Nov. 11—Editor's Note: Stay tuned for sports editor Kevin Green's full in-depth story with thoughts from coach Jarrett Hurt and Zane Hepler.
Call them the "Cardiac Zebras".
Claremore has earned that moniker after yet another close victory, this one a thrilling 48-47 decision over Sapulpa in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs Friday night at Lantow Field. The Zebras are now 3-1 in one-point games this season, having defeated Bartlesville (28-27), Pryor (33-32) and now the Chieftains by the slimmest of margins while coming up short against only Bishop Kelley (42-41).
Claremore (10-1) has now reached double-digit wins for the first time since 2012, but coach Jarrett Hurt said his team will have more to prove when it heads to Southwest Oklahoma for a showdown against No. 4 Elgin in the quarterfinals next Friday night.
The Owls (11-0) feature one of the state's most complete units with an offense that averages 49 points per game and a defense that has surrendered only 71 points all season (6.5 PPG).
Here are four takeaways from the sixth-ranked Zebras' home win over Sapulpa, which sends them to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2018:
Player of the Game: Zane Hepler. In a game where every point mattered, Hepler's flawless kicking performance played a decisive role.
Moments after quarterback Braxton Etheridge and Gage Deckard connected for the game's first touchdown on a 13-yard pass early in the first quarter, Hepler strategically executed an onside kick, recovering the ball himself and granting Claremore another possession.
Just plays later, Hepler showcased his precision by nailing a 30-yard field goal at the 3:18 mark of the first, increasing the Zebras' lead to 10-0.
However, his defining moment came later on when he coolly converted a crucial 34-yard field goal with 6:02 remaining in the game, extending the Claremore lead to 48-34.
Hepler's contribution proved to be the game-changer, preventing what could have been an early end to the Zebras' season.
Key Moment: In a game marked by intense moments, the spotlight fell on Sapulpa's daring decision to go for a 2-point conversion after quarterback Colton Howard's 21-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Clark with a mere 1:01 remaining.
Choosing the path of high stakes, the Chieftains bypassed the conventional extra point attempt, opting to rely on star running back Marco Smith. With 191 yards and three touchdowns already to his name on 27 carries, Smith seemed the natural choice for the crucial conversion.
However, the game's fate took an unexpected twist as Smith, upon taking the direct snap, lost his footing. A stumble of a couple of steps proved costly, and he was swiftly brought down by the Zebras' Joshua Bump.
The failed conversion left Sapulpa trailing by one point, and Claremore recovered the subsequent onside-kick attempt, allowing it to control the clock and secure a dramatic victory.
The Chieftains' gamble, though bold, turned what could have been a storybook ending into a heartbreak.
Special Teams Bonanza: Hepler's strategically executed onside kick and precise field goals were pivotal, but the electrifying plays didn't end there.
The special teams showdown ignited when Sapulpa's Rashaud Reynolds returned a kickoff for an 88-yard touchdown, answering Claremore's earlier lead with a burst of momentum. The Chieftains, fueled by Reynolds' effort, later surged ahead 21-17 on a 2-yard run from Smith.
However, the Zebras swiftly countered as Walker Dunaway returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a score, reclaiming the lead at the 0:53 mark.
Capitalizing on the momentum swing, Claremore's Rex Clark intercepted Howard less than 20 seconds later. Etheridge then connected with Deckard for a 39-yard touchdown pass on the next play, propelling the Zebras to a commanding 31-21 halftime lead while also capping a whirlwind span where 21 points were scored in the final 1:06 of the half.
However, the impact of special teams continued to echo through the game.
Claremore's short punts of 9 and 15 yards, one of which was partially blocked, created opportunities for Sapulpa to capitalize and narrow the gap.
Later, the Chieftains missed a crucial extra point following consecutive false-start penalties early in the third quarter. The missed kick loomed large, for Sapulpa found itself in a 2-point conversion scenario rather than getting to kick a potential game-winning extra-point attempt.
Offense for the Ages: In a dazzling display of offensive prowess, this year's Zebras etched their names in the record books by surpassing the school's season scoring record.
Claremore has amassed an impressive 464 points, surpassing the previous record of 425 set back in 1999.
Although the saying goes "defense wins championships", it is the Zebras' unstoppable offense that has been the driving force behind this historic achievement.
With an average of 42.2 points per game, Claremore has proven to be a force to be reckoned with on the gridiron.
Friday's game not only contributed to the record-breaking season, but also added another accolade to the Zebras' historic campaign.
The 95 combined points marked the second-highest scoring total in a Zebras playoff game, trailing only a memorable 57-49 loss to Shawnee in 1999.