Claremore’s season wasn’t supposed to end this early.
Heading into the 2019 campaign, much hype surrounded the Zebras program, and for good reason.
Although not a traditional power in Class 5A, Claremore returned some of the state’s top skill-position players in Division I commits Jace Hightower (Air Force) and Quentin Skinner (Kansas), and that isn’t even including eventual leading receiver Dylan Kedzior and veteran quarterback Charlie Murdock.
The Zebras seemed primed to make it all the way to the semifinals for the first time since 1987.
Claremore’s preseason rankings reflected that, for it landed as high as No. 5 in the OKPreps.com poll and No. 7 in the AP poll.
After a 40-28 win over Bartlesville in the season opener, the Zebras vaulted four spots to No. 3 in the AP rankings.
However, Claremore was out of the top 10 by Week 5 and didn’t return until a 21-14 upset victory over then-No. 3 Tahlequah put it at No. 10 entering the playoffs.
A major reason for the unsuspected letdown was the Zebras’ youth on the defensive line. Claremore graduated four of its five starters from the 2018 group.
The Zebras gave up 300.7 yards rushing to teams with winning records and were outscored 227-171 in the process.
The most devastating of those losses came against McAlester in the first round of the playoffs on Nov. 15.
En route to a 49-28 victory, the Buffaloes rushed for 431 yards and seven touchdowns, with three runners finishing with more than 100 yards.
Of course, it also didn’t help that two-way starters Hightower and Skinner both missed time with untimely injuries.
Hightower sat two games, one for a dislocated elbow and another for a hip injury. Skinner wasn’t as fortunate, missing seven games after tearing his left ACL against Collinsville in Week 4.
No team desires a 6-5 finish, but the record isn’t as bad as it looks.
Claremore was maybe just a few plays away from finishing 8-3. If the Zebras had a little more luck on their side against Collinsville and Skiatook, they could’ve easily won those games.
Against the Cardinals, a fourth-down touchdown pass was the difference in a 28-20 loss. Against the Bulldogs, it was a tipped pass turned into a 60-yard gain that later resulted in a score for a 34-27 decision.
Unfortunately, we can’t retroactively erase plays like those.
What we can do, though, is focus on the many positives the Zebras experienced.
With Claremore’s football season in the books, let’s look at some of the highlights from 2019.
With stars Hightower and Skinner both missing action, the Zebras needed some new faces to fill those slots.
Enter DeShawn Kinnard and Brooks Sherl.
Kinnard stepped up in more ways than one, seeing time at running back and wide receiver throughout the season.
The junior debuted against Bartlesville, rushing for 92 yards on 20 carries while also snagging four receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown.
A 33-yard run from him in the fourth quarter on third down helped stave off the Bruins’ second-half rally.
However, his biggest game came against Tahlequah in Week 10. Kinnard rushed for 129 yards on 27 carries in the seven-point win.
In his best performance receiving wise, he caught only two passes but scored on both, finishing with 103 yards (51.5 yards per catch) in a 56-6 win over Memorial on Oct. 17.
In all, he finished with 530 yards receiving and eight touchdowns on 35 receptions while also rushing for 321 yards on 67 touches.
Sherl took advantage of his opportunity as well, recording 328 yards receiving and four touchdowns on 26 receptions.
His five-catch, 88-yard outing against McAlester was a season-best, but the junior set himself up to be a to-go receiver next season long before that.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Nothing is better than beating your rival with a playoff spot on the line.
Claremore did just that when it defeated Pryor, 45-26, in the Battle of Highway 20 on Nov. 1 to clinch the program’s fourth-straight postseason berth.
Kedzior started the mind games early on Senior Night with the witty favorite high school memory of ‘Beating Pryor tonight’ despite the game having not been played yet, and the Zebras never looked back.
Kedzior caught four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the win, and the defense—despite allowing 20 points and 251 yards total — 146 rushing, 104 passing — in the first half, bowed up and held the Tigers to six points and 136 yards, including only 12 yards rushing, in the second half.
It was perhaps Claremore’s best overall performance of the season against a team with a winning record.
Pryor was seemingly eliminated from playoff contention with the loss, but the Zebras showed their rival mercy by helping it clinch a spot by defeating Tahlequah the following week (more on that game below).
Had Tahlequah defeated Claremore, Pryor would’ve been eliminated in favor of Skiatook.
Of course, Kedzior didn’t let Pryor forget that fact.
“You’re welcome, Pryor,” the senior tweeted after the Zebras took down Tahlequah on Nov. 8.
Surprises are often hard to pinpoint, but the Zebras’ upset of then-No. 3 Tahlequah in Week 10 was shocking to many.
The Tigers, playing at home, entered the game with a 9-0 record as Class 5A’s only unbeaten team.
However, Tahlequah never led as Claremore opened the second half with 14 unanswered points to break a 7-7 tie on the way to a 21-14 win.
Having already wrapped up the district title, the Tigers’ playoff seed wasn’t affected.
Regardless, it sent shockwaves around the state heading into the postseason.
Tahlequah’s starting quarterback Tate Christian left the game with an injury in the second quarter, and the Tigers never could overcome his absence, falling to Coweta, 42-21, in the playoffs the next week.
With that, all four District 5A-4 qualifiers (Tahlequah, Collinsville, Claremore and Pryor) were eliminated in the first round.