Monday at the press conference in Columbia ahead of Saturday’s Class AAAA Division II state title game between Northwestern and Stratford, a reporter from the Charleston newspaper asked four Stratford players if they remembered the Knights’ state title victory in 1999.
Quarterback Jacob Park: “I wasn’t even here. I was in New York. I didn’t even know what Stratford was in ’99.”
Grinning defensive back Michael Simmons: “No sir, I was just three years old.”
Those responses drew laughs from the audience, but were symbolic of the task that faced Stratford’s Ray Stackley, who unusually had to educate his players on the school’s tradition of success. The Knights beat Dorman by a touchdown for their state title in ’99, and also fell in the championship game to Rock Hill in 2004. From 1997 to 2004, Stackley’s teams won 95 of their 108 games.
None of that success mattered in 2006 when Cane Bay High School was created, scything into Stratford’s student body and unsettling a program that was one of the state’s most consistent. The biggest loss was the community of Sangaree, which had long provided some of Stratford’s best athletes. Stratford’s enrollment number this year was 1,748, down significantly from the 2,865 students that attended the school in 2006. Stratford was the fourth biggest school in the state that year, and is now 21st.
Win or lose, Saturday’s appearance in the state championship game is a testament to the Stratford program’s resilience in the face of change.
“We’re still not where we want to be in terms of numbers and depth but we’re back pretty good,” said Stackley.
After Cane Bay opened its doors, the Knights suffered, going 15-21 over the next three years. Crosstown rival Goose Creek suddenly thrived, throwing saltwater on wounded pride. With numbers down, Stackley and his coaching staff had to strengthen their middle school recruitment efforts, making sure that potential Stratford Knights indeed joined the football program. The players that did don the Knights’ colors had to be taught that the red and black were feared colors in the Lowcountry.
“Those first four years, you had to make sure your guys understand the tradition and history of the program,” Stackley said, “and buy into what we’re doing in the offseason, in the weight room, and in the 7-on-7 all year long, and we’ll get back there. That’s where the challenge comes for the head ball coaches.”
The tide bounced back when Stratford’s current senior class showed up in 2010. They’ll be remembered as the group that hoisted the program back into statewide relevance.
“We kind of picked this group as ninth graders, saying this is the group that’s gonna get us back to where we should be,” said Stackley. “And they’ve stood up and done that for us.”
A ninth grade quarterback had never started for Stratford, but that’s exactly what Park did, about 10 years after moving to the area from Watkins Glen, N.Y.
“He had to be forced into it,” Stackley said, noting that Park’s predecessor left the program. “We had to handle that with kid gloves that first year, didn’t put a whole lot on him. The next year, we put it on him and then won nine ballgames, then 11 and now 12.”
Park had jitters at first, but has improved steadily over the course of his career, to the point that he was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country this summer and has signed with the University of Georgia.
“It was kind of slow at the beginning, wasn’t real sure of yourself freshman and sophomore year, then as the game slows down, you start speeding up and that’s when you start making plays,” he said Monday.
Park said he’s played with Simmons and standout linebacker Cecil Smith since the trio were six years old. There’s a connection among these Knights, one that was evident early to the coaching staff.
“We’ve kind of taken this group as ninth graders, added them all together as 10th graders and this senior class, they’re pretty hungry,” Stackley said. “Whether we can go in there and beat a great Northwestern team I don’t know. But they’re definitely hungry.”
Cane Bay wasn’t the only high school that opened in 2006. South Pointe also opened that year, while Nation Ford opened the following year in Fort Mill. Schools have opened across the state almost every year since.
When Northwestern played South Pointe in the 2008 state final, the Trojans were up against athletes that just two years earlier, in a parallel history, might have worn purple and gold.
“That’s how that split worked for us,” Richardson said. “But that’s the challenge. Normally those guys are on your football roster. When you’ve got six or seven NFL guys in the league and they’re crosstown, for us and Rock Hill both, not only were our rosters cut in half, but they were cut in half with NFL talent.”
That Northwestern is making its fifth appearance in the state title in the last six years is a testament to the Trojans’ ability to withstand the opening of South Pointe.
“The guys that we had, they knew what the tradition was at Northwestern and that wasn’t gonna stop, and it hasn’t.”
Stackley, sitting next to Richardson, nodded his head all the while.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T