Claremore’s true postseason push begins now.
With the playoffs less than a month away, the Zebras are entering the first of a three-round gauntlet on Friday night when they host Skiatook at Lantow Field.
Collinsville, Pryor and Claremore are locked in a three-way tie for second place in District 5A-4, and the Bulldogs are one game back.
With Pryor and undefeated Tahlequah on deck to close the regular season, this game is about as close as one can get to a must-win situation.
A loss wouldn’t mean the end for the Zebras, but controlling their own destiny would certainly be the ideal option.
A loss mixed in with some chaos could be disastrous for coach Jarrett Hurt’s squad.
A win would essentially eliminate one of Claremore’s biggest rivals from playoff contention.
“We feel like we have a chance to punch our ticket to the playoffs (tonight),” Hurt said. “We just assume punch it right here in Game 8 and be able to play for bigger things down the road.
“Skiatook has to win the game to get into the playoffs. We don’t necessarily have to win this one, but we want to punch our ticket to the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.”
Hot off a three-week stretch in which they outmatched district bottom-dwellers East Central, Will Rogers and Memorial by a combined score of 173-27, the Zebras are raring to play some tougher competition.
Hence the team’s theme of the week — ‘I wanna rock’.
“We’re ready to get after it,” Hurt said. “We’re ready to play a game that matters. That’s what ‘I wanna rock’ means. The guys are hungry, and I think they are ready to play a game that means something. We’ve had a great week of practice, one of the best weeks we’ve had in a long time.
“We emphasized working on us the last three weeks and getting better as we go along, and we feel pretty good about where we are right now. Hopefully that will show up on the field (tonight).”
Scoring that much this week won’t be easy, though.
Skiatook allows only 16.9 points per game and is coming off consecutive shutout victories over Memorial (43-0) and Will Rogers (40-0).
“Skiatook is a typical Skiatook team,” Hurt said. “They play great defense, and I told our guys the last three years we’ve scored 16 points, 14 points and 17 points against them. They’re very stingy on defense, and it’s hard to score on them.”
However, the biggest question mark facing Claremore is its run defense.
It has given up less than 100 yards total on the ground the past two weeks, but that is to be expected given the competition.
In losses to Sapulpa, Edison and Collinsville, the Zebras surrendered 1,112 yards rushing on 137 carries — a whopping 8.1 yards per touch.
Through seven games, Skiatook is averaging 198.1 yards rushing per game and 6.2 yards per carry.
That success could be the Bulldogs’ recipe for victory, but Hurt said he believes his young defensive line has developed significantly since the Collinsville loss on Sept. 27.
The Cardinals racked up 341 yards rushing in that game.
“Our defensive line has come along how we hoped it would,” Hurt said. “Our defensive ends — Tyler Freeman and Thomas Mason — continue to play at a high, high level. We have a rotation at the defensive tackles, but those guys are doing a super job down in the trenches.”
Jayden Garner, Mason Willingham and Reece Womack are three players who will be looking to prove the contrary.
The trio is responsible for 1,009 of Skiatook’s 1,387 yards rushing this season, tallying 10 touchdowns in the process.
Womack leads the way with 387 yards, but Garner is close behind with 342 yards, and Willingham has 280 yards.
Together, the three-headed rushing attack averages about 10.2 yards per carry.
Womack handles most of the running back duties, while Willingham quarterbacks the offense and Garner manages a slew of responsibilities as a utility player.
“(Garner) can beat you by himself if you let him,” Hurt said. “He’s a wide receiver, but they’ll use him at running back, and they’ll line him up at quarterback at times. He’s also a defensive back, and he’s the punt and kickoff returner. He’s got our attention.
“Mason Willingham is a freshman at the quarterback position, but he’s doing an outstanding job. He can beat you with his feet and his arm. He can run the ball extremely well — he’s a fast, fast kid.”
Although the Zebras have a 68-percent chance of winning according to the Massey Ratings, Hurt and his coaching staff aren’t looking ahead to possible playoff matchups quite yet.
“We’re looking at the Skiatook Bulldogs,” Hurt said. “They have our complete and total focus because they’re a good football program.”