Winning football is back in Claremore.
The 2012 Zebras took a major step forward in proving that hard work in the offseason pays large dividends in the postseason.
After suffering through back-to-back losing seasons — 4-7 in 2010 and 4-6 in 2011 — the Zebras raised the bar high in 2012 and followed the strong leadership of 16 seniors to one of the best seasons in Claremore football history.
Jordan Cunningham, who represented the heart and soul of the Zebras, led by example and keyed Claremore’s turnaround — one that saw this year’s team go 10-2, win a first-round playoff game at Lantow Field and advance to the Class 5A State Quarterfinals.
“This year’s team put Claremore football back on the map,” Zebras head coach Rob Gilbreath said. “Those games that we lost in 2011 by less than 10 points, we found a way to win this year.”
Cunningham’s warrior-like mentality on defense electrified the Zebras for a 12-week run that Gilbreath classified later on in this season as ‘special.’
Back-to-back wins over Oologah (20-13) and Miami (37-6) set up the Zebras first major test of the season — Class 5A showdown with McAlester at Lantow Field.
Despite the rainy conditions and knowing that McAlester was a 2011 state finalist, the Zebras never lost focused, but instead found the determination to knock off the Buffs in overtime.
Quarterback Matt Whatley’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Webster and Jared Vincent’s extra point conversion sparked the then Class 5A No. 8 Zebras past No. 10 McAlester, 21-20 in overtime.
Gilbreath agreed that was ‘big-time win’ for the Zebra football program.
Throughout the season, Gilbreath reiterated to his team that ‘big-time players, make big-time plays in big-time games.’
Whatley described the win over McAlester while being swarmed by his teammates and peers as ‘the greatest feeling in the world.’
“It’s definitely one of the biggest wins that we’ve had here in Claremore in a long time,” Whatley said in a previous article.
From there, the Zebras dismantled Collinsville, 34-6 in the Metro Lakes Conference opener, and tamed the Tahlequah Tigers, 23-7 on Homecoming.
Their next tough test came in a short road trip to Tulsa to face the No. 2 East Central Cardinals.
In a game of inches that was ruled a victory for the Cardinals, the Zebras gave East Central all they wanted and then some.
Though the scoreboard showed a 20-19 victory for East Central, the Zebras literally shocked the ‘Rock’ in a conference ‘classic’ that once again proved Claremore was a team to reckon with in Class 5A.
Claremore’s (Jordan) Cunningham was stopped inches away from the goal line on the Zebras’ two-point conversion run with 6 seconds remaining — thus allowing East Central to escape with the win.
“Without a doubt, kicking the extra point was never an option,” Gilbreath said after that game. “On the road, you go for two, and at home, you play for overtime.”
A team that could’ve dropped their heads and cashed in the season with that heartbreaking loss, the Zebras used as momentum to roll off five straight victories — including a 35-26 win over Tulsa Memorial in the first round of the 5A playoffs at Lantow Field.
Their leader — Whatley — used his first-ever playoff memory — a 43-0 loss to Booker T. Washington in his freshman season in 2010 — as motivation to get the Zebras a ‘huge’ win in front of the hometown crowd.
For the first time since 2005, a postseason playoff returned to the hallow grounds of Lantow Field — a place the Zebras protected in 2012 with a perfect 6-0 record.
Gilbreath agreed with his two-year starting quarterback (Whatley) that every member of the team got that win over Memorial.
“We knew going into the season, with the players we had coming back and the experience gained from those that got thrown into the fire last season, that we would be pretty good,” Gilbreath said.
To say pretty good would be an understatement. ... The 2012 Zebras were for real.
“Each week, these guys were believing that ‘It’s Our Time’,” Gilbreath said. “They’ve seen Claremore Sequoyah and Oologah bring state championships back to Rogers County, and they wanted to be the first to bring one back to Claremore.”
A key interception by junior free safety Hunter Garroutte with 2:36 remaining in the game advanced the No. 5 Zebras to the Elite Eight of Class 5A.
