WILMINGTON — Clayton went out battling, just like long-time coach Garner Fowler would have wanted.
The Comets fell victim to Wilmington New Hanover’s quick-hitting offense and fell 40-28 in the third round of the 4A playoffs, ending the 28-year run of Fowler as head coach.
New Hanover built a 27-7 lead early in the third quarter after a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown by Trevon Brown.
But the Comets (9-4) chugged along with their ground game, eventually trading two pairs of touchdowns with the Wildcats (11-1) in the lengthy third quarter.
Tamerick Barbour scored on a 68-yard run to cut the lead to 27-14 with 8:12 in the third quarter. But New Hanover answered with a 38-yard TD run by Montrell Baldwin on the next play from scrimmage. Baldwin had 191 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Clayton managed to get back within 33-21 with a nine-play drive capped by an 8-yard Barbour run with 1:10 to play in the quarter.
Clayton’s Ced Rouse intercepted a Ward Coleman pass near midfield to stop the Wildcats’ ensuing drive.
Six plays later, on fourth-and-2 from the 19-yard-line, Sam May found DeMage Bailey wide open in the end zone for a TD that cut the lead to just 33-28 with 8:47 still to play.
It was the closest the Comets had been since the 13-second mark of the first quarter.
New Hanover countered with its ground-churner Baldwin on the next drive, as he converted a key third-and-2 at the Clayton 15-yard-line. After a Wildcat penalty, Coleman threw it up in the corner for grabs to the 6-foot-3 Brown who out-lept Kevin Peppers for a 22-yard TD reception.
The Wildcats, who visit Mideastern Conference rival New Bern (12-0) in the third round next week, held on fourth down at its own 36-yard-line. Ced Harris set the Comets up with great field position to start the drive with a 62-yard kick off return.
New Hanover took advantage of its speed on the edge with big gains on wide receiver screens. The first, when Jacen Murphy spun away from a tackler at the line of scrimmage and raced away for a 71-yard gain.
That set up a 14-yard TD run by Montrell Baldwin with 3:11 to play in the first quarter.
After a three-and-out by Clayton, Ramone Simpson pulled in a pass from Ward Coleman and raced away on a 64-yard TD connection.
Coleman was 11-of-23 for 245 yards and three TDs.
New Hanover’s next score came with 6:30 in the first half on an 11-yard run by Simpson set up with a great cut to his left at the line of scrimmage.
Clayton drove back inside of the 5-yard line in the final minute of the first half, running Jace Brown on eight consecutive plays.
Brown covered 37 yards on the first eight carries, but was stacked up at the line of scrimmage on 4th-and-goal from the 2.
The game started ideally for the Comets with a four-play, ground-churning drive highlighted by a 49-yard run by Ced Harris that set up a 9-yard TD run by Jace Brown just 82 seconds into the game.
Brown finished 210 yards rushing on 32 carries for the Comets, while Barbour had 102 on 14 carries.
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