EVERGREEN PARK – Danny Rygiel slowly walked toward the sideline, the last remaining Richmond-Burton player to leave the field.
The Rockets' senior quarterback had already broken down twice, evidenced by the eye black smeared down his face by tears.
Like much of R-B's season, Saturday's Class 4A playoff opener had been a struggle. But as had been the case the previous nine weeks, adversity hadn't diminished the way Rygiel and his teammates fought. But this one – a 33-17 loss to top-seeded Evergreen Park – was the toughest to swallow.
"We never gave up," Rygiel said. "We just couldn't get the stops at the right time."
Stopping Evergreen Park (10-0) meant trying to shut down Mustangs running back Keyshawn Carpenter, who ran for 265 yards and a touchdown to go along with a touchdown catch that put the game away after R-B (5-5) cut the deficit to 25-17 late in the third quarter.
It seemed every time the Rockets got close, like they did after Nicholas Bianchini recovered a blocked punt in the end zone, Carpenter had an answer.
Carpenter's 7-yard touchdown catch capped a four-play scoring drive that extended the Mustangs' lead after Rygiel connected with Luke Brinkmann on a 61-yard touchdown pass earlier in the third quarter.
"We knew coming in that we had to score a lot of points to be able to win this game," Carpenter said. "So the momentum swings were huge. They're a hard-nosed team and nobody's going to give up in the playoffs. They're in the playoffs for a reason and that's what teams do."
R-B, which had been the last team to get into the playoffs after finishing the regular season at 5-4, never stopped fighting. The Rockets intercepted a pair of Sean Ryan passes, including one in the end zone, to go along with the blocked punt that resulted in the Rockets' final touchdown.
But R-B couldn't manage to ever completely shrink the deficit it faced most of the night, turning the ball over in the fourth quarter before being unable to produce any points after the blocked punt.
"We had opportunities and we just weren't able to take advantage of them," R-B coach Pat Elder said. "When you're playing a team of their caliber, when you have an opportunity, you have to capitalize on it. We had opportunities we let slip away and, obviously, that was the difference in the football game."