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Stratford lineman Ben Barten (52) opens up a hole for running back Beau Gross on a 2-yard touchdown run during the first quarter of the WIAA Division 5 championship game against Lake Country Lutheran on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Lake Country Lutheran won, 22-13. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

By Paul Lecker For Zaleski Sports

MADISON – Through a quarter and a half, it looked like the Stratford football team was well on its way to the eighth state championship in program history.

Leading 13-0, the Tigers seemed in control. Suddenly, however, the momentum changed and the Tigers never recovered.

Lake Country Lutheran stymied Stratford time again through the final three quarters, scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, and stunned the No. 1-ranked Tigers 22-13 in the WIAA Division 5 state football championship game on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium.

“They just made plays and our guys fell asleep on a few plays,” Stratford coach Jason Tubbs said. “Give them credit, they played really well. It didn’t help that we had two all-state players (defensive end/tight end Vaughn Breit, and lineman Jaykob Mikelson) get hurt and had to leave the game early. That made a difference, we lost momentum and unfortunately, sometimes, you lose.”

As had happened time and again this season, Stratford dominated early and built a two-touchdown lead in the opening quarter.

After a three-and-out, Colten Schillinger returned a punt 43 yards to set up Stratford at the LCL 25 and four plays later Beau Gross crashed in from the 2-yard line to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.

The Tigers forced another three-and-out and put together another scoring drive. Quarterback Max Schwabe hit Matt Handrick for a 15-yard pass, and after four running plays, he connected with Luke Radtke in the corner of the end zone for another touchdown. Stratford missed the two-point conversion, but led 13-0 with 3:17 to go in the first quarter.

Stratford tight end Luke Radke hauls in a 17-yard touchdown reception from Max Schwabe during the first quarter of the WIAA Division 5 championship game against Lake Country Lutheran on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Lake Country Lutheran won, 22-13. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

The Tigers, who didn’t allow a point until last week’s semifinal win over Amherst, were unable to gain a consistent pass rush as Lake Country Lutheran sophomore quarterback Luke Haertle and he was able to carve them up with a number of long passes.

The first one Haertle hit, a 54-yard completion to Zech Hans on the Lightning’s next possession, didn’t result in any points, but certainly gave Lake Country Lutheran some confidence that it could do something against the normally stout Stratford defense.

The Lightning finally broke through midway through the second quarter after taking over on the Tigers’ 19 following an eight-yard punt. On third-and-goal from the 5, receiver Jacob Studer took an end around pitch from Haertle and threw to Andrew Schumacher for a touchdown to make it 13-7.

“They threw the ball up a few times and got lucky they came down with it,” Tubbs said. “Most of the year, it hasn’t. We have to get a better pass rush, that would have helped a little bit.”

Stratford took the ensuing possession 56 yard to the LCL 24 before turning the ball over on downs.

The 13-7 score held until halftime, but the momentum had definitely changed.

Stratford could not get anything going in the second half, mustering just five total yards and one first down, that coming on an offsides penalty on the Lightning on a punt attempt.

“They were blitzing a quite a few times and got us in some negative yardage, which hasn’t happened a lot,” Tubbs said. “Some of the passes were limited with this wind, but we’re not going to make excuses. They beat us fair and square, and it’s on to the next year.”

Lake Country Lutheran took over at its own 14-yard line 10 seconds into the fourth quarter and mounted an 86-yard scoring drive to tie the game. Haertle completed a 32-yard pass to Schumacher, had a 21-yard run on third-and-16, and connected with Schumacher again for 28 yards and a score. Stratford’s Trevor Dennee blocked the extra point to keep the score tied at 13-13.

A holding penalty and a sack on Stratford’s next possession put the Tigers in a tough spot and they were forced to punt.

LCL turned right around and drove 67 yards in six plays for what would be the game-winning score. Haertle connected with Schumacher for 18 yards, Stratford committed a personal foul penalty, and Haertle capped off the drive with a 20-yard scamper up the middle for a touchdown that gave the Lightning a 20-13 lead.

Members of the Stratford football team display the silver ball trophy after the Tigers’ 22-13 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in the WIAA Division 5 championship game against on Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

Stratford was intercepted on its next play, and after regaining possession with 2:52 to go, Schwabe was sacked twice by Chase Caliendo, the second one resulting in a safety with 2:14 left to end the scoring.

Stratford’s perfect season was dashed with its second-straight state finals loss, but Tubbs tried to keep a positive spin on things.

“The seniors were some great guys,” Tubbs said. “I’m going to miss them more than anything else. Stratford will be fine. We have a great community and they’ll rally around our guys again. I’m proud of them. They’re great young men, smart young men. They are going to be great dads and great workers in the workfield. They’ll be fine.”