FAYETTEVILLE — Kell could not withstand a surge by Starr’s Mill just before halftime and lost 45-28 on Friday in the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.

Starr’s Mill (9-3) moved on and host Dutchtown in the quarterfinals, while Kell saw its season end, also with a 9-3 record.

“We’ve played with really good effort,” Kell coach Brett Sloan said. “That has been the M.O. all season. We really didn’t do that in the first half tonight, but we did it in the second half. It’s been a great team to coach. I’m extremely proud of the young men that they are. I’m proud of their character. We’re going to miss them.”

The game was a defensive battle until just before the half, when Starr’s Mill put up 10 quick points to take a 24-7 lead into the locker room.

With the score 14-7 and Starr’s Mill seemingly content to run the clock out and take its lead to halftime, Kell used a timeout to try and force the Panthers to punt. On the next play, Starr’s Mill quarterback Hunter Lawson broke off an 82-yard touchdown run.

Kell then made matters worse by turning the ball over on the ensuing possession and gifting Starr’s Mill another scoring opportunity. Corbin LaFrance had his pass intercepted by Nate Kearns, who returned it to the 15-yard line.

Kell’s defense then rose to the occasion, stopping the Panthers on three straight plays from inside the 4-yard line to force a field goal and keep the halftime deficit at 24-7.

“I tell them all the time, the most important thing is how they respond.” Sloan said. “I’m not as mad at the mistake as I am at the response. I was really proud that they were able to find the right way to handle it.”

Kell roared out of the locker room, getting a pair of defensive stops and cashing them in for two touchdowns, including a 92-yard slant from LaFrance to Jamal Hill. However, the 24-21 margin was as close as the Longhorns’ comeback attempt ever got.

Lawson scored another long touchdown, this one from 84 yards away, on a similar play to the one Starr’s Mill ran on his first-half touchdown. Ben Bodne scored his second touchdown of the game to put the Panthers up 38-21 before Kell answered on a 15 yard touchdown from LaFrance to Arthur Nwandu.

Starr’s Mill left no doubt in the last minutes, scoring one more time on a 48-yard pass on a fake punt to kill any slim chances of a Kell comeback.

Big plays from Starr’s Mill and a failure to make its own big plays are what doomed Kell. Several times, the Longhorns were able to get a receiver behind the Panthers’ defense, but either an errant throw or dropped pass kept a big gain or touchdown off the board.

{span id=”docs-internal-guid-bda0e83a-7fff-d90b-a6de-d3ccb2c4a94f”}“We just made too many mistakes,” Sloan said. “Dropped passes, we missed some touchdown throws, we dropped some. There were other mistakes. We put (the defense) on the field too much, especially in the first half. You can’t get behind to a team like (Starr’s Mill), because they can melt the clock off on you.”

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