Sports Sunday Correspondent
Except for a brief shower two hours before kickoff, the expected rains stayed away. Instead, a ray of "Sunshine" poured all over visiting Tahlequah Friday night as the Claremore Zebras opened a new football era in grand fashion.
A crowd estimated at 3,500 was on hand to watch the Zebras capture a 20-0 victory in their first game at the new $5- million Lantow Field.
Making the debut such a success was the swarming Zebra defense led by middle linebacker Ryan "Sunshine" Garrett. He served notice early by blocking a Tahlequah punt on the fourth play of the game.
Before throwing the Tahlequah quarterback for an 8-yard loss on the game's final play, the 190-pound senior also intercepted a pass and was in on 11 tackles. Three of the tackles were sacks.
Even with Garrett's performance it was not a one-man show for the Zebra defense. Tyler Butcher had 10 tackles as 11 different black-shirted Zebras brought ball carriers down to the new carpeted turf. Ten of the takedowns were for losses and seven others came at the line of scrimmage.
To put a finishing defensive touch on the game, Zebra linebacker Evan Crutchfield intercepted a Tiger pass at the 8-yard line with 2:48 left to play. He danced into the end zone untouched.
Crutchfield earlier brought the Zebra fans to their feet with his 40-yard return of the second-half kickoff.
To celebrate the opening of their new showcase stadium, the Zebra players donned their special black game jerseys. They were displayed for the first time last year at Homecoming.
Claremore improved to 2-0 while Tahlequah dropped to 0-2.
It was Claremore’s fourth victory over the Tigers in the last five years, and two have been by shutouts. Claremore owns a 24-13 edge in the series that began in 1943.
With the defense taking care of matters on its side of the field, Zebra quarterback Gavin Little paced the offense. Due mainly to runs of 51 and 40 yards, Little topped all rushers with 109 yards on 11 carries. He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Basks in the third quarter. He completed 5 of 18 passes for 60 yards with one interception.
Little's longest pass was a 28-yarder to a diving Da'kota Basks.
Jake Litterell booted field goals of 27 and 25 yards in the first half and was dead center with the two second-half conversion kicks. He claimed the honor of scoring the first points in the new stadium.
Despite given two huge opportunities in the opening half, Claremore had to settle for Litterell's six-point lead.
The Zebras had a first down at the Tahlequah 8 following Garrett's blocked punt on the opening possession. When two running attempts lost two yards and a pass failed, Litterell was called on to get his team on the scoreboard.
It was almost the same story in the second quarter. Da’kota Basks came up with his interception near midfield and returned it to the Tiger 15. Little kept for a 6-yard gain on first down, but couldn't get closer on the next two running plays.
Once again, the Zebras turned to Litterell. His 25-yarder made it 6-0 with 8:47 before halftime.
While the home team was being held to field goals, the visitors were made totally unwelcome. Held to three downs and a punt on three of their first four possessions, the Tigers were never able to get moving. Despite 14 times with the ball, Tahlequah managed to cross midfield only once. The Tigers reached the Zebra 44 on that occasion before being forced to punt.
Unable to move on the ground — only 37 yards on 30 rushing attempts — Tahlequah went to the air. Senior Dustin Knight and sophomore Collin Scarsdale teamed to hit 13 of 31 passes for 103 yards.
When Claremore scored its first touchdown in the new facility, it came in rapid fashion. The Zebras opened the second half and failed to pick up a first down the first two times they had the ball. Tahlequah did likewise.
Getting the ball for the third time and starting at their own 38, the Zebra offense suddenly got a jump start. On the second play, Little followed the blocking of Kyle Brassfield and Josh Webster and broke free for 51 yards to the Tiger 8. Before the Tigers could regroup, Little found Jordan Basks for the touchdown.
The first touchdown went into the books at 5:00 in the third quarter.
By winning their first game Friday night, the 2008 version of the Zebras made history repeat itself. Claremore beat Fairfax, 20-6, when the old Lantow Field opened at the same location in 1960.
CLAREMORE 20, TAHLEQUAH 0
Tahlequah 0 0 0 0 — 0
Claremore 3 3 7 7 — 20
Claremore — FG, Litterell 27.
Claremore — FG, Litterell 25.
Claremore — J. Basks 8 pass from Little (Litterell kick).
Claremore — Crutchfield 10 pass interception (Litterell kick).