CLAREMORE — One team. One dream. Eight seniors.
When Claremore head basketball coach Tim Stewart looks into the eyes of his seniors, he sees determination, desire and toughness.
Stewart, in his third year as the Zebras head coach, inherited a group of young men that believe in doing things right and putting the ‘TEAM’ before individual glory.
“They are a special group of guys. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the heartbeat of these seniors,” Stewart said.
Whether it’s Ben James hitting a game-winning shot or Dylan Jordan raising the roof on Senior Night with his tenacious slam dunk, each player has contributed to the success of the Zebras’ current march toward the Class 5A state championship.
“Chemistry is our biggest asset,” Stewart said. “We’re better than any one individual on the team. It doesn’t matter who makes the play or scores the next point, these guys are cheering for their teammates.”
Stewart said the turning point in the Zebras’ historic season came via a loss to Booker T. Washington in the Regional Championship at the Frank Mobra Field House.
“Hosting the regional was a big reward for our kids. We had a tremendous crowd and great energy,” Stewart added. “I think the loss got us refocused and upset the boys. Booker T. showed us things that we haven’t seen and really opened our eyes.”
The painful setback paid off as the Zebras learned a valuable lesson to not take anyone lightly and play 32 minutes for the last 32 minutes of their high school career.
“We told them after Booker T. that the loss hurts, but it’s how you bounce back that matters,” Stewart said.
Since that loss to Booker T. Washington, the Zebras have rolled off two straight victories, including Saturday’s 83-68 state-clinching victory over No. 2 Tulsa Edison.
“We just played two of the toughest games of our season, and our depth ended up being a huge blessing,” Stewart said. “Never in my coaching career, did I think I would be part of two games where 141 total free throws were shot.”
One free throw or a 100 shots from the charity stripe, it doesn’t matter because the Zebras are back in the 5A state tournament for the first time since 1995.
“It’s ecstatic around here,” Stewart said on the atmosphere surrounding the Zebra locker room. “These kids are excited and have everyones attention in the state of Oklahoma.”
The next team standing in the way of the Zebras’ quest toward dominance is No. 8 El Reno, who is 18-8 on the year and 2009 state quarterfinalist.
The Zebras (24-2) tangle with El Reno at 3:30 p.m. today in the quarterfinals of the 5A state tournament held at the Mabee Center on the Oral Roberts University campus in Tulsa.
“El Reno is a blue-collar team with not a whole lot of size. Their biggest player is probably 6-1, so we’re hoping that (Dakota) Caudill can have a big game down low,” Stewart said.
“I told the guys that El Reno is in the state tournament which says enough.”
In order to attack El Reno, Stewart believes in playing fast-paced.
“These seniors only know one speed,” Stewart said. “They like to run-and-gun.”
And, it’s that up-tempo approach that has the Zebras averaging 76 points per game.
When asked to describe each one of the eight seniors, Stewart almost got teary-eyed and choked up because he’s not ready to see this group walk off the court one last time.
“They’ve been fun to coach and it’s because of their parents support that makes these eight players special,” Stewart said.
The Zebras suit up 17 players, but it’s the eight seniors that have taken Claremore basketball to a higher level.
The seniors that represent the ‘heart and soul’ of Claremore are: Dakota Beller, Robert Boyles, Nathan Breshears, Ben James, Dylan Jordan, Taylor Shisler, Michael Skimbo and Tanner Severson.
* Dakota Beller
“One of the best pure 3-point shooters I’ve ever coached,” Stewart said.
* Robert Boyles
“One of the biggest hearted kids you’ll ever meet,” Stewart said.
* Nathan Breshears
“Nathan is the perfect role player, who has a great attitude and the guy behind the scenes that has made the team what it is,” Stewart said.
* Ben James
“Ben is a free spirit that we never know what he’s going to do next,” Stewart said. “Every game he keeps proving that he can make big plays.”
* Dylan Jordan
“Dylan is quiet and has no ego. He’ll do whatever he can do to make the team better,” Stewart said.
* Taylor Shisler
“Taylor is cat-quick and the best defensive player I’ve ever coached,” Stewart said.
* Michael Skimbo
“Michael is a character and has great character,” Stewart said. “His greatest compliment to this team is being able to make clutch shots.”
* Tanner Severson
“Tanner is solid as a rock and another one of those players blessed with great character,” Stewart said.
The measure of the Zebras’ heart beats eight seniors per second.