Under the direction of Coach Craig Bales who is in his second year as head coach, the Italy Gladiators have come full circle. Unlike three seasons ago when Italy didn’t win one game, the winning tradition is being restored in Gladiator country.
Thanks to Bales, his dedicated staff and hard working group of young men, 1A Italy posted a 5-0 District record, 6-2 overall, qualifying for the Playoffs and giving themselves a chance to reclaim the District Championship that has eluded the “Old Gold” in recent years.
Friday night pitted the Gladiators against the Dawson Bulldogs in a battle of two district unbeatens, in a winner-take-all matchup, to claim the District Championship.
Both sides punted on their first possessions but Italy’s Jasenio Anderson put the Gladiators on the board first. As Anderson was being sacked, he got the ball out to an open Thomas on the sideline who broke a tackle before being taken out at the 6-yard line of Dawson. A pylon dive by Anderson on the next play gave Italy the early 6-0 avantage, but the Bulldogs didn’t just roll over and play dead.
Instead, Dawson answered with a long kick return that setup a game tieing touchdown with 0:22 left in the first quarter.
Italy punted on their first possession of the second after a pass to pick up the first down dropped incomplete. With 4th and 4 on Italy’s own 40-yard line, the Gladiators executed a fake punt when Heath Clemons(2) pitched to Anderson for the first down at Dawson’s 45-yard line.
Anderson followed that with a pass completion to Clemons setting up a 2nd and 2. Italy continued the drive down to Dawson’s 9-yard line and went for it on 4th and 2. The snap almost slipped through the Anderson’s mud-covered hands but he kept control and darted straight through the middle of the Bulldog defense for Italy’s second touchdown of the game.
Kyle Jackson(28) was stopped short of the endzone’s edge on the conversion attempt but Italy was back in front 12-6.
Italy’s defense forces a Dawson punt but the Gladiators are unable to sustain a drive of their own and Anderson sends a 34-yard punt down to his jersey number at the Dawson 11-yard line.
Dawson marched into Gladiator territory thanks to their scrambling quarterback but a tackle by Anderson on 3rd and 3, with 3:03 left in the first half, forced the Bulldogs to punt the ball back over to the home team.
Anderson advances the ball to the 50-yard line and steps out-of-bounds to stop the clock. Anderson then completed a pass to John Isaac(10) down to the 6-yard line. Anderson ran a quarterback sneak up the middle to make the score 18-6 with 0:57 left in the half. Anderson easily walked in the 2-point conversion and the Gladiators were ahead 20-6 at halftime.
Italy’s Tavarus Griffin(85) made the tackle on the kickoff for the Gladiators, pinning the Bulldogs deep on their side of the field. Dawson did not waiver, however, and drove the ball down Willis Field wearing down Italy’s defense for the score with 4:49 left in the third. The run off right tackle for the coversion made the score 20-12 keeping the Bulldogs in the game.
Italy’s ensuing drive stalled and Dawson took over at their own 40-yard line at the 3:42 mark in the period.
After the short rest, Italy was back on defense, now struggling to contain Dawson’s scrambling quarterback. A long run by Dawson put the ball inside Italy’s 20-yard line. With the Gladiator defense still trying to catch their breaths, the Bulldogs easily punched it in from 12-yards out, tieing the game for a second time with 1:38 left in the third quarter.
Dawson kicked a short pop-up and Kyle Wilkins made the fair catch for Italy. On 2nd and 