Monroe senior running back Devine Noel more than did his part in the Tornadoes’ attempt to pull a second straight upset, rushing for 124 yards and a TD during Friday’s heartbreaking 16-13 loss to No. 6 state-ranked Gainesville. (Tom Reed/Gainesville Times)
ALBANY -- Deerfield-Windsor's seniors didn't want it to end like this.
After nearly everybody had gone home after a bruising 32-20 loss to Stratford Academy in the GISA Class AAA semifinals, there were Quentin Heard, Tyler Cook, Gaughf Ivey, Harrison Stadnik and other members of the Knights' senior class still running plays on the field.
They simply didn't want it to end.
"They've won 47 games in their high school career, two state championships, one runner-up and four region titles," Deerfield head coach Allen Lowe said of the group of 15 seniors, many of whom played all four years. "What a great career they've had."
Friday, though, the reigning state champ Knights, who had gone 17-3 at home in the playoffs in the last decade under Lowe, finally met their match in Stratford. The Eagles had already beaten Deerfield, 14-10, in the second week of the regular season and used the same ground-and-pound formula to do it again in the Final Four.
"We did the same thing the first go-around," Stratford head coach Rodney Collins said. "We handled them up front pretty good."
The Eagles (11-1) will now get a rematch of their own Friday in the state title game against Tattnall Square, which beat Stratford in the regular season and advanced to the championship by downing Westfield in the other semifinal Friday.
Stratford's mammoth offensive linemen, all seniors, led the way in the fourth quarter for junior running back Austin Simmons. Leading just 26-20 with 10:18 to play, the Eagles bled the clock with a 15-play, 70-yard drive that took 9:02 off the ticker and drove the final dagger into Deerfield when Simmons scored on a 15-yard run.
"They're a tight-knit group," Collins said of his offensive line. "When it came time to burn up some clock, (they did). That's how you win that type of ball game."
Simmons ran for 187 yards on 22 carries and scored three times. Stratford rolled up 368 rushing yards and became the fourth team in the last six years to beat Deerfield twice in the same season.
"They did a great job of just knocking us off the ball," said Lowe, whose team never led but did tie the game at 20-20 in the third quarter on Daniel Cheshire's 2-yard run. "We just couldn't get the ball back (in the fourth quarter)."
Heard, Deerfield's star tailback and a Herald Dynamite Dozen selection, finished with 99 yards on 18 carries and scored on touchdown runs of nine and 14 yards in his final game. The Knights (10-3) turned the ball over three times in the first half on three Dallas Margeson interceptions, although only one resulted in Stratford points.
The Eagles' Greer Smith picked off two of the passes, scored on a 39-yard run with 3:09 to play in the third to put the Eagles ahead 26-20 and recovered an onside kick to start the second half.
Margeson was 3-of-17 passing for 75 yards, while Ke'Marvin Pitts added 60 yards rushing for the Knights, which won't play in a Class AAA title game for the first time in four years.
"Part of our problem is our standards are so high, if we don't win that last game it's a down year," Lowe said.
In Deerfield's 40-plus year history of football, Stratford is the only team that has played the Knights 15 or more times and still has a winning record (23-19), although DWS had won nine of the last 11 meetings before Friday.
"They'll be back," Collins said of the Knights. "They ain't going far off."