Claremore head baseball coach Brent Payne noted in all his years of coaching, getting to the state tournament has never been easy.
And, once again, that was the case Friday afternoon at Legendary Legion Field.
Payne’s No. 1-ranked Claremore Zebras had to ‘gut out’ a pair of wins over McAlester and Skiatook to keep their season alive.
A seventh-inning rally — aided by the base-stealing of senior outfielder Brandon Varnell — helped Claremore eliminate McAlester, 2-1 in Game 2 of the Class 5A Regional Tournament.
McAlester dropped Game 1 to Skiatook, 3-0; leaving the Buffs in a must-win situation with the Zebras.
Claremore rode a 1-0 lead over McAlester until the bottom of the fourth inning.
Senior pitcher Dalton Clifton kept McAlester scoreless and without a hit through the first three innings. In the bottom of the fourth, though, Brandon Green’s RBI-single to left field allowed McAlester pitcher Dalton Wood to score and tie the game at 1-1.
Claremore took the 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning on Varnell’s RBI-single that plated Tyler Cagle.
Both Clifton and McAlester’s Wood dueled it out on the mound for six strong innings, until Claremore tallied the game-winning run in the top of the seventh.
Varnell reached first in the seventh on a fielding error and then stole second and third base, giving Claremore an opportunity to go ahead and put the pressure on McAlester.
T.J. Wood, who had a double in the first inning and went 1-for-4 at the plate, scored Varnell with a 6-3 sacrifice groundout to put Claremore ahead, 2-1.
In the bottom of the seventh, Claremore coach (Brent) Payne pulled Clifton and called on junior right-handed pitcher Bryce Howe to secure the win.
Howe struck out McAlester’s first two batters and walked Zach Baugh. Next batter up, Dalton Wood advanced Baugh with a single to center field to put runners on first and second base with two outs.
With the tying run on second base, Howe needed only three pitches to get the final out — a strikeout to McAlester first baseman Wyatt Beshears — and eliminate the Buffs.
Clifton notched the win over McAlester, tossing six innings with one earned run, six strikeouts, three walks and four hits allowed.
The win over McAlester improved Claremore’s record to 27-4 and gave the Zebras momentum heading into the night-cap against Metro Lakes Conference rival — Skiatook.
Coming out in Game 3, the Zebras took a 1-0 lead and then tallied two runs in the top of the fifth inning to hold off Skiatook, 3-1.
Claremore senior left-handed pitcher Jacob Teague improved to 8-1 on the season, holding Skiatook to one run on three hits.
Claremore got on the board early with Howe driving in Teague on an RBI-single to center field. Teague reached first on the walk, moved to second on a balk and scored on Howe’s base hit to put Claremore up 1-0.
Skiatook, however, evened the score at 1-1 in the bottom half of the first.
After four scoreless innings, Claremore applied pressure in the top of the fifth. Varnell led off with an infield single and junior catcher Matt Whatley reached first on the hit by pitch.
Next batter up, T.J. Wood advanced the runners to second and third on the sacrifice bunt and then Teague plated Varnell on a single.
Howe secured the win with an RBI-double that scored Whatley and put Claremore ahead, 3-1.
Claremore finished with three runs on six hits to move one step closer to punching a ticket in this week’s Class 5A State Tournament at Edmond Santa Fe.
Skiatook, on Saturday, had to beat Claremore twice in order to keep its season alive.
With the win, the Zebras extended their season record to 28-4.
Note: The Zebras reached the Class 5A State Finals in 2012.