MCALESTER — It was just the break Claremore needed.
Moments after a 12-yard shanked punt gave McAlester possession at the Zebras’ 32-yard line, linebacker Ethan Grimett recovered a fumble by Buffaloes quarterback Chris Hilton to keep it a one-possession game.
Three plays later, Charlie Murdock connected with a wide-open Dylan Kedzior for a 35-yard touchdown strike, evening the score at 14 with 10:37 remaining in the third quarter.
However, Hilton didn’t let that giveaway—his second—hinder his takeover ability.
The senior more than atoned for his turnovers, helping McAlester outscore Claremore by 21 points the rest of the way for a 49-28 win in the first round of the Class 5A state tournament at First National Field in Hook Eales Stadium on Friday night.
McAlester ended Claremore’s season at 6-5 and will visit No. 1 Carl Albert in the quarterfinals next week.
Hilton finished with 174 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 20 carries, leading a punishing rush attack that notched 431 yards—278 in the second half—with three Buffaloes eclipsing the century mark.
He also completed 8 of 9 passes for 86 yards. His only misfire was an interception to Dylan Kedzior in the first quarter.
In all, McAlester accumulated 517 yards.
Hayden Franks rumbled for 137 yards and a score on 16 carries, while Layne Jarrett went for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 15 touches.
In contrast, Claremore managed only 23 yards rushing on 13 carries. Murdock led the Zebras with 13 yards on eight carries, scoring on a 1-yard keeper with 3:20 remaining to bring his team back within 21 points.
Claremore allowed 300.7 yards rushing per game to teams above .500 this season.
“They were able to run the ball effectively,” Claremore coach Jarrett Hurt said. “We had a hard time stopping the run, and we weren’t able to run the ball very well tonight.”
Hilton’s second rushing touchdown regained the lead for McAlester at 21-14, but Murdock responded quickly, finding Kedzior again for a 55-yard touchdown toss to tie it up once more with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
Kedzior had five receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns. DeShawn Kinnard recorded a receiving touchdown as well, finishing with 71 yards on five receptions.
Elsewhere, Brooks Sherl attained five catches for 88 yards.
Despite the seemingly constant scoring exchanges, Murdock, who threw for 276 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions on 18-of-37 passing, said he felt things were tilting in the Zebras’ favor at that point.
“I thought we were really gaining the momentum and oh so close to taking control of the game,” Murdock said.
The Buffaloes had other ideas.
McAlester answered with 28 unanswered points—21 in the fourth quarter—over the next 9 minutes, 13 seconds on runs of 33 (Hilton), 3 (Hilton), 26 (Franks) and 12 yards (Jarrett), forcing an interception and a turnover on downs in the process to put Claremore in a 49-21 hole with 5:32 remaining.
With the deficit growing so quickly, the Zebras had no choice but to abandon their game plan and resort to forcing the ball down the field via deep throws and trick plays.
Claremore did successfully convert a double-reverse pass from Noah Smallwood to Zack Zeidan for 43 yards to the Buffaloes’ 13 late in the second quarter, but the drive ended with an interception in the end zone on fourth-and-35 following three-straight penalties.
That catch was Zeidan’s first of the season.
“We got behind on the scoreboard and had to do things out of desperation,” Hurt said. “We got ourselves in a deeper hole, and tip your hat to them. They have a great football team.”
The Zebras must now reload and replace a senior class of 25 players, including their leading passer (Murdock), rusher (Jace Hightower) and receiver (Kedzior).
Murdock closed his senior year completing 160 of 271 passes for 2,291 yards and 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Meanwhile, Hightower rushed for 737 yards and 12 touchdowns on 120 carries, and Kedzior tallied 57 receptions for 937 yards and 14 touchdowns.
This successful group of seniors was the first to qualify for the playoffs all four years since the Class of 2005.
“That’s an outstanding group of kids and athletes,” Hurt said. “I’m really going to miss them. They got our program back on the map. Coach (Lucious) Selmon challenged them to be a culture-changing class, and they’ve done that. They’ve had four-straight winning seasons, and they’ve been to the quarterfinals twice.
“I’m so thankful for what they’ve done for this program.”