Nation Ford’s Josh Ameo looks for running room during the Falcons game Friday night. Photos by Rob Upton.

Head coach Michael Allen had plenty of praise to go around for his Nation Ford football team following Friday night’s loss to Hillcrest High in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.

Allen said his team played to win, but a missed opportunity in the first half and a cold start in the second half doomed the Falcons to a 37-29 defeat to the visiting Rams in Fort Mill.

“We fought and fought,” Allen said. “I thought we had put ourselves in a pretty good position. We just didn’t make the plays. It was a tale of two halves at the end of the day.”

Junior quarterback Kaden Barnette threw for 241 passing yards on 21-of-34 passing, including four touchdowns and one interception.  

Receiver Josh Ameo led all Falcons with 158 receiving yards on the night. The junior accounted for three of Nation Ford’s four touchdowns, including a 28-yard scoring grab deep in the fourth quarter. He helped pull the Falcons within a possession with 70 seconds to play by converting a 2-point conversion to receiver Zay Neely.

“He’s just a playmaker,” Allen said. “Such a competitor. I thought he was coming out (at the end), but then he makes that play. I love that kid. I love them all. It’s just that simple.”

Hillcrest next travels to play Byrnes High School in a second-round matchup Friday, Nov. 10. Hillcrest is now 6-0 on the road so far this year, having entered the postseason as a No. 3 seed from Region I. Byrnes defeated its first-round opponent Dorman 44-17 on Friday night.

Nation Ford ends its 2023 season with a 5-6 record. The Falcons won their final two games of the regular season to earn a spot in the playoffs.

Both Nation Ford and Hillcrest combined for five touchdowns on their first five possessions as Nation Ford jumped out to a 21-14 lead.

On the first drive of the night, Barnette led the Falcons from his own 24 to the Hillcrest 37, where the junior found Ameo over the middle. Despite a heavy blitz, Barnett squeezed in a tight pass to Ameo, who ran behind a block and was able to burst into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

The visitors responded with a methodical 47-yard drive that included plenty of running behind running back Thomas Stanley. Just three minutes later, Stanley scored from just 2-yards out to equalize for the Rams.

Nation Ford took the lead again on the next drive with smart passing through Barnett. The quarterback converted a 3rd and 15 to receiver Lucas Barz, which set up a 10-yard pass to the outside for Ameo to score his second touchdown of the night.

But Hillcrest quickly responded just two plays later. Following a routine 6-yard rush, quarterback Will Thompson found receiver Avery McFadden streaking down the far sideline, and Thompson couldn’t be touched as he dashed in to score.

Barnett and Ameo combined again on the next Nation Ford drive, with the quarterback finding his receiver for a 30-yard gain into Hillcrest territory.

Barnett threw what would have been a pick from Hillcrest’s 23-yard line, but the defensive play was overturned due to a Rams penalty that set up Nation Ford at the 6.

Barnett then found receiver Caden Giles from short distance, as the receiver outjumped his coverage for a simple score to make it 21-14 Falcons with 10:12 left in the 2nd quarter.

The two teams traded punts midway through the second quarter. With 4:42 left in the half, Hillcrest drove as far as the Nation Ford 7, but Thompson couldn’t connect with his targets in the end zone.

Kicker Anthony Grudko converted a 23-yard field goal to cut the lead to 21-17 with less than a minute to play.

McFadden then picked off Barnette on the final Nation Ford play of the half to send both teams into the locker room.

“We didn’t seize the moment at end of the first half to shut the door on them,” Allen said. “That was big for us, I think it swung the momentum going into halftime.”

The Rams drove 53 yards in about four and a half minutes before Quayshad Harris rumbled into the end zone from 10 yards out to give Hillcrest its first lead of the night, 24-21.

Following a Nation Ford punt, Hillcrest embarked on a mammoth 71-yard drive that last 14 plays and ate up more than seven minutes before Stanley’s touchdown pushed the lead to 30-21 with 10:22 left to play.

Nation Ford had a chance to answer, but couldn’t convert on 4th and 4 at the Hillcrest 36, with receiver Jayden Scott downfield.

Stanley’s third touchdown of the night came on the ensuing Hillcrest drive to push the lead to 36-21 with 4:24 left.

Still, Nation Ford hadn’t given up. Barnette drove the Falcons nearly 80 yards downfield, including a 28-yard scoring throw to Ameo down the near sideline. Ameo then found Zay Neely for the 2-point conversion that cut the lead to 37-29.

But Hillcrest recovered Nation Ford’s hopeful pooch kick, and the Rams ran out the clock.

“I can’t be more proud about them,” Allen said. “I would have loved to win the football game… but the x’s and o’s, they didn’t fall our way in the second half.”

Nation Ford’s Caden Giles goes up for a catch during the Falcons game against Hillcrest.