 8-7 lead at halftime scoring on senior Zane Burr’s 8-yard run with 52 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Running out of the shotgun, Stratford gashed Cisco’s defense with Burr and sophomore quarterback Bryce Braden standing next to each other with their hands out like both were taking the snap. The strategy confused Cisco as Stratford opened the 51-yard scoring drive with three runs in length of 12, 12 and 16 yards by Burr and Braden quickly setting up a first down at the Cisco 11.
Cisco thought it had held Stratford out of the end zone on a fourth down interception, but the Loboes were called for roughing the passer and Burr scored on the next play.
Braden handed Stratford an 8-7 lead when he ran in the two-point conversion on a power play where it seemed like the entire Stratford offense of 11 players was in the scrum helping him cross the goal line.
Cisco scored what would prove to be the winning points by taking the second half kickoff and chewing nearly six minutes off the clock driving 58 yards in 10 plays.
Workhorse quarterback Long passed or ran on nine of the 10 plays accounting for all but two yards scoring from 1-yard out on a sneak play with 6:20 remaining in the third quarter.
It was the physical Long who hurt Stratford the most running for 213 yards on 30 carries, passing for 32 yards and having a direct hand in all but eight of Cisco’s offensive plays.
“I will tell you what,” Lovorn said, “Long is the best football player we have played against. We knew that coming in the game.”
“Any big game Hunter is going to take over,” Stennett said. “A playoff game is the biggest game you will have all season. We trust him and he played through some minor injuries there. He’s one of the toughest kids we have ever had and he’s going to get the rock.”
Stratford would get three chances with the ball in the second half to grab the lead back.
And things looked good right after Cisco took the lead when Stratford sophomore Santiago Ibarra snagged an unexpected line drive kickoff and hustled 42 yards to the Cisco 26-yard line.
Stratford moved six yards and on 4th-and-4 from the 20, Bryce Braden’s pass to big bro Luke was incomplete in a crowd at the goal-line.
Stratford made sure it had one last chance to pull this one out late in the game after Cisco had gobbled up a hefty 7:25 off the clock. Cisco had moved for its own 35 to the Elks’ 23 on 13 plays, but the Elks defense came up clutch when Burr tipped a long pass for an incompletion on a 4th-and-9 from the 23.
Although Cisco didn’t score, chewing 7 minutes and 25 seconds off the clock and keeping Stratford’s offense off the field proved a key part in the Loboes win.
“Absolutely that was big,” Stennett said of the long non-scoring drive. “When we are playing with a lead in the second half we feel like we are built to milk that clock. You still have to keep the chains moving. A penalty put us behind the chains there and we had to throw the ball and we just couldn’t get the first down.
“Our defense played a great game and stepped up at the right time,” Stennett said. “We had some sacks there at the end to stop them and win the game for us. I couldn’t be prouder of my team because Stratford is a championship caliber team, still. They are the real deal. This one means a lot.”
Stratford took over at its own 23 with 3:13 remaining and behind 14-8. Using the running combo of Burr and Bryce Braden the Elks moved to the Cisco 38-yard line owning a first down with just under two minutes to play.
But Cisco lineman Broderick Morton was able to sack Bryce Braden coming in from his blindside for a 12-yard loss on second down eventually leaving the Elks in desperation mode facing a 4th and 21.
Bryce Braden’s final pass attempt was incomplete, and Cisco took over near midfield running out the final 57 seconds with kneel downs.
Cisco punted once, finished with 288 yards rushing and 32 yards passing, all but 75 of those yards produced by Long.
Cisco’s longest offensive play was a 57-yard sweep by receiver Cade Gayle that found the end zone for the first score of the game with 3:15 left in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.
“Just one of those plays that bit us,” Stratford coach Lovorn said of the receiver sweep. “Next time they ran it we stopped it for a loss.”
Stratford finished with 194 yards of offense with running back Burr leading the way at 101 yards on 14 carries and Bryce Braden adding 62 rushing yards on 15 carries. Braden completed 2-of-7 pass attempts for 23 yards.
Stratford’s longest offensive play was an 18-yard pass from Bruce Braden to junior Lane Uttley.
That pass play was part of Stratford’s first half frustrating 13-play, 66-yard drive. Frustrating in that Stratford’s drive ended at the Cisco 2-yard line when Luke Braden caught Bryce Braden’s fourth and goal pass with his feet in the end zone but the ball was outside of the end zone.
“I didn’t have a clue Stratford would pass there,” said Cisco coach Stennett. “Nope. It was just our kids being in the right place.”
“We made a good throw and catch there,” Lovorn said. “It just wasn’t what we needed to execute at the time.”
As to be expected, Stratford took the loss hard with many players and coaches fighting back tears after the game.
More than 30 minutes after the game Elks players, coaches and fans were still on the field hugging and talking.
What a ride for Stratford. Winning 23 straight games including a state championship and an undefeated regular season.
“I’m really, really proud of these guys,” Lovorn said. “We couldn’t have prepared for this game better than the way these guys did. We had a great, great, week of preparation. We couldn’t have done anything more. The kids played their tails off and left it all on the field tonight.
“We have 13 seniors on this team who have won a lot of ballgames for Stratford. We are super, super proud of those guys.”