Jarrett Hurt didn’t need to give his players a pep talk.
Although East Central was driving within Claremore territory with a chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, all the defense needed for inspiration was the knowledge that if the Cardinals couldn’t score, they wouldn’t win.
And despite getting the ball to the Zebra 29 and 31-yard lines on consecutive drives with less than six minutes remaining, they didn’t.
Claremore recovered a fumble and forced two turnovers on downs on East Central’s final three possessions, overcoming three fourth-quarter giveaways and an onside kick recovery to secure a 36-28 victory in the Class 5A playoffs play-in round Friday night at Lantow Field.
“We’re really proud of our defense for bailing us out late in the game,” fifth-year coach Hurt said. “We had some costly turnovers on offense and then gave up an onside kick, but our defense stood strong, bowed their back and sealed the win for us. Those guys just go out there to put the fire out. They go out there to get a stop. They don’t really care what the circumstance is, their job is to go out there and get a stop each time they go out there. That was their mentality – keep on getting stops.
“Our defense rose to the occasion and got us our third playoff win in five years.”
In addition to that feat, it was also Claremore’s first time hosting a playoff game since 2012 when Hurt was the defensive coordinator and the team finished 10-2 after a 9-1 regular season.
The Zebras’ previous five playoff appearances – 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 – were all on the road. With that in mind, Hurt and the coaching staff made sure this week’s theme honored the accomplishment.
“We hadn’t hosted a playoff game in eight years, so our theme for the week was ‘Our House’,” Hurt said. “We hammered that all week long about how important it was to be able to play at home in the playoffs and how grateful we were to get to host a playoff game. We’re just really excited for our senior kids. They got to host a home playoff game, and they secured for themselves a winning season and a playoff berth – that’s the fifth time in a row we’ve had a winning season and the fifth year in a row that we’ve made the playoffs.”
The wackiness of the fourth quarter started when Claremore lost a fumble at the Cardinal 9-yard line. That sequence ignited a turnover bargain sale that saw three takeaways in 55 seconds of game time.
East Central immediately lost possession with a fumble of its own the next play, but two snaps later, William McGuire intercepted Zebras quarterback Scout Cutsinger in the end zone and returned it about 105 yards for a touchdown to make it an eight-point game with 8:44 remaining.
That wasn’t the only time McGuire hurt Claremore, though.
In addition to his momentous pick-six, the senior caught eight passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 27 yards on three carries in a losing effort.
His touchdown catches of 65 and 68 yards helped East Central vanquish an early 12-0 deficit to take a 14-12 lead with 9:54 remaining in the first half.
Hurt said he expected nothing less from the three-star receiver who has received interest from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Arkansas State and North Texas though no offers have been made.
“We told our kicker and our punter to not kick it to him or punt him the ball,” Hurt said. “And we had him double teamed most of the night with a guy underneath and a guy over the top, but he’s a phenomenal player with outstanding speed. He made some outstanding plays tonight, and I think he showed everybody of what he’s capable of doing and that he can definitely play at the next level.”
The Cardinals recovered an onside kick moments after McGuire’s turnover-turned-touchdown, but it didn’t lead to any points. They had one more opportunity to tie it up thanks to another Claremore fumble with 1:37 remaining, but quarterback Cunu Fields' desperate last-second fourth-down heave from the Zebra 31 fell incomplete.
Fields completed 11 of 33 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns with an interception while Mike Lee led East Central on the ground with 109 yards rushing on 16 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown dash on the first play of the second half that trimmed the Claremore lead to 33-21.
Of course, the Zebras had their fair share of impressive performances as well.
Brooks Sherl’s breakout season continued Friday night, for he caught six passes for 125 yards, rushed for a 21-yard touchdown and completed a reverse pass to Carson Young on the first drive of the game.
He was the favorite target for Cutsinger, who threw for 189 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-20 passing. The sophomore quarterback’s 10-yard scoring strike to BK Seago with 5:47 remaining in the second quarter gave Claremore the lead for good at 18-14 and sparked a 21-0 run that made the halftime spread 33-14.
Sherl also nearly had two punt-return touchdowns, but he was called down at the 1-yard line on the first, and the second – on which he reached the end zone – was negated because of a personal foul penalty that resulted in the ejection of a Zebra player. The first opportunity came seconds after a safety.
Unfortunately for Claremore, that wasn’t the only touchdown called back.
Teagan Panther’s 23-yard interception return in the second frame was voided thanks to a holding penalty. Running back Demetrice Coronado made up for the blunder, though, scoring moments later on a 3-yard run to increase the advantage to 24-14 at the 2:26 mark.
Coronado tallied 160 yards on 36 carries, scoring on runs of 19, 3 and 2 yards.
“Brooks and Demetrice have really come on strong here late in the year and have carried us on offense,” Hurt said. “Brooks has made some outstanding plays the past three weeks, and Demetrice continues to go over the 100-yard mark and continues to show us he can carry the load with several carries a night. We’re really proud of both those guys and the effort they’re putting forth for the plays they’re making right now down the stretch.”
Claremore advances to play at No. 3 Coweta next week in a rematch of an Aug. 21 preseason scrimmage. The Tigers won the half-game 28-0, but Hurt said the Zebras are a “totally different team” than they were three months ago.
“Our guys have continued to develop and get better each and every week, so we’re excited about the opportunity to go to Coweta and show that we are a whole lot better now than we were in our first scrimmage over there that night,” Hurt said. “We had a difficult time even getting a snap on offense that night, so we’ve definitely improved, and we’re looking forward to showing that Friday night.
“We’re tickled to death to be able to be moving on to the second round against a very good Coweta team.”