AVON PARK - A fourth quarter rally from Avon Park fell short on Friday night at Joe Franza Stadium, as the Red Devils lost 31-28 to the LaBelle Cowboys in a key Class 4A-District 6 match up.
With the loss, Avon Park dropped to 0-8 overall and 0-2 in districts, while LaBelle improved to 3-5 overall and 2-0 in districts.
"I'm proud of the effort. It was there," Jackson said. "But we've got to learn to overcome adversity in a ballgame. We don't do that real well as a program right now. We fumbled the football and we kind of just deflated. We've got to realize that the biggest play is the next play. We don't do that real well just yet."
"That's something we have to work on in building this program."
Trying to defend the run became a familiar nemesis for the Red Devils early in the game, as the Cowboys scored on their opening drive in two plays. LaBelle running back Danny Robinson carried the offense, taking the ball down field for 31 yards, and followed that with a 19-yard touchdown jaunt as LaBelle took a quick 7-0 lead.
"Tackling wise, we were very timid," said Avon Park coach Wade Jackson. "They run a trap or a dive right at you and we can't tackle the guy. I thought we fixed that, but it looks as though we have to keep working at it."
The Red Devils responded with a methodical, 58-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard quarterback sneak, as Alfred Brown squeezed through the line for the touchdown to tie the game.
Labelle scored on their next possession, chewing up nearly eight minutes of clock on a 13 play drive that started at the Cowboys 30-yard line. With 9:33 left in the second quarter, Robinson scored his second touchdown of the game on a 5-yard run to put the Cowboys back on top 14-7.
Being forced to punt on their next possession, the Red Devils defense came up big when Josh Jones stepped in front of intended Cowboy receiver for an interception, returning the ball to the Cowboys 17-yard line.
Three plays later, Lauer Lewis forged through for a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game for the second time.
After holding the Cowboys on defense, Avon Park got the ball back on its own 26-yard line with a 1:04 left in the half. The Red Devils ran two plays, but a dead ball penalty for un-sportsman like conduct moved the ball back to the 12-yard line.
Facing what should have been third and long, the Devils were burned by an officiating mistake, as the zebras called it fourth down, saving the Cowboys a time out and forcing Avon Park to punt.
"I questioned it and told them exactly what we ran," Jackson said. "And they said I ran three plays and they won't change it. That hurt us, but the bottom line is we got to watch our emotions and we did some things tonight that were out of our character, because we got into a battle, they got in our face a few times, and we reacted. We can't do that."
Receiving the ball at their own 40-yard line, LaBelle put a solid drive together with just under 40 seconds left in the half. The Red Devils defense kept the Cowboys out of the end zone, but LaBelle kicked a 31-yard field goal to take a 17-14 halftime lead.
In the second half, LaBelle capitalized on an Avon Park fumble as Robinson scored his third touchdown of the night on a 22-yard run to give LaBelle a 24-14 advantage.
Following a stalled Avon Park drive, the Cowboys struck again, as Jerome Baxter broke through the left side of the line and scampered down the sidelines for an 82-yard touchdown. After adding the extra point, LaBelle had a 31-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
But Avon Park wouldn't fade away.
After getting a defensive stop, the Red Devils moved the ball 66 yards in nine plays as Brown threw his first touchdown pass of the year to Moses Satine on a flare route for 20-yard score to cut the deficit to 31-21 with 2:41 left in the game.
Avon Park then recovered an on-side kick, and proceeded to put together another long scoring drive. Highlighted by a 24-yard run by Brown on fouth-and-23 to keep the drive alive, the Red Devils went 41 yards in five plays to get to the Cowboys goal line. Brown capped the drive off with a quarterback sneak to close the gap to 31-28 with 55 seconds left in regulation.
But hopes of a come-from-behind victory faded when Avon Park touched the ball too soon on the next on-side kick attempt. LaBelle was awarded the ball, and the Cowboys lined up in the victory formation to run out the clock.
"We did a lot of good things tonight," Jackson said. "But we seem to shoot ourselves in the foot every once in a while and we haven't learned to overcome that. We have not learned to fight back and fight on for the next play; we regress every time we make a mistake."
"Still, I saw a lot of good things. We're looking at the future as we rebuild, but it doesn't mean that we don't want to do things right now, and we got to correct our mistakes."
Avon Park will have two weeks to work on those corrections, as the Red Devils are off on Friday. The Devils' next game will be another heated 4A-6 clash, this time against county rival Lake Placid, at Roger Scarborough Memorial Field on Nov. 1.