AVON PARK - Avon Park's first home football game of the season survived the threat of bad weather on Friday night, as dark clouds hung ominously over Joe Franza Stadium. But in the end, it was the thunderous leg of Mulberry's kicker, Noe Guillen, that ended a frustrating night for Avon Park, as he booted a 44-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in regulation to give the Panthers a 10-7 lead.
"I'm proud of my kids. They battled the whole time," Avon Park coach Wade Jackson said. "They fought and got after it and that is what we have been preaching. We are trying to change the culture and that is what you've got to do."
"They never laid down, they never quit, and they fought to the last whistle, so I'm proud of them. We are all disappointed - as we should be - and we're going to come back on Monday and get after it again."
The Panthers opened the game on their own 5-yard line after misplaying the kickoff. From there, they were able to drive the ball to Avon Park's 38-yard line. And facing a fourth-and-three, Mulberry fumbled the ball over to the Devils.
After an Avon Park punt, the Panthers offense was stifled again, but Avon Park took advantage of great field position after Mulberry's punt went only seven yards.
From there, Avon Park quarterback Lauer Lewis handed the ball off to JC Cobb, who swept to the right, pulled up, and zipped a pass down the right sideline to Caleb Purser.
Purser got behind Mulberry's defensive back just as the pass landed in his hands, and he raced 35 yards to the end zone for the game's first score, giving Avon Park a 7-0 lead with five minutes left in the opening quarter.
Over the next two Mulberry drives, quarterback Berry Lorenz continued to have problems with the handoff, fumbling the ball on back-to-back series.
Avon Park threatened to score again late in the first half. The Red Devils pounded the ball into Mulberry territory on the strength of nine run plays, but the drive stalled in the Panthers' red zone when the Devils came up a few inches shy of the first down on fourth-and-two.
In the second half, both teams pushed the ball into the opponents territory, only to have their drives stall.
The Devils made a costly error midway through the third quarter, when Lewis' pass was intercepted by Mulberry's Henry Berry, who raced 52 yards to tie the game.
"That's a situation where we've got a young quarterback," Jackson said. "And the more he plays, the better he is going to get. That's what I am talking about with growing pains."
We had the ball several times and were moving and got a couple of stupid penalties that stopped drives."
The game remained tied until just over two minutes remained in regulation. And that's when Mulberry struck one final time.
After forcing an Avon Park punt, the Panthers took over on their own 38-yard line. Mulberry ran the ball on five consecutive plays to get the ball into Devils territory, where the team started to set up for a potential game-winning field goal.
Facing a first down on Avon Park's 27-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Mulberry called its field goal unit onto the field. The Devils had no time outs left to try and ice Guillen, who sailed the ball through the uprights to give his team a 10-7 advantage with just seconds remaining.
Mulberry played it safe on the kickoff, booting the ball into the end zone to nullify a potential touchdown return from the Red Devils. Avon Park ran two quick plays, but time eventually ran out on the Red Devils.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Jackson did have praise for his offensive line.
"We're battling, we're trying," Jackson said. "We moved the ball some tonight. We did a lot of good things, but we've just got to get better. It's a process that is going to take a little time, and I knew there was going to be some growing pains, but nobody likes to lose. We just have to get better."
Avon Park will be on the road next week to face the undefeated Fort Meade Miners. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.