Sep. 2—BARTLESVILLE — Zane Hepler wasn’t nervous.
Not when he lined up for his first point-after attempt, which he converted less than a minute into the second quarter, and not when he lined up for the potential game-winning kick with less than a minute remaining — even when he had the unfortunate duty of attempting it twice.
Just moments after Claremore running back Micah Teel powered through the Bartlesville defense for a 19-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 27 with just 36 seconds remaining, Hepler calmly delivered the crucial PAT to put the Zebras in the lead.
However, the Bruins were penalized for encroachment, a dead-ball foul, necessitating a redo of the PAT. Surprisingly, this turn of events could have favored Bartlesville despite its mistake.
Nevertheless, Hepler confidently nailed the kick once more, securing a thrilling 28-27 victory for the Zebras over the Bruins on Friday at Custer Stadium. This victory marked the program’s first season-opening win since its 2019 40-28 triumph over Bartlesville on the same field.
“I really couldn’t have done it without the center Josh Bump and the holder Brayden Alexander,” Hepler humbly noted. “If they mess up, we couldn’t have gotten the kick up. I knew I could get it done just because of how much practice we’ve done over it. I knew they could get it done, so I wasn’t really too worried about it. I’m just glad we could pull through.”
Hayden Lee’s interception of Bartlesville’s backup quarterback, Brett Eaves, with just 15 seconds left put the finishing touch on the long-awaited winning moment, but the path to those game-changing plays was far from flawless.
Claremore initially seized a 21-7 lead as Teel punched in a 1-yard touchdown run less than two minutes into the second half, but the offense seemed to ease off the gas afterward.
A glimmer of hope emerged when Eli Rodgers intercepted Eaves during Bartlesville’s next possession, but the Zebras turned the ball over on downs in the red zone at the 16.
The Bruins capitalized on that missed opportunity when Stefen Williams broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown run, narrowing their deficit to 21-14 with 4:11 remaining in the third quarter. Williams went on to finish with 92 yards rushing on nine carries.
Bartlesville then struck again after forcing Claremore punts on consecutive possessions, with Damien Niko slipping behind the Zebras’ secondary and hauling in a 67-yard touchdown pass from Eaves to level the score at 21-all with 9:20 remaining.
After another Claremore punt, the Bruins regained possession and took the lead following an 80-yard drive that culminated in a 16-yard touchdown run by PJ Wallace, who amassed 186 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries, at the 4:06 mark.
“That tailback is a Division I back,” Claremore coach Jarrett Hurt said. “I don’t know how many carries he had — it was probably about 40 carries — but he’s a stud. He’ll be playing Division I football somewhere someday.”
However, the extra-point attempt was blocked, leaving the Zebras with a chance to win the game with a late touchdown and successful extra point.
“When they missed the PAT, I told our guys, ‘Let’s go win on offense and kick a PAT to win,” Hurt said. “It’s all we had to do. It’s all we had to do, and our guys believed, our guys dug down deep, our guys were tough enough to get it done and I’m super proud of them. It took a lot of guys tonight. We had to dig down really, really deep to get this done against a really good football team. That football team won a playoff game at Lawton last year, scored 30-something points at Lawton. That’s a good football team.”
In a pivotal moment on the ensuing drive, Braxton Etheridge connected on an 18-yard pass to Rodgers on a third-and-9 situation, bringing Claremore to the Bartlesville 18 with 2:07 remaining.
Shortly thereafter, Teel dashed into the end zone from 19 yards out, leveling the score with 36 ticks left on the clock. His carries on that drive before the crucial score covered 3, 1, 5 and 1 yards.
Teel wrapped up the game with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
“Micah is one of those backs where you stuff him and you stuff him and you stuff him, and the next thing you know, he breaks a tackle and heads to the house,” Hurt said. “That’s what he did tonight. That’s what he ended the season doing last year, and that’s what he started the season this year doing. I’m super proud of him and his toughness.”
The teams battled to a stalemate in the first quarter, trading punts and turnovers on downs.
The Zebras’ second possession proved promising, advancing to the Bartlesville 16-yard line courtesy of a 26-yard pass from Etheridge to Rodgers, but they ultimately couldn’t capitalize and turned the ball over on downs at the 22.
