CLAREMORE- Trailing 13-7 midway through the fourth quarter to the Claremore Zebras on Thursday night, the Grove Ridgerunners needed a big play to save their fading district championship hopes.
The Ridgerunner defense came up with two.
Trent Phillips returned an interception 50 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, and defensive back Bryce Armstrong came up with a game-saving, fourth down tackle on Zebra quarterback Matt Whatley to stop Claremore's final drive and preserve a 14-13 Grove victory.
With the win the Ridgerunners (6-2, 4-1) remained in a second place tie with the Coweta Tigers and one game behind next week's opponent, the East Central Cardinals. But the win was anything but easy.
The Zebras (3-5, 2-3), needing a win to strengthen their own playoff position, set the tone early as fullback Chris Sczinski took a handoff up the middle and exploded through the Grove defense for a 94-yard touchdown.
That came after Grove's opening possession in which a 54-yard run by Buck Maples moved the ball to the Claremore 11. But a fourth down pass from quarterback Adam Steffenson to Phillips fell incomplete in the end zone.
It was one of four trips the Ridgerunner offense made inside the Claremore 20, three in the firs half, only one of which produced touchdowns. On their third possession of the night the Ridgerunners moved the ball to the Zebra two and looked poised to tie the score, only to have a fumbled handoff recovered by the Zebras.
The Ridgerunners lone score of the first half came after a big play on special teams. Brody Scott blocked a punt and Kyle Summerfield returned the ball to the Zebra nine-yard line. Three plays later, Phillips scored on a two-yard run on fourth down with half a minute remaining in the second quarter.
After an exchange of fumbles to begin the second half the Zebras put together their best drive of the night. After becoming stalled and facing fourth and one from their own 41, the Zebras decided to go for it. Josh Cunningham, who dominated defensively from his linebacker position, bounced around the right end on his only run of the night and rambled 36 yards for a big first down. Overall Claremore gained 311 yards on the ground, with Sczinski (6-101) and tailback Chase Talbert (27-136) going over the century mark.
But it was Whatley the freshman quarterback who finished the drive with his second and final completion of the night, finding a diving Jake Mason in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Grove would come up with another big special teams play on the extra point, as a swarm of Ridgerunners broke through the line to block the kick and keep the score at 13-7.
And with the Ridgerunner offense stalled, the special teams would come up with their biggest play of the night with just over eight minutes left in the game. Claremore, facing a fourth-and-13 from midfield, lined up to punt. But Talbert, facing another fierce rush, attempted an ill-advised pass. Phillips made a leaping stab at the ball, tipping it to himself and outracing everyone to the end zone. Anthony Krause's all-important extra point gave Grove a 14-13 lead.
The Zebras, however, weren't finished. Taking over at their own 16 with 5:28 left, Talbert promptly took the ball and, after starting to his right, reversed field and raced 30 yards. Whatley then had runs of nine and 14 yards to move the ball to the Grove 25. Three plays later the Zebras were facing a fourth-and-two from the 17. Whatley took off on another keeper, only to be submarined by Armstrong near the first down marker. After a measurement showed Claremore inches short of a first down, Steffenson gained a first down and Grove ran out the clock.
The Ridgerunners will host the Cardinals on Friday at 7:30. A win would move Grove into a three-way tie for the district lead, with tiebreaker points likely deciding the outcome. A loss will likely leave the Ridgerunners in third in the district and facing a road trip to either McAlester or Tulsa Washington in the first round of the playoffs.
Phillips' second touchdown was Grove's fourth of the season off defense or special teams, the others coming against Wagoner, Pryor and Tulsa Central. The Ridgerunners are 3-1 in those games. Claremore's Sczinski and Talbert were the first running backs to go over 100 yards versus Grove this season. The Zebras' 311 yards rushing are a season-high against Grove. With 104 yards Friday night, Maples went over 100 yards for the third time this season.
Grove 14, Claremore 13
1st 2nd 3rd 4th Final
GHS 0 7 0 7 14
CHS 7 0 6 0 13
Total 259 345
Rushes-Yards 30-169 43-311
Passing 90 34
C-A-I 7-17-1 2-8-1
First downs 10 10
T.O.P. 21:34 26:26
Pen. 4-35 1-5
Turnovers 3 2
RUSHING: GHS - Maples 17-104, Steffenson 11-63, Phillips 1-2, Leach 1-0. CHS - Talbert 27-136, Szcinski 6-101, Whatley 8-39, Cunningham 1-36, Landers 1-(-1).
RECEIVING: GHS - Smith 1-35, Leffel 1-31, Scott 1-9, Leach 2-7, Armstrong 1-3, Manicom 1-7. CHS - Mason 2-34.
PASSING: GHS - Steffenson 6-16-1, 55 yards, Armstrong 1-1-0, 35 yards. CHS - Whatley 2-7-0, 34 yards, Talbert 0-1-1, 0 yards.
8:53 CHS Szcinski 94-yd run (6 kick) CHS 7-0
:32.7 GHS Phillips 2-yd run (Krause kick) 7-7
4:33 CHS Mason 17-yd pass from Whatley (kick blocked) CHS 13-7
8:34 GHS Phillips 47-yd int. return (Krause kick) GHS 14-13