VOLLEYBALL: Claremore finds resilience in Skiatook challenge, secures sweep

Aug. 30—SKIATOOK — Taylor Garrison's vocal prowess is tough to replace, yet Claremore volleyball coach Derek Jackson found himself scrambling to do just that.

The senior libero caught an inadvertent elbow to the throat from one of her teammates early in the third set, sending her to the bench not only rattled but also in need of a medical inspection. Her sudden departure put Jackson in a challenging position, and he was forced to search for a leader who could deliver a level of passion and inspiration on par with Garrison.

"It's just her leadership quality that makes such a big difference, and you can see it when she's not on the court like that ... it's her leadership that she brings to the table," Jackson said.

In a bold move, Jackson turned to freshman Emma Easton to fill the void left by Garrison. Although it was a daunting task for a newcomer, the coach's decision was rooted in Easton's undeniable work ethic and potential.

In this pivotal moment, the freshman seize the opportunity to shine. Easton handled the pressure with grace, delivering precise passes and showcasing her raw talent.

"She's just a freshman, but she's done a good job," Jackson said. "She's an athlete. She's a phenomenal soccer player, and I think she's gonna turn into a great dual-sport athlete for us. She worked hard. She did a great job coming in and helping us in a crazy situation."

However, despite her commendable efforts, there was no denying the absence of Garrison's leadership. The Class 5A No. 3 Lady Zebras' chemistry had been disrupted, and their 14-9 lead began to dwindle.

Skiatook capitalized on the momentary vulnerability, closing the gap to 16-14.

When Garrison re-entered the match, a surge of energy seem to course through the team.

Claremore swiftly scored three-consecutive points, sparking a 7-2 run that demonstrated her leadership and on-court prowess.

"I obviously checked with her to make sure she's doing all right," Jackson said. "It was less about thinking Emma couldn't do it and more about letting Taylor get back in there and prove to herself she could do that. She got back in there and did what we needed her to do."

That momentum was momentarily disrupted, though, when Garrison exited the court once again.

The Lady Bulldogs managed to score two points in her absence, narrowing the Lady Zebras' lead to 23-18, but Garrison reinvigorated her team with her presence once more. Claremore went on to secure two of the next three points, sealing the match sweep — 25-16, 25-20, 25-19 — Tuesday night at the Brooks Walton Activity Center in Skiatook.

"She provides a lot for us that you don't see on the stat sheet, and that's awesome," Jackson said. I hope a lot of those younger girls like Emma and (Doshia Bittner) take note of that because they will be in her position next year. If they can do what she does, then it'll be another phenomenal year."

Although the match ended triumphantly for the Lady Zebras, the tenacity of Skiatook (5-13) pushed them out of their comfort zone.

Claremore (18-3) managed to secure the first two points of the opening set but found itself trailing twice shortly thereafter, first at 6-4 and then at 8-7 despite the early lead.

However, the lethal combination of Claire Hardage, Ella Ramsey and Maddy Buysse proved instrumental in the team's ability to pull away late, asserting their dominance when it mattered most by contributing to a decisive surge that saw the Lady Zebras score six of the final seven points.

Hardage finished the night with eight kills and a block and Ramsey collected seven kills while Buysee added three kills. Leah Merriman (five kills, one ace) and Landry Price (three kills, two aces, one block) were other significant contributors.

The second set seemed to follow the same pattern.

Claremore raced to an early 8-1 lead, appearing dominant before the Lady Bulldog trio of Kaylee Utley, LeAnna Dunagan and Rebecca Hudson displayed remarkable resilience in narrowing the gap to only two points and maintaining that pressure the remainder of the set.

Utley finished with a match-high 11 kills alongside three aces, and Dunagan tallied eight kills, one block and one ace while Hudson managed four blocks.

Even before Garrison's injury, the third set seemed to echo the same narrative of the Lady Zebras' initial control followed by Skiatook's persistent efforts to challenge their dominance.

"We were all in agreeance at about 10 points (in to the first set) that we didn't know what's going on today, but it was just a flat day and felt off," Jackson said. "They're one of those sneaky teams, and at the end of the day, it's a conference match. We're No. 3 in the state, so everybody wants a crack at us. (Skiatook) had a lot of reasons to play well. They tried to give us fits, and they did. I had a talk with (the Lady Bulldogs) and coach (Jamie Long) for making us earn it."