The Stratford girls tennis team’s postseason was just getting started when a couple of visitors dropped by.
It was a first-round GHSA Class A private school match, nothing unusual for a traditionally strong Stratford tennis program. It was a fine, sunny day, one that invited people to spend a little extra time outside.
Dropping by for a visit was someone who already was being pulled in plenty of directions.
Quintez Cephus was starting to get ready for life as a college football player in a Power 5 conference. Training sessions with former high-level college players like Georgia product Terrence Edwards were part of the routine. Soon, the Eagles’ basketball star turned football prospect would be heading to Wisconsin, ready to jump into Big Ten play.
But Cephus, who started playing varsity basketball for Stratford in the eighth grade when the program was still in the GISA, wasn’t ready to check out on his high school or his friends. He had friends to cheer on, friends he wanted to see succeed in a competitive match against Mount Paran Christian that took more than 90 minutes to complete.
“Being around the Stratford community, it really molded me into the person I am today, learning the way to do things,” Cephus said in an interview June 8, a few days before he left for Madison. “Coming here for middle school, then being here for high school, Stratford really showed me how to embrace your friends, your teachers and to be around as many events as you can during your years at Stratford.
“My senior year, I wanted to show people that I appreciated them, all the support they gave me during my years here. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Stratford won that match 3-1, eventually advancing to the Class A private school championship and a runner-up finish.
Cephus, meanwhile, wasn’t quite done with his athletics career at Stratford, either.
After leading Stratford to state semifinal appearances in football and basketball as a senior, he added an individual state track and field title to his resume.
He’s the 2015-16 Selby Buck Award winner, presented to the top all-around athlete in The Telegraph’s coverage area.
“When we made the move into the Georgia High School Association two years ago, I don’t think there was ever any question or doubt as to how we would do, how we would be able to stack up against that competition,” Stratford football head coach and athletics director Mark Farriba said. “There’s no question, while we had many, many athletes that really stepped up to the plate, there’s no doubt that he was the centerpiece of the whole thing in a lot of areas. He really led us into this new challenge.”
QT, the athlete
Cephus’ accomplishments as a high school athlete go on and on.
He made the Stratford basketball record book his own. The 122 games he played in were 11 more than any other Stratford player. He shattered the career scoring record, surpassing John Hilburn’s mark of 1,776 as a junior and finishing with 2,419 points. Cephus also set the single-game scoring record with a 53-point effort in the first round of the Class A private school playoffs as junior.
Other Stratford basketball records Cephus now holds include career scoring average (19.8), career field goals made (873), career field goals attempted (2,080), career 3-pointers made (249), 3-pointers attempted (726), single-game free throws made (17), career free throws made (424), single-game free throws attempted (19), career free throws attempted (637) and career assists (549).
He would have gone to Furman to play college basketball — he committed to the Paladins last summer — had it not been for an inquiry made by the Wisconsin football program.
At the time, Wisconsin’s interest seemed to be a bit odd to casual fans. Cephus had been Stratford’s quarterback as a junior. He didn’t do anything fancy under center, but he did keep a solid run game going. A move-in, Sim Patrick, gave Stratford another option at quarterback, and that freed up Cephus to line up at split end and allowed him to do more defensively, as well.
Cephus wound up with some solid numbers for a team that stressed the run and had three quality running backs. Cephus caught 42 passes for 872 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he also had six interceptions for 82 yards defensively on a team that went to the Class A private school semifinals and fell just short of an appearance in the state title game at the Georgia Dome after a remarkable two-touchdown comeback in the final minutes at Aquinas that included Cephus pouncing on an onside kick.
“It was toughest man on the field, go get the ball,” Cephus said. “Whether we’re going to have a chance to win this game or not, I just wanted to try my best to give my team a chance. I was crying my eyes out, and I just wanted the ball. Our kicker placed the ball at a perfect point to where somebody on our team could get it, and luckily I was in position to get it.”
By football playoff time, Wisconsin had the hard sell going on Cephus. Georgia Tech was interested, too. Miami came in late once Mark Richt took over as its head coach. But Cephus had connected with Wisconsin, and a heavy red-and-white parka was on display on National Signing Day when Cephus had his ceremony after faxing in his letter first thing that morning.
Less than a month after signing with Wisconsin’s football program, Cephus led Stratford to a quarterfinal basketball win over North Cobb Christian, a team that it lost to early in the season, and gave a much taller Greenforest Christian squad — a team that blew out Stratford a year earlier in the quarterfinals — a quality challenge before falling in the semifinals.
“We all bought in and had the mindset to come in and show people that we were here to stay, to make a point and put our school on the map,” Cephus said. “That was my biggest thing in high school, to get Stratford and Macon, Georgia, out there, and I think we did a great job doing that.”
