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The Stratford football team celebrates its victory over Amherst on Friday night at D.C. Everest High School in a WIAA Division 5 semifinal. The Tigers will play in the D-5 state championship game Nov. 21 against Lake Country Lutheran in Madison. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

By Paul Lecker For Zaleski Sports

SCHOFIELD – For the first time all season, the Stratford football team found itself trailing and it was gut-check time for the Tigers.

Stratford’s undefeated season and quest for a second-straight trip to the state finals in Madison were on the line midway through the third quarter and, not being in this position all season, the question was: How would the Tigers react?

Stratford, down 7-6 to Amherst, drove 63 yards in 10 plays to score and regain the lead, then forced two turnovers on the Falcons’ next three possessions and went on to a 19-7 win in a WIAA Division 5 state semifinal game Friday night at Stiehm Stadium at D.C. Everest High School.

Stratford (13-0) will take on Lake Country Lutheran (12-1) in the Division 5 state championship game at 4 p.m. Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Lake Country Lutheran beat Prairie du Chien 25-0 in the other D-5 semifinal on Friday.

Stratford, which lost in the D-5 state finals last year to Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs, is looking forward to making a return to trip to Madison in search of the eighth state title in program history.

“It means everything to us,” Stratford senior quarterback/safety Max Schwabe said. “Losing last year helped us to push harder than we ever have. We worked hard all offseason, we’ve been focused, and we’re a family, so we’re always bumping each other up.”

Stratford took the opening kickoff, and much like in its Level 3 win over Northwestern last week, the Tigers used a punishing running game to find pay dirt.

The Tigers went 78 yards in 16 plays, all but one on the ground to five different ball carriers. Schwabe ran in from the 2 to give Stratford a 6-0 lead following the 7 minute, 47 second drive.

Stratford reached midfield in its other two possessions in the first half, but were forced to punt and it held on to the 6-0 lead going into halftime.

Amherst then did something no other team had been able to do this season against the Tigers’ defense – score.

The Falcons took the opening possession of the second half and went 76 yards in 11 plays, the final 37 on a pass from Lincoln Cullen to Carmelo Aleman where Aleman wrestled the ball away from a Stratford defensive back on the pass to score the first touchdown allowed by Stratford this season. The extra point kick by Mason Czech was good, giving the Falcons a one-point lead with 6:28 to go in the third quarter.

It was time to see how Stratford would react to a rare instance of adversity. The Tigers came through with flying colors.

“Them putting it in the end zone was great for us,” senior lineman Ben Barten said. “Them scoring, that was something we could move on. Oh, that was a big mistake, well not a mistake obviously, you want to put up points, but that was something powerful. That got us going.”

Following a holding penalty on the first play that pushed the Tigers back to their own 25 and set up a daunting first down-and-22, Schwabe connected with Chase Flink on a 52-yard pass play down the right sideline. Schwabe later hit Flink again for 13 yards on fourth-and-11, and four plays later Beau Gross plowed in from the 1 to put Stratford back on top 12-7.

“That got the monkey off their back, and let’s play football,” Stratford coach Jason Tubbs said. “Our guys didn’t quit and just kept going. Give our guys credit, they stuck together and that is a key to the team. Chase making a big play to get us down there, fourth-and-11 we convert it, score a touchdown to take the lead, and get the ball back and kind of wore them down.”

Stratford lost a fumble at midfield early in the fourth quarter on a fourth-down play, but two plays later Chandler Schmidt picked off Cullen at the 19.

The Tigers then turned around and drove 81 yards in 12 plays to put the final touches on the victory. Schwabe ran around left end on a misdirection play 8 yards for a touchdown and Stratford went up 19-7 with 2:26 to go.

Any hopes of a miraculous Amherst comeback ended quickly as Schwabe, Colten Schillinger and Justin Schoenherr forced a fumble on the kickoff, with Schwabe recovering at the 43. Stratford ran out the clock from there with five rushing plays.

“It all came down to having a game plan and executing it perfectly,” Schwabe said. “The line worked their butts off and they did it all for us. The backs held on to the ball, and you have to keep the turnovers to a minimum, Coach trusted us on every fourth down we had and we converted on most of them.”

Stratford quarterback Max Schwabe crashes into the end zone for a touchdown during the first quarter of the Tigers’ 19-7 win over Amherst in a WIAA Division 5 state semifinal at D.C. Everest High School. The Tigers move on to the state championship game for the second year in a row. (Photo by Paul Lecker/For Zaleski Sports)

Gross finished with 81 yards and Teddy Redman added 73 on the ground for the Tigers, who piled up 224 yards rushing and 333 in all. Schwabe was 8-for-11 for 99 yards, 70 to Flink on four connections.

Stratford ran 62 plays to Amherst’s 28, limiting the Falcons to seven first downs and 157 total yards.

“We had to play two undefeated teams to get to Madison,” Tubbs said. “That’s pretty battle-tested. That’s been a theme all summer long. We took the lead right back and didn’t look back.

“I’m so proud of our guys for not quitting. We have seniors that have been there and that’s a big difference. They want to finish what they started here. Last week’s game and this game will make us ready for it.”

Tigers 19, Falcons 7 Stratford 6 0 6 7 – 19 Amherst 0 0 7 0 – 7 First Quarter S – Max Schwabe 2 run (pass failed), 3:13. Third Quarter A – Carmelo Aleman 37 pass from Lincoln Cullen (Mason Czech kick), 6:28. S – Beau Gross 1 run (pass failed), 1:50. Fourth Quarter S – Schwabe 8 run (Leo Franzese kick), 2:26. Team Statistics First downs: Stratford 19; Amherst 7. Rushing (att-yards): S 51-224; A 19-80. Passing (comp-att-yards-int): S 8-11-99-0; A 4-9-77-1. Total yards: S 333; A 157. Penalties (no.-yards): S 1-12; A 2-16. Fumbles (total-lost): S 2-1; A 2-1. Punting (no.-avg.): S 2-34.5; A 3-26.0. Individual Statistics Rushing: S, Beau Gross 18-81, Teddy Redman 10-73, Matt Handrick 9-33, Chase Flink 6-20, Max Schwabe 5-17, Devin Dennee 2-1, Justin Schoenherr 1-minus 1. A, Chris Andersen 8-42, Lincoln Cullen 4-20, Cyle Zblewski 1-6, Bryan Groshek 2-6, Aidan Elwood 4-6. Passing: S, Schwabe 8-11-99-0. A, Cullen 4-9-77-1. Receiving: S, Flink 4-70, Justin Radke 1-12, Vaughn Breit 1-9, Redman 1-7, Gross 1-1. A, Carmelo Aleman 1-37, Ian Hall 1-33, Andersen 1-5, Zblewski 1-2. Fumble recoveries (defense): S, Schwabe. A, Andersen. Interceptions (defense): S, Chandler Schmidt. Punting: S, Flink 2-34.5. A, Cullen 3-26.0. Records: Stratford 13-0; Amherst 11-1.

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