Thirty-two teams start out the season, and the Zebras were one of the eight still playing in November ... ‘no greater feeling’ according to Gilbreath.
In order for Claremore to reach the Final Four, they had to take down traditionally-rich Carl Albert on their turf.
Carl Albert head coach Gary Rose put the ball in the hands of his play-making quarterback Steven Thompson, and the junior signal-caller shined, reeling off 220 rushing yards en route to leading the Titans past the Zebras, 41-16.
Thompson had 196 of his 220 yards in the first half, and scored four touchdowns to end the Zebras’ miraculous journey.
Though, the Zebras didn’t get the ‘gold ball’, the future remains bright in 2013 with the return of 43 players — including 21 seniors — and three-year starting quarterback (Matt) Whatley.
Gilbreath and his Zebras may have finished No. 3 in 2012, but in 2013, they are playing to be No. 1.
Claremore football takes ‘major’ step forward in 2012
Winning football is back in Claremore.
Verdigris’ Hanslovan commits to ORU
One of the biggest decisions of her upcoming senior year is finally behind Verdigris High School soccer standout Caitlyn Hanslovan.
The four-year letterwinner and three-time Class 4A state champion forward announced Tuesday that she will commit to playing NCAA Division I soccer at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
RSU's Loy earns third-straight Academic All American honor
Rogers State senior outfielder Katrina Loy was named to the Capital One Academic All-America College Division Softball Third Team as announced by the College Sports Information Directors of America.
Area players earn All-Region baseball awards
The awards keep piling up for Verdigris High School graduate Blake Battenfield.
After being named to the Oklahoma Coaches Association All-State Large East team earlier this week, Battenfield and numerous other players from Rogers County earned OCA All-Region accolades.
Battenfield was joined by his teammate, Ryan Hurd, who was a senior outfielder/shortstop for the three-time Class 3A state champion Verdigris Cardinals.
Clyde Barkley Basketball Camp starts May 28-30 in Inola
The Clyde Barkley Boys Basketball Camp will get underway on May 28-30 at Inola High School Gymnasium.
The three-day camp will go from 9 a.m. to Noon and is offered to boys entering third through ninth grade. The cost of the camp is $55 or $100 for two campers in the same family.
Zebras Baseball/Softball Camp set for May 29-31
The Claremore Zebras baseball and softball camp will take place on May 29-31 at Powers Park.
The camp is for boys and girls ages 4-14. The cost of this camp is $60 or $90 for two campers from the same family. Team discounts are also available for seven or more players.
OU athletics pledges support to tornado relief efforts
OU Athletics officials have been advised by local relief agencies that the best way to help Oklahoma disaster victims is to text RED CROSS to 90999 to give $10 or go online to make a donation at RedCross.org.
ORU hosts "Vaulting for Moore" fundraiser
The day after a devastating tornado ripped through Moore, Okla., the Oral Roberts University Track & Field program has announced that it will host a fundraiser to help in the aid and recovery efforts. The “Vaultin’ for Moore” fundraiser will be held inside the H.A. Chapman Indoor Practice Facility on ORU’s campus on Saturday, June 1 at 1 p.m.
ORU claims 4-2 win over SFA in Southland Conference Tourney
Timely hitting and solid relief pitching carried third-seeded Oral Roberts University to a 4-2 victory over sixth-seeded Stephen F. Austin on Wednesday morning at the 2013 Southland Conference Tournament. The opening day victory books ORU (24-30) a spot in the winner’s bracket of the eight-team tournament.
Drillers pledge $10,000 toward tornado relief efforts
The Tulsa Drillers announced today that the team was donating $10,000 to the tornado relief efforts on behalf of those who were affected by this week's storms in Shawnee and Moore, Oklahoma.The donation will be made to the American Red Cross.
Whitaker ready for new role as Texas Tech coach
Candi Whitaker's introduction as Texas Tech's basketball coach was probably news to many Lady Raider fans on Wednesday.
The 33-year-old mother of one son is expecting a second in September.
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