QT, the booster
Cephus’ tennis match appearance wasn’t a one-time thing.
He made it a habit to drop by other teams’ events at Stratford. As much as he was a big-time athlete, he also liked hanging around school and supporting his friends and classmates.
“He did what we try to encourage so many of our athletes to do, where you have the ability to help to jump in and help,” Farriba said. “Even when he wasn’t playing on a team, he would go to softball games; he would go to soccer games. He was supportive of everybody else. He was definitely a very good model for what we’re trying to accomplish with this athletics program.
But not every game he attended as a booster was a Stratford game. Cephus gave his support to those taking part in the Miracle League, a baseball organization for those who are physically or mentally challenged.
“I have a friend who has brothers playing in the Miracle League,” Cephus said. “They’re my best friends. I try to show them as much support as I can. It takes a lot for them to do that. Nobody wants to be in that situation, but they have really shown me through all of the tough times that you can be happy and not dwell on the bad times.”
QT’s final act at Stratford
Cephus had one more thing to do athletically after leading the Eagles to the Class A private school basketball semifinals — run a little track.
Longtime Stratford track and field head coach Walt Mays had the final opportunity to coach Cephus at Stratford. They worked together on the triple jump, an event that takes some muscle memory development to do well.
As things turned out, Cephus just wasn’t competing in track for appearances. He wrapped up his senior year with a gold medal in the triple jump at the Class A private school meet, jumping 45-1 3/4 to win the event by a little more than 3 inches.
“I was given a God-given talent to jump,” Cephus said. “God gave me the talent to go out there and do so many good things. I wanted to utilize it, and Coach Mays helped me every day to get better at triple jump. It was close, but I came out on top at the state meet.
“A lot of people say (the triple jump) is hard. Coach Mays just showed it to me, and over time I just got better over the years. ... It just all came together.”
Graduation capped Cephus’ time at Stratford. Following a farewell party, he left for Wisconsin, shifting his efforts to what lay ahead at the next level.
There was little time to rest.
“I’m going to be up there in Wisconsin trying to get a spot to be on ABC Sept. 3, playing against LSU,” Cephus said. “That’s what I’ll be trying to do, trying to get my spot, helping to better the University of Wisconsin and getting to know my teammates.
“I’ve been blessed to see this day. Everything is coming around. This is the happiest I’ve been in all my years.”
Selby Buck Award winners
2016: Quintez Cephus, Stratford, football, basketball and track
2015: Justin Smith, West Laurens, football, basketball and track
2014: Shakenneth Williams, Rutland, football and basketball
2013: Tyler Ward, Tattnall Square, football and baseball
2012: Allisha Gray, Washington County, basketball
2011: Fran Johnson, FPD, softball, basketball and track and field
2010: Nick Marshall, Wilcox County, football and basketball
2009: Rashard Smith, Dublin, football and basketball; Ashley Cope, FPD, track and field, cross country and basketball
2008: DeAndre Smelter, Tattnall Square, football, baseball, basketball; Katie Maddox, FPD, softball and basketball
2007: Brett Layson, Tattnall Square, football, basketball, track; Andrea Butler, West Laurens, basketball and softball
2006: M.A. Linch, John Milledge, softball
2005: Trevor Jenkins, Stratford, football
2004: Bubba Blalock, Westfield, baseball
2003: Stephanie Smith, Northeast, track and field
2002: Chansi Stuckey, Northside, football
2001: Willie Reid, Warner Robins, football
2000: Tony Hollings, Twiggs County, football
1999: Vince Faison, Toombs County, baseball
1998: Terrence Edwards, Washington County, football
1997: Nakeitra Jones, Northeast, track and field
1996: Chris Johnson, Americus, football
1995: George Askew, Washington County, football
1994: Joey Cranford, Stratford, baseball
1993: Shenita Wilson, Northeast, track and field
1992: Junior Snead, Treutlen, football
1991: Ken Sikes, Perry, baseball
1990: Maurice Harrell, Dodge County, football
1989: Todd Mickler, Tattnall Square, football
1988: Tim Lewis, Fitzgerald, track and field
1987: Rico Whipple, Southwest, football
1986: Milt Cuyler, Southwest, baseball
1985: Kirk Warner, Bleckley County, football
1984: John Thomas, Baldwin, football
1983: Steve Boswell, Warner Robins, football
1982: Brenda Cliette, Northeast, track and field
1981: Roger Kingdom, Vienna, track and field
1980: Herschel Walker, Johnson County, football
1979: Terry Fair, Southwest, basketball
1978: Jesse Cainion, Warner Robins, football