The moment Matt Wofford heard the satisfying ‘pop’ of his pitch entering catcher Trevor Janzen’s glove, he was overcome with excitement.
It signified not only strike three in this instance, but also the end of the ballgame.
The senior’s seventh strikeout served as the game-winner, sending the Zebras to their third-straight Class 5A state tournament with a 9-1 victory over McAlester in the Regional 6 championship at American Legion Park on Thursday afternoon.
Claremore (21-11) will play the winner of Regional 3, Carl Albert, in Thursday’s first round at Broken Arrow High School.
Wofford didn’t reach that climactic pitch without some adversity, though.
Still on an emotional high from his team’s offensive success in the sixth inning, Wofford struggled to gain his composure in the top of the seventh.
“I got a little too excited,” Wofford said. “I was really amped up from the eight-run inning, so I started to rush a little bit. Luckily I was able to get my composure there and keep going.”
Despite opening the inning with a strikeout, he found himself in a jam after hitting consecutive batters and allowing a single to load the bases. A pop out eased the pressure somewhat, but the threat of a comeback still loomed.
That’s when Zebras coach Jim Sherl decided to have a talk with the senior.
“He told me he really wanted me to finish this game, and I told him I did, too,” Wofford said. “Then he said, ‘I can’t keep you in here if you’re going to hit people and walk people, so get the job done.’”
Wofford took heed of that ultimatum, and when McAlester’s Cade Lott came to the plate, he was rejuvenated with confidence.
He had already struck Lott out in the fifth inning, and he knew he could do it again thanks to a keen observation.
“I had a pretty good feeling because in his previous at-bat, I threw him a 1-2 slider just like that last pitch, and he didn’t hit that one,” Wofford said.
Wofford allowed five hits and no walks in a complete-game effort. The Buffaloes’ lone run came in the second inning when Colby Squyres scored as a result of a throwing error by third baseman Brady Priess.
Jake Gilmore didn’t understand the call, but at the same time, he didn’t care.
His 2-RBI double to rightfield broke the 1-1 deadlock that persisted for 2.5 innings, giving the Zebras a 3-1 lead.
Gilmore was subsequently tagged out at second when he was shoved off the bag and to the ground by a McAlester defender.
The senior, who is in his first year playing baseball, said he was disappointed he didn’t have another chance to add to the advantage, but he took solace in knowing he got the ensuing run started.
“It was all right because we got the RBI, and that’s what we were going for,” Gilmore said. “I knew once we got started, we’d bust it open.”
Claremore piled it on from there, scoring six more runs before the Buffaloes could finally end the inning.
The Zebras, led by Cooper Dotson, tallied six of its 12 hits in that inning alone. Both of Dotson’s hits came during that frame, including a 2-RBI double that capped off the scoring spree.
Tristin Hampton and Janzen both went 3-for-4 at the plate with 2 RBIs apiece to lead the team. Noah Smallwood also tallied multiple hits, finishing with two.
“They threw a pitcher with a little less velocity, and our kids were eager and amped up,” Sherl said. “We weren’t being patient at the plate, and after we went through the lineup a couple of times, somebody came to the dugout and said, ‘We’re going to win the game right here.’
“And once the train gets going, it ain’t stopping.”