Claremore put an end to Tahlequah’s bid for a rare perfect regular season Friday night at Doc Wadley Stadium.
A 21-14 loss to the Zebras doesn’t change the third-ranked Tigers’ playoff positioning, but after one play late in the second quarter there was much more concern than anything the scoreboard showed in the closing seconds.
Senior starting quarterback Tate Christian suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the first half and did not return. The injury came on a 16-yard touchdown pass to Tristan King that was called back after an illegal shift penalty with 20 seconds left before halftime.
It isn’t known if Christian will be available next week when Tahlequah opens the Class 5A playoffs against Coweta at Doc Wadley Stadium.
“We don’t know,” Tahlequah head coach Brad Gilbert said. “It’s something to do with his shoulder and we’ll find out more as Saturday rolls around into Sunday. Whatever the situation might be our team will rally and we’ll be fine. We’ll put a plan together and go forward.”
The Tigers, who close the regular season at 9-1 overall and 6-1 in District 5A-4 and claimed their first district championship since 1991 last week after defeating Tulsa Memorial, never led against the Zebras.
“Claremore was well-prepared and that’s how life works,” Gilbert said. “That’s athletics right there. You prepare for goals you have and things you want to achieve in life and things don’t always go your way. The lesson you learn is how you handle it. I have the utmost confidence in these young men that we’ve got on this football team and with the coaching staff that we’ll respond in the right way and be ready to go next week.”
Tahlequah was in position until the very end despite four turnovers by the offense, which also converted just two of its 13 third down conversions.
Senior running back Dae Dae Leathers had a 48-yard touchdown run with 9:28 left in the game to pull the Tigers to within 21-14.
But Claremore (6-4, 5-2) forced a Tahlequah punt and later a fumble by Tigers’ backup quarterback Simeon Armstrong with 1:42 remaining to seal the win.
The Zebras received three touchdown passes from quarterback Charlie Murdock, who threw for 112 yards on nine completions.
Murdock started the scoring with a 6-yard TD pass to receiver Brooks Sherl early in the second quarter. In the third quarter, he put Claremore up by a pair of scores on touchdown tosses to Noah Smallwood (30 yards) and Dylan Kedzior (22 yards).
The Tigers got their first points and got even immediately after Murdock’s hookup to Sheryl on a Christian-to-King connection from 13 yards out at the 9:25 point for the second quarter.
It appeared that Tahlequah would get its first lead right before halftime when Christian found King in the end zone for a second time, but the score was called back to the disgust of Gilbert.
Tahlequah, who finished with 214 total yards of offense, was led by Leathers’ 89 rushing yards. Leathers, the school’s all-time leading rusher, entered the contest with 1,393 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Christian completed 9 of 17 passes for 92 yards and had one interception. King had two receptions for 38 yards, and Armstrong led with three catches and finished with 16 yards.
The Zebras got a game-high 127 rushing yards on 30 carries from running back Deshawn Kinnard. Smallwood led all receivers with three receptions for 53 yards. Claremore finished with 253 total yards and was 7 of 17 on third down conversions.
“We’ve got to find a way to execute and make some plays,” Gilbert said. “We didn’t do that offensively. I thought defensively we played really well. Offensively we were out of sync a little bit. We just didn’t finish drives for whatever reason.”
Next Friday’s matchup with Coweta will be the fifth meeting between the two schools since 2017. Coweta ended Tahlequah’s season in the opening round of the playoffs last year at Doc Wadley Stadium. Tahlequah defeated Coweta, 9-7, in week two this season in Coweta.
“There’s tomorrow, and we’ve got Coweta coming here,” Gilbert said. “It doesn’t matter now. This doesn’t carry us into the playoffs at all. We’ve just got to regroup, check our character a little bit and see what we’re made of.”