SNYDER — More than three months ago, Kevin Hoffman stood on the field at Lexington after his Mart team suffered a two-point loss to start the season. The message of hope and direction he delivered back in the warmth of September took one step closer to becoming reality on a chilly December night in Snyder after the Panthers defeated Stratford, 33-13, to advance to the program’s first state championship game since 2012.

“We talked a lot about going 12-0 last year and then lose in the playoffs,” the Mart head football coach said. “This year we started off with a loss. I told the kids on that field that we’re going to flip the script this year. We lost the first game and we’re going to win the rest. Hopefully it comes true. We’re in it. We’ve got a chance. We’ll be there and play hard and see what happens.”

As the fans streamed onto the field and hugged the Panther players, the cheers escalated when the trophy was presented to Mart at midfield. And as the celebration continued with the players and the Mart community, Hoffman and his coaching staff celebrated the Panthers’ berth into the state title game.

“This is such a big deal,” Hoffman said. “We worked hard to get to this point. ... These kids are getting to reap the benefits of working hard. Coach Steve Burrow on my staff, I’ve been on his staff before, he’s been coaching for 29 years and he’s finally going to get to play for his first state championship. Coach (Shane) Martin has been to the semifinals. Now he gets to play for the state championship. For those kids and our community, our coaching staff, my wife, the coaches’ wives, all the coaches in our district that have helped in different ways, thank you all. We’ve got a shot.”

It wasn’t a great start for the Panthers, as Mart was held scoreless for the entire first quarter. While the offense struggled to find some momentum as the Stratford defense kept the Panthers’ speed contained, Mart’s defense stepped up to keep the Elks off the board as well.

Stratford made it down to the Mart 36-yard line off a series of nine straight runs. Panther head coach Kevin Hoffman said before the game that, for his team to have success, the Mart defense had to force Stratford quarterback Kade McBryde to throw the football.

McBryde finally threw the ball on the 10th play of the drive and it fell incomplete. That set up 3rd-and-11 for the Elks, and Shatydrick Bailey came up huge for the Panthers as he sacked McBryde for a loss of eight to force a punt.

As the first quarter wound down, it seemed as if Mart would have to punt for the second straight drive. The Panthers did punt, actually, but a flag was thrown for roughing the punter which gave Mart an automatic first down after facing 4th and 24.

Five plays after Mart’s drive was kept alive with the penalty against Stratford, Jace Terry carried it two yards into the end zone for the touchdown to give the Panthers a 6-0 advantage.

Mart’s defense used that score as momentum. The Panthers forced the Elks to back-to-back 3-and-outs. In between those defensive stops, it took the Mart offense only one play to find the end zone.

As Terry dropped back in the backfield, Zamar Kirven torched his defenders and hauled in a 42-yard touchdown reception.

Stratford threatened to score late in the second quarter as a 23-yard completion by McBryde to Bronc Hodges put the Elks on the Panther 15-yard line. The following play, though, Terry intercepted the ball in the end zone to end any chances of Stratford scoring before the break.

Mart started the second half well defensively. Stratford opened the third quarter with the ball but, after Daniel DeCasas was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on third down, the Elks decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 38-yard line.

Cooper Baize came up with a huge sack to drop McBryde for a loss of nine which gave the ball to Mart. The Panthers needed only three plays before Terry kept it for the nine-yard touchdown.

After that, though, it was all Stratford. The Elks scored for the first time on the night with four minutes to play and then again with just over nine minutes left in the game. The Elks had all the momentum at that point as they had just cut Mart’s lead to six.

“There was a radio deal and they talked about punching us in the mouth and we may not like it,” Hoffman said. “Does anybody like getting punched in the mouth? Our kids staff tough. They punched us in the mouth. We kept coming back and punched them in the mouth a few times ourselves. Hats off to our team. We kept fighting and playing even when they cut the lead to six.”

Mart faced 3rd and 11 from its own 44 yard line when Terry chunked up a pass that fell incomplete. The Panthers’ drive was still alive, however, after the referees called defensive pass interference. Three plays later, Terry kept it up the middle for a 35-yard touchdown.

That had Mart up by 14, but the Stratford offense wasn’t giving up. A solid kick return by Bronc Hodges put the Elks in the red zone. But two plays later, McBryde fumbled the football, and Mart’s Kyler Martin scooped it up and took it 88-yards for the touchdown.

“We had a two touchdown lead,” Hoffman said. “We knew the clock was running and we were trying to milk that clock as much as we could. When the ball popped out of there we were yelling ‘Fumble’ and we scooped it up. He was running down the sidelines and a coach from upstairs was yelling, ‘There’s no flags.’ To take a three touchdown lead there with five or six minutes to go, that’s a big deal. That’s the one that sealed it.”

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