State bound: Elks dominate Albany in second half to reach 2A D-II state title game

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Quarterback Cody Rinne celebrates with assistant coach Tyler Wright after the Stratford Elks defeated Albany, 35-14, in a Class 2A Division II state semifinal on Thursday night at PlainsCapitol Park Lowrey Field in Lubbock. [Ben Jenkins/ Press Pass Sports]

LUBBOCK— That old championship formula has been boiling for the Stratford Elks for the past month, and as a result, they’re almost state champions for the first time in 13 years.

Putting the defensive clamps on Albany and relying on quarterback Cody Rinne and the offensive line, the Elks made the Lions merely their latest postseason victim of 2021 on Thursday night at PlainsCapital Park Lowrey Field. Stratford closed the game with 25 unanswered points and completely dominated the second half to rout Albany 35-14 in a Class 2A Division II state semifinal game.

With the victory, Stratford (14-1) will face the winner of Friday’s other state semifinal game between Mart and Falls City next Thursday at 11 a.m. at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium in the state championship game. It will be Stratford’s first trip to the state title game since 2008, when the Elks won the third of their three state championships.

After a close first half in which the Elks clung to a three-point halftime lead, they became especially stingy in the second half, opening the half by limiting Albany (13-1) to a pair of three-and-outs. Stratford’s ground game simply wore out the Lions and the clock, as Albany seemed able to only watch helplessly.

“At halftime we didn’t need to make a lot of adjustments,” said Stratford coach Matt Lovorn, who was an assistant coach on Stratford’s last state title team. “We just had to keep playing hard and do what we were doing.”

In contrast to a defensive struggle which may have been anticipated, both teams answered strikes by the others in the first half. Stratford struck the last blow which made the difference, as Rinne scored the second of his three touchdown runs from 8 yards out with 25 seconds left in the first half for a 17-14 halftime lead.

After that, the Elks were in control, even if if didn’t seem all that obvious.

“I think that was a big momentum swing,” said Rinne, the senior quarterback who ran for a game-high 175 yards on 31 carries and for the third straight playoff game ran for at least three touchdowns. “Especially since we didn’t get the ball to start the second half. It was good to go score real quick and not have to fight to get a lead.”

Albany made the first big miscue of the second half when Stratford’s Alfredo Duarte intercepted Cole Chapman to set up the Elks in Albany territory. From there, Stratford’s defense was in control.

“They just passed it a lot and we saw that they were never really down, but we know when teams get down they look to pass it,” said Duarte, who also recovered a fumble in the first half.

Duarte’s interception helped set up Rinne’s 1-yard touchdown run to make it 23-14 early in the fourth quarter. During that drive, Rinne converted a fourth-and-nine by scrambling for a first down.

That sequence as much as anything captured how the Elks had seized momentum and deflated the Lions.

Stratford rendered Albany’s previously powerful offense one-dimensional. The Lions ran for a paltry 34 yards and didn’t post a rushing first down until midway through the fourth quarter.

“I’m really proud of our kids,” Lovorn said. “We had a great week of preparation and it paid off tonight. We had to make adjustments as the game went on, but our kids fought through it and did what they needed to do to win.”

Stratford’s Zane Burr bookended the scoring in the fourth quarter with a touchdown run from a yard out 49 seconds into the quarter and one from 6 yards with 1:53 left in the game to punctuate the effort and set off the celebration of a state semifinal win.

Albany had to throw the ball to come back and did get inside the Stratford 10-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. But Chapman threw four straight incompletions, the last of which was a pass Duarte knocked out of the hands of Adam Hill in the end zone to end any hopes for the Lions.

The implications of the play didn’t immediately hit Duarte, but they eventually did.

“It’s sinking in, surely but slowly,” Duarte said on the field after the game. “I think when we get in that locker room it’s going to hit us hard.”

Albany got on the board first with a big play as hapman hit London Fuentes on a 52-yard scoring pass for a 7-0 lead. Stratford answered on Rinne’s first touchdown run, a 7-yarder to tie it 7-7 late in the quarter.

Stratford moved the ball effectively most of the first half, gaining 232 yards. The Elks were stopped on downs during their second strip to Albany’s red zone, but salvaged three-points on their next possession when Andre Duran kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead midway through the second quarter.

Albany answered on the next possession with some help from the Elks, as on fourth-and-four near midfield and the Lions in punt formation, Stratford’s Anthony Gonzalez jumped offside to give Albany a first down. On the next play, Chapman hit Hill for a 42-yard gain, setting up a 4-yard run by Chapman on the next play to give the Lions a 14-10 lead with 2:10 remaining in the first half.

That was enough time for Rinne and the Elks to do their magic, as they marched 64 yards to take the lead on Rinne’s run and never trailed again.

Stratford 35, Albany 14

Stratford 7 10 6 12 — 35

Albany 7 7 0 0 — 14

First Quarter

A – London Fuentes 52 pass from Cole Chapman (Clay Green kick), 4:28

S – Cody Rinne 7 run (Andre Duran kick), 1:50

Second Quarter

S – Duran FG 31, 5:24

A – Chapman 4 run (Green kick), 2:10

S – Rinne 8 run (Duran kick), 0:25

Third Quarter

S – Rinne 1 run (kick failed), 8:40

Fourth Quarter

S – Zane Burr 1 run (run failed), 11:11

S – Burr 6 run (run failed), 1:53

Stratford Albany

First Downs 18 11

Rushing 302 34

Passing 79 224

Total yards 381 258

C-A-I 6-13-0 14-37-0

Punts.-Avg. 3-41.3 3-39.0

Fumbles-lost 1-0 1-1

Penalties-yards 8-64 7-65

Individual Statistics

Rushing— Stratford: Dru Jones 12-83, Mauricio Duran 4-10, Rinne 31-175, Burr 11-39. Albany: Chapman 6-9, Jaheim Newton 7-17, Brooks Neece 2-8.

Passing— Stratford: Rinne 6-13-0-79. Albany: Chapman 14-37-2-224.

Receiving— Stratford: Luke Braden 2-35, Anastacio Ibarra 2-24, Jones 2-20. Albany: Fuentes 5-96, Adam Hill 2-60, Cooper Fairchild 1-8, Neece 6-60.

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