The Gillette Mustangs finished their regular season with a home loss to the Salina Liberty 43-41.

The team started the game about as well as one could hope. On the opening kick return, wide receiver Karonce Higgins picked the ball up off a bounce and returned it for a touchdown.

Salina had an answer. The Liberty marched downfield and scored in their first drive of the game. The Mustangs defense which has led the team for most of the season struggled to contain Liberty quarterback Ed Crouch who extended plays with his legs and kept his eyes downfield to make several clutch throws.

The teams continued a scoring back-and-forth. Jaylen Jefferson scored a rushing touchdown later in the first to retake the lead. As Salina was driving downfield, the Mustangs came up with a crucial fourth down pass breakup that forced the Liberty to settle for a field goal, cutting Gillette's lead to 14-10.

Jefferson scored his second touchdown of the night on a quick pitch to the left on the goal line to give the Mustangs a double-digit lead.

The Liberty cut the lead back to single digits with a touchdown pass from Crouch in the second quarter. After the game, coach Cedric Walker lemented the defense's inability to get stops against the Liberty offense and that possession could've been key if the Mustangs had stopped the Liberty to preserve and add to their double-digit lead.

Gillette was on the doorstep of another touchdown from Jefferson when the ball popped out of his hands while being tackled at the one-yard line. Salina recovered and with two minutes left in the first half drove the length of the field for a touchdown, taking a 23-21 lead for the first time in the game.

The missed opportunity from the goal-line fumble and the Salina touchdown put the Mustangs in trouble. The Liberty received the ball at the start of the second half and pushed the lead to nine with another touchdown.

The third quarter was not the best for the Mustangs as the home team responded with a turnover on downs midway through the third and once again couldn't stop the Liberty on offense, leading to a 15-point deficit.

After the turnover, the offense found its rhythm again. A big catch by Michael Cornelious Jr. saved a Mustangs drive that ended in a massive touchdown as the third quarter ran out. A successful two-point conversion later and the Mustangs were just seven points behind the Liberty.

To start the fourth quarter, the Mustangs opted for an onside kick that failed. Salina recovered the ball inside Gillette's five-yard line. Two plays later and the Liberty were up to a 14-point lead.

Aiken led the Mustangs downfield and the offense scored with an Arthur Anderson touchdown run. The Mustangs went for two and Higgins was ruled short of the end zone with a review upholding the call on the field.

Those two points proved to be the difference in the game. Salina drained the clock on its next drive but couldn't score, leaving the Mustangs with under two minutes to tie or win the game down eight.

Jefferson once again made a huge play, receiving a dump-off pass and taking it to the seven-yard line. With 11 seconds left in the game, Gillette scored. To tie the game, Aiken threw a goal line fade and was intercepted, closing the game with the Mustangs down just two points.

The playoff picture

The loss means that the playoffs begin next week for the Mustangs whereas the Liberty will have a week off.

Gillette will host the Southwest Kansas Storm, the team the Mustangs faced in the first week of the season. Both teams are vastly different than when the two met in the first week of March when the Mustangs won 30-12.

Even with the loss to end the season, coach Walker is proud of where his team is at. It was only a year ago that the Mustangs were struggling to make it into the playoffs with three wins. Now, the Mustangs are the third-best team in the league and finished with only three losses.

"I thought it was a good season," Walker said. "It starts at the top with (Mustangs owner) Steve (Titus). We brought some young guys who believe in the program and believe in us. It's nice to see with the turmoil we had last year to now — top three in the league."

If the Mustangs beat the Storm, they will have a rematch against the Liberty in Salina, Kansas.

Cornerback Sean Harper Jr. said the defense needs to get back to where it was ahead of the playoffs. The Mustangs won games early in the season by creating turnovers and forcing opponents to make mistakes. Creating more situations like that will be what pushes the Mustangs past the Storm and the Liberty.

Offensively, the team is still working in the new quarterback Aiken. Walker said he has been pleased with his development so far. Against Salina, Aiken made several checks at the line, a sign of his greater control of the offense.

"Now it's go hard or go home," Harper Jr. said. "We have to practice and get better come Monday morning and get ready to work."

The first-round playoff game will take place in Gillette on Saturday, June 3.