The legendary Notre Dame head football coach Knute Rockne was best known for his motivational speech . . . “No one and I mean no one comes into our house and pushes us around.”
The Claremore Zebras take pride in protecting the home turf of Lantow Field, especially in 2012.
Friday’s 35-26 win over the Tulsa Memorial Chargers in the first round of the Class 5A State Playoffs completed Claremore’s perfect streak of six-straight wins at home.
“This win is huge,” Claremore junior quarterback Matt Whatley said.
For the first time since 2005, the Zebras came away with a home playoff win and advanced to the Class 5A State Quarterfinals against Carl Albert.
Also, the win over Tulsa Memorial extended the Zebras record to 10-1, a milestone dating back to 1994.
“The crowd tonight was crazy, nuts, awesome,” Whatley said.
For the past 11 weeks, the Zebras have played with one heartbeat — fighting through adversity and rallying around each other — in order to get to the Elite Eight.
“Every member of this team got that win tonight,” Claremore head coach Rob Gilbreath said. “We knew going into the season, with the players we had coming back and the experience gained from those that got thrown into the fire last season, that we would be pretty good.”
To say pretty good would be understatement.
The Zebras are for real and playing with a lot of confidence.
“These guys are believing that ‘It’s Our Time,’” Gilbreath said last Thursday. “They’ve seen Claremore Sequoyah and Oologah bring state championships back to Rogers County. Now, it’s time to get Claremore a gold ball.”
Claremore knew coming in that Tulsa Memorial was ‘fast and furious’ on offense. The test for Claremore’s defense, though, was winning the turnover battle and not giving up the big play.
With 2:36 remaining in the game, Claremore junior free safety Hunter Garroutte sealed the Zebras’ berth in the Elite Eight with an interception at the Claremore 10-yard line.
“I told Hunter that was the best interception I’ve seen in all my years of coaching,” Gilbreath said. “It (the interception) was the deciding factor that guaranteed us a spot in the quarterfinals and kept our season alive.”
Claremore led 7-0 with 2:23 remaining in the first quarter when senior tailback Jordan Cunningham followed the lead block of junior fullback Gage Meisinger into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown run.
On the scoring drive, Whatley orchestrated a picture-perfect fake punt at the Tulsa Memorial 45-yard line and fired a 30-yard strike to Dustin Basks on the right sideline for a first down at the Chargers’ 15-yard line.
Tulsa Memorial, however, needed only 3 plays to go 83 yards in the opening minutes of the second quarter as quarterback Keith Driver scampered in for the 2-yard touchdown run.
Out of the swinging gate formation, Driver’s two-point conversion run was put to a halt on the heavy pressure of Garroutte, who tackled the Chargers’ quarterback for a 10-yard loss.
Claremore gained a huge boost of momentum going into halftime via a little trickery.
Having already converted a fake punt, the Zebras pulled off an impressive fake field goal that resulted in Dustin Basks’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Baron Hope — who was all alone in the left corner of the end zone — to put Claremore ahead 14-6 with 1:58 remaining in the second quarter.
The Chargers, though, answered quickly and tied the game at 14-14, as Driver’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Travior Walker took 46 seconds off the clock.
“Both teams had a lot of big plays in the first half, and we were able to create some turnovers after halftime that allowed us to be successful,” Gilbreath said.
Whatley’s 1-yard touchdown run with 7:14 remaining in the third quarter put Claremore up 21-14. The scoring play was set up by the hard-nose running of Cunningham, who had 131 yards on 26 carries, and a pair of first down receptions from senior fullback James Chester.
Then, with 5:58 in the third quarter, Claremore junior cornerback Caleb Webster got the first of two second-half turnovers for the Zebras with an interception at the Tulsa Memorial 30-yard line.
One play later, Whatley found Basks open down the middle for a 30-yard touchdown that increased Claremore’s lead to 28-14.
“We don’t have that fumble early in the third quarter, “Gilbreath said. “and we’re knocking on the door to put the game away.”
Tulsa Memorial rallied with 12 points in the fourth quarter to narrow Claremore’s lead to 28-26.
However, Whatley’s elusiveness while scrambling out the pocket, allowed him to score a 20-yard touchdown that put the Zebras ahead 35-26 with 3:20 remaining in the game.