Hamilton running back Kellen Overstreet carries the ball against the Lawson defense on Friday night at Penney High School.

HAMILTON, Mo. — Visibly stirred after their toughest test of the season, Hamilton’s players trudged solemnly to the home locker room Friday night.

Most expressions were grim. Some shocked.

“They were quiet as mice,” an exasperated coach Dave Fairchild said from outside his adjacent office. “You’d have thought we lost the game by the way they looked in here.”

The Class 1 No. 1 Hornets had, in fact, just escaped with a 14-9 victory over Lawson, remaining unblemished and in prime position for a conference title in their KCI Conference debut, but an understanding that futile nights on the ground like this one will be unacceptable moving forward permeated the post-game mood.

“This is definitely a reality check,” said running back Kellen Overstreet, who accounted for almost half of Hamilton’s offense with a decisive 59-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. “We know we have to do things differently if we want to make it to the big show.”

A hungry, prideful Lawson squad bottled up the Hornets’ rushing attack, holding them to a season-low 68 yards, but watched its chances of an eighth straight league crown or share melt away by the slimmest of margins.

Running back Adam Turpin (21 carries for 95 yards) bulled his way up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes, 25 seconds remaining to bring the Cardinals within five points. Loading the box with 10 players as it had all night, Lawson then forced the last pair of eight Hamilton punts.

“Heck no, we didn’t back down,” Cardinals coach Todd Dunn said. “Our guys beat them everywhere but a couple plays.”

Quarterback Drew Finch’s final pooch kick — feigning a play from scrimmage before every punt —pinned the Cardinals at their own 3 with 1:10 left, but a 53-yard desperation toss to wide out Garrett Titus gave Lawson breathing room.

Quarterback Blake Edwards watched his favorite target sneak behind the Hornets’ defense again on the game’s final snap, but cornerback Jalen Richman jumped in front of Titus. The Cardinals receiver couldn’t corral the well-placed heave as he crumpled to the ground in the end zone.

“They snuck behind us, for crying out loud, and how they can do that — I mean, I thought we had them coached up better than that, but we obviously didn’t,” said Fairchild, whose team seeks a third state championship in four seasons.

The failed attempt from Hamilton’s 26 allowed Class 1 No. 1 Hamilton (7-0, 5-0 KCI Conference) to hand Lawson a third straight crushing defeat after ending the Cardinals’ season in each of the past two Class 2 playoffs.

Hamilton also maintained a 12-point lead on second-place South Harrison in Class 1 District 8. Despite losing to a team of lower classification, Lawson (4-3, 3-2) remained at fourth in Class 3 District 8 with two regular-season games left.

But this looked nothing like the Hornets’ first five games, which they won by a combined 247-60.

A reigning first-team all-state selection, senior running back Derrick Hughes carried 13 times for 25 yards, 159 less than his season average. In similar fashion, a team rushing for 342.7 yards per contest looked powerless, conjuring just three first downs and rushing for more than 6 yards on a play only once.

“They just had a lot of people up there,” Fairchild said of Lawson’s defense, “and we weren’t getting them blocked.”

Devan Hughes’ 83-yard kickoff return in the second quarter answered Landon Priest’s 28-yard field goal. Lawson also lost a fumble inside the Hamilton 10 during a scoreless first quarter.

Without that play, Hughes’ untouched sprint down the left hash and Overstreet’s wide-open scoring play down a seam on the same part of the field, Hamilton could’ve been staring at a rankings-shaking upset.

Lawson knew its sizable front and linebacking corps could match up physically with Hamilton, which had attempted only 7.3 passes per game.

“We were confident,” said Titus, a junior who caught four passes for 95 yards and added an interception from his free safety spot. “We’re Lawson, and we come together as brothers. … We played a really nice game, and Hamilton just made enough plays to come out and beat us.”

Phil Ervin can be reached

at phil.ervin@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilErvin.