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.