GATESVILLE — The Gatesville Hornets entered Friday night’s matchup needing lots of help and a big upset in order to make the playoffs. 

They got neither as Lampasas and Brownwood losses dashed the Hornets playoff hopes — but they still had the matter of playing rival Liberty Hill on Friday night at McKamie Stadium. Gatesville jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead but watched as the Panthers scored 17 unanswered second-half points and won 24-21.

“We had our best practice of the year this week and I told the boys that the scoreboard doesn’t show what they did this week,” said Gatesville head coach Kyle Cooper. “We managed to play pretty well for most of the games but a couple plays didn’t go our way and that was the difference.”

The biggest plays came in the fourth and deciding quarter. A bad snap forced Hornets’ punter Ronnie Barber to kick the loose ball out of the back of end zone for the safety, which cut the Gatesville lead to 21-16. Liberty Hill took the lead on the next drive on a 17-yard run by Hunter Lindsay.

“Barber made a heads up play there by not giving up the touchdown,” Cooper said. “But we have to be able to overcome those types of mistakes — we needed stops.”

The Hornets (3-7, 1-4 8-3A) came out stinging. They scored on their first two offensive possessions en route to an early 14-0 lead. The game started inauspiciously for Gatesville as Zae Paskett’s opening 30-yard kickoff return was negated by a holding penalty — penalties were a pattern both teams followed in the game’s first half.

Staring at 90 yards of green turf, the Hornets needed just six plays to reach paydirt. Of the six plays, Jake Kee carried the ball five times for 76 yards and the touchdown during the drive — with 54 coming on a second-and-4 from his own 16. Kee took the ball to the right side of the offensive line, cut back across the middle before zipping down the right side line for the long run that set up Gatesville at the Liberty Hill 30. Three plays later Kee crossed the goal line. Kee carried the ball 24 times for 12o yards and the touchdown.

“We were able to get some outside runs going and that really opened up the game for us,” Cooper said. “We just weren’t able to get a lot of touches in the second half.”

After stopping the Panthers (9-1, 5-0) on their own 27-yard line, the Hornets began a 16-play, 73-yard drive that saw the Hornets successfully convert two fourth downs — one through the air and one via a Liberty Hill pass interference penalty.

The Hornets faced fourth-and-6 on the Panther 19-yard line but eschewed the field goal in favor of going for it. Gatesville sophomore quarterback Jeff Speers tossed the play-action pass down the middle of the field to Andraque Jones, who had the ball in his hands but couldn’t bring it down. It didn’t matter, as the interference call gave Gatesville a new set of downs. Three plays later, Speers found Tyler Strange for a 25-yard strike that made the score 14-0 in favor of the Hornets.

Liberty Hill scored with 3 minutes left in the first half after the Hornets lost 45 yards on four penalties that forced a Gatesville punt that failed to reach the original line of scrimmage. The Panthers took advantage of the short field and Will Fromme scored from 32-yards out to close the gap to 14-7.

But the Hornets weren’t finished.

They started at their own 24-yard line with 3 minutes remaining in the first half and promptly gave 10 yards away on a holding penalty. After three straight runs that gave Gatesville the first down, Speers completed back-to-back passes of 10 and 46-yards to Paskett and Jones, respectively. The 46-yard strike was a scoring pass that was negated by a Jones’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as he ran into the end zone. The penalty wiped the score off the board.

It didn’t matter.

On the next play, Speers handed off to Kee, who, rather than run, stepped back and threw a touchdown to a wide-open Speers for the 21-7 first-half lead.

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