Yes Class 5A, the Claremore Zebras are for real.
For the first time in years, the Zebras are 5-0 and opening eyes around the state of Oklahoma.
“It’s exciting,” Claremore sophomore defensive back Dustin Basks said on the magnificent start to the 2012 season.
On Homecoming, the Zebras rode their defense to a 23-7 win over Tahlequah before a packed house at Lantow Field.
“Thank God for defense,” Claremore head coach Rob Gilbreath said. “We forced five turnovers and contained a very, very good running back in (Mason) McMillan.”
The welcome return of senior defensive tackle Grady Caton — who has been battling injuries — turned into a blessing in disguise for Claremore.
“I have been down on Grady (Caton) lately, but tonight he played like a champion,” Claremore defensive coordinator Jarrett Hurt told the players at midfield following the win.
The constant pressure that Caton applied on Tahlequah quarterback David Dick proved that he’s back and tenacious as ever.
Claremore’s main focus coming into Friday’s battle with Tahlequah was to hold Tigers running back Mason McMillan under 200 yards.
McMillan and the Tigers rushing attack carried 25 times for 64 yards.
Mission accomplished for the Zebras defense.
“Our defense played spectacular,” Gilbreath said. “We had four three-and-outs to start the game and that was big for us.”
A week ago in Tahlequah’s 35-20 win over Grove, McMillan rushed for 225 yards on 26 carries with a pair of touchdowns.
Gilbreath said earlier in the week that if McMillan got 200 yards on the Zebras, it could be a long night.
The relentless pursuit of Claremore’s fierce linebacking corp, led by senior Jordan Cunningham and sophomore Baron Hope, kept McMillan contained to the inside and unable to break free.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Zebras took an advantage of good field position following Basks’ first of three interceptions.
With 4:01 remaining in the second quarter, Claremore quarterback Matt Whatley faked the handoff to Cunningham and rolled to his left on the bootleg for the 4-yard touchdown. Jared Vincent’s extra point failed and the Zebras led 6-0.
“(Matt) Whatley’s been working hard on getting his speed back, and tonight, he used his legs to make some big plays for us,” Gilbreath said. “He’s at his best when he’s scrambling out of the pocket.”
On the ensuing drive, Tahlequah answered with Dick connecting on a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Eisensmith to put the Tigers ahead 7-6 with 54.6 seconds left until halftime.
“We had some mishaps on special teams early in the game, and that’s not like us,” Gilbreath said. “Our kickoff return coverage has got to get better, especially with East Central coming up on Friday.”
Claremore’s ability to score quick turned the momentum into its favor in a span of 30 seconds.
Tyler Cagle’s onside kick recovery at midfield, combined with Whatley’s gritty running led to Claremore capping off a 5-play, 52-yard scoring drive.
With 22 seconds left in the second quarter, Whatley once again rolled to his left and spotted junior wide receiver Caleb Webster open in the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown that put Claremore ahead 12-7 at halftime.
In the second half, Claremore intercepted three passes — two by Basks and one by Webster — got a fumble recovery by Brycen Short and a blocked punt by Nathan Lollis.
Short’s 2-yard touchdown run with 6:31 left in the third quarter extended Claremore’s lead to 18-7.
Then, with 2:12 left in the third quarter, Vincent booted a 20-yard field goal to make it 21-7.
After Vincent’s kick off pinned Tahlequah inside its own 3-yard line, Lollis rose to the occasion on special teams. With 1:48 remaining in the third quarter, Lollis blocked the punt for a safety that put Claremore up 23-7.
Zebras QB Whatley takes charge in 23-7 homecoming win over Tahlequah
Yes Class 5A, the Claremore Zebras are for real.
District champions ... Enough said!
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