The deadlock finally broke in the second quarter when Etheridge connected with Gage Deckard for a 23-yard touchdown strike on fourth-and-11, giving Claremore a 7-0 lead with 11:13 remaining in the half.
Etheridge had a solid outing, throwing for 117 yards and one score on 13-of-23 passing. His favorite target was Rodgers, who hauled in nine receptions for 67 yards. No other Zebras receiver had more than one catch.
The Zebras continued to build their momentum when Rex Clark intercepted Bruins quarterback Nate Neal just two possessions later, returning the ball 25 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 14-0 at the 6:43 mark.
It was a nice flip of the script for Claremore, which gave up two defensive touchdowns and four turnovers total to Bartlesville last year in a 20-9 loss. This year, the Zebras forced three turnovers — all interceptions — while not committing any themselves.
“We said this — if we tackle the tailback and don’t turn the ball over, we’re gonna win the game,” Hurt said. “I don’t think we had a turnover, so that held true. We tackled (Wallace) over and over and over and over again, and we took care of the football. In the end, it worked out.”
However, the Bruins showed resilience as they responded with a 79-yard drive capped by a 1-yard run by Wallace with 3:05 remaining in the quarter, narrowing the score to 14-7.
Remarkably, Claremore managed to secure the victory despite being outgained 389-242. Bartlesville also boasted more rushing yards (278) than the Zebras’ total offensive output.
The Bruins maintained the upper hand on first downs as well, 21-12, but Claremore’s defense held them to a mere 1-of-8 conversion rate on third downs and 0-of-3 on fourth downs while also forcing three punts alongside the three turnovers.
The Zebras had their own offensive struggles, going 3-of-13 on third downs and 2-of-5 on fourth downs in addition to five punts, but their perseverance would be rewarded with the sweet taste of victory.
Oh, and the fight song.
“Our theme all week long was ‘Fight Song’. I love the fight song,” Hurt said. “We want to be the ones singing the fight song at the end, and our guys dug down deep and got that done. They sang the fight song at the end.”
CLAREMORE 28, BARTLESVILLE 27
First downs: Claremore 12, Bartlesville 21
Third-down efficiency: Claremore 3-13, Bartlesville 1-8
Fourth-down efficiency: Claremore 2-5, Bartlesville 0-3
Total Yards: Claremore 242, Bartlesville 389
Passing: Claremore 117, Bartlesville 111
Comp-Att: Claremore 13-24, Bartlesville 7-16
Interceptions Thrown: Claremore 0, Bartlesville 3
Rushing: Claremore 119, Bartlesville 278
Rush Attempts: Claremore 35, Bartlesville 47
Penalties: Claremore 9-61, Bartlesville 8-76
Turnovers: Claremore 0, Bartlesville 3
Fumbles-Lost: Claremore 3-0, Bartlesville 1-0.
Claremore 0 14 7 7 — 28
Bartlesville 0 7 7 13 — 27
CLM — Gage Deckard 23 pass from Braxton Etheridge (Zane Hepler kick), 2Q 11:13
CLM — Rex Clark 25 interception return (Hepler kick), 2Q 6:43
BART — PJ Wallace 1 run (kick good), 2Q 3:05
CLM — Micah Tell 1 run (Hepler kick), 3Q 10:16
BART — Stefen Williams 38 run (kick good), 3Q 4:11
BART — Damien Niko 67 pass from Brett Eaves (kick good), 4Q 9:20
BART — Wallace 16 run (kick block), 4Q 4:06
CLM — Teel 19 run (Hepler kick), 4Q 0:36
PASSING (C-A-Y-INT): Claremore — Etheridge 13-23-117-0 (1 TD), Rodgers 0-1. Bartlesville — Eaves 3-5-75-2 (1 TD), Neal 4-11-36-1.
RUSHING: Claremore — Teel 27-113 (2 TD), Etheridge 5-7, Rodgers 1-6, Brito 1-0, Team 1-(-1). Bartlesville — Wallace 34-186 (2 TD), Williams 9-92, Neal 2-12, C. Eaves 1-0, Team 1-(-12).
RECEIVING: Claremore — Rodgers 9-67, Bump 1-17, Deckard 1-23 (1 TD), Lee 1-6, Grimmett 1-4. Bartlesville — Niko 1-67 (1 TD), C. Eaves 2-19, Scully 1-6, Wallace 3-9.