Nation Ford’s Jeremiah Hailstock leaps a Clover defender in Friday’s game at home. Photo by Rob Upton

Nation Ford coach Michael Allen told his team to do some “soul-searching” following the Falcons’ agonizing 18-15 region loss to the Clover Blue Eagles Friday night in Fort Mill.

Allen knows his team will need to dig deep to recover from a disappointing loss that stemmed from missed opportunities, untimely turnovers and poor execution.

The Falcons won’t have long to feel sorry for themselves. With the loss, Nation Ford ended the regular season at 4-5 and 2-2 in Region 3-5A for a third-place finish and will next play at Spring Valley High in Columbia to open the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs next Friday.

“You might need to look yourself in the mirror,” Allen said, to his despondent Falcons squad, huddled around him moments after the final whistle sounded. “It’s called soul-searching. It’ll help you a lot outside of football.”

Despite leading 7-6 heading into the fourth quarter, Nation Ford gave up back-to-back Blue Eagles touchdowns in the final 12 minutes. Down 18-15, Nation Ford had a chance to drive with four minutes on the clock, but went three-and-out. By the time the Falcons got the ball again, there was less than four seconds on the clock.

With the final play of the game, quarterback Carson Black heaved a pass up to wide receiver Quadier Hand. Hand somehow came down with the ball despite double-coverage, but he was tackled just 10 yards of the goal line. Hand was immediately consoled by seven or eight of his Falcons teammates. The loss clearly stung the squad, as a win would have meant Nation Ford would start its postseason journey at home.

“He’s the kind of kid that feels like he should have gotten in the end zone,” Allen said. “Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.”

The first half was highlighted more by turnovers than touchdowns. Nation Ford and Clover combined for four giveaways, including three interceptions, in the opening two quarters.

Clover always looked eager to make a big play. On the Blue Eagles’ second possession, it only took three plays for quarterback River Joye to find wide receiver Jy Martin with a long bomb. Joye aired it out over the middle to Martin, who was running free through the middle, and Martin held off his defender to score from 67 yards out.

Nation Ford got the ball back on the next drive, but was forced to punt soon after. The punt pushed Clover back to its own three, giving Joye little room to maneuver. Callan Sobas picked off the Clover quarterback and ran the ball back to the Clover 15, but the Falcons were unable to capitalize with a score on the ensuing drive.

Midway through the second quarter, Black had Nation Ford driving into the middle of the field, but got picked off on the Clover 35.

The Falcons finally took advantage of their favorable field position about six minutes before the halftime whistle.

Starting on the Clover 44, Jeremiah Hailstock’s 9-yard gain and two 15-yard penalties helped push Nation Ford to the Blue Eagles’ 3-yard line. Black faked the handoff before running into the end zone himself. An Evan Cox point-after kick gave Nation Ford a slim 7-6 lead heading into the locker room.

It was in the third quarter that Nation Ford began to truly rue its missed opportunities. Black helped lead his team down from its own 40 to the Clover four, before getting picked off in the end zone.

On the next Nation Ford drive, Black again pushed his team from its own 28-yard line down to the Clover three. But two muffed snaps in a row pushed the Falcons all the way back to their own 40, and the drive died.

“That was just completely falling apart,” Allen said. “If we seize the moment and execute, we win and win big. If we foil all our opportunities and can’t seize the moment, that’s what happened.”

Clover looked unlikely to score itself until Joye threw a Hail Mary from 33 yards, which landed in Martin’s waiting hands just outside the end zone early in the fourth quarter. The missed 2-point conversion made the score 12-7 with 10 minutes to play.

Nation Ford saw a moment of inspiration on the ensuing kickoff when Jeremiah Hailstock ran the kick back 73 yards for a score that put the Falcons back up 15-12.

But the Falcons defense couldn’t hold on. Joye found Martin for a huge 34-yard gain on a third and 22, keeping a long drive alive. Kaevon Gardner eventually put the bow on top of the five-minute march with a 2-yard score to boost the Clover lead back up to three.

“If you’re willing to commit to execute every single play for 48 minutes, you can get through some mistakes,” Allen said. “But when you do that, you get beat.”

A few minutes later, Black’s air mail to Hand was just 10 yards too short of the promised land on the final drive of the game.

Allen said his team will quickly turn its attention to the playoffs and Spring Valley. He said he knows the team well and has studied plenty of film.

“They’ve got a great quarterback, and their nose guard is phenomenal,” he said. “They’re fast, they’re big, and they’re good. If you’re going to win a playoff game, that’s what it takes. We’ll get ourselves ready to go out there, execute, and if we do that, we’ll be a tough out.”