Before game time, a Tahlequah football enthusiast told someone, “Claremore has the best 1-5 team in the state. They’ve just had some very, very bad luck.’’
Well, the drama continued Thursday night. For the fifth time this season, Claremore lost by seven points or less, finally succumbing 21-14 to the Tigers at Lantow Field.
Youthful and with key injuries, the Zebras appeared to have momentum by the throat after taking a 14-13 lead in the third quarter. Then, Tahlequah quarterback Tyler Joice, along with the Tigers’ defense, rose up to hand the home team another narrow defeat.
Playing without running David Lazoya and quarterback Scout Cutsinger, the Zebras still seemed to have new energy after driving 66 yards in 10 plays to go ahead with 4:26 left in the third. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Etheridge completed passes of 14, 10 and 11 yards, and two major penalties against Tahlequah produced a first-and-goal at the 2.
Etheridge ran for the touchdown, and senior Hunter Wood kicked the Z’s ahead. Claremore forced the Tigers to punt on their next series and set up shop at the Tahlequah 33.
Junior Titus Ashby, who led the Zebras with 50 yards on 10 carries, ran for 3 yards, leading to fourth-and-7 at the THS 30. Then the tide turned.
Looking to pass, Etheridge was harassed by defensive tackle Aiden Glynn, a 5-foot-11, 224-pound senior. Glynn finally corralled Etheridge for a sack and 9-yard loss. At that moment, everything seemed to change for Claremore. Joice took charge of the Tigers.
Helping Tahlequah overcome 10 penalties and repeated center snaps that bounced and rolled to him, Joice guided a 61-yard, 11-play march to the Zebras’ end zone. Joice passed for 13, ran for 11 and then carried four more times for 27 yards to the nine.
Facing second-and-goal from the 11, Joice found wide receiver Race Stopp in the end zone for the winning touchdown with 6:49 remaining. Joice threw to running back Malik McMurtrey for the two extra points and a 21-14 lead.
Following the kickoff, the Zebras reached the Tigers’ 40-yard line, but Etheridge’s second down toss for Eli Rodgers, who led the Z’s with four catches for 109 yards, was intercepted by Dylan Leep with just under five minutes to play. Tahlequah ran out the clock with Joice keeping the ball on seven of nine snaps.
Joice and his 12-of-17 passing helped give the Tigers a 13-7 halftime lead. Featuring short, sideline throws to Stopp and Jacob Morrison, THS scored on drives of 59 and 64 yards.
Down 13-0, Claremore fought back by moving 78 yards in just three plays.
Sophomore Micah Teel bolted 19 yards, and his 3-yard run carried to the 44. Ethedrige followed with a 56-yard bomb to Rodgers, who caught the ball over a defender at the Tahlequah 15 and stumbled his way to score at the 4:24 mark. Wood booted the Zebras within six.
Claremore, 1-6 overall and 1-3 in District 5A-4, finished with 227 total yards. Tahlequah (5-2, 3-1) gained 267 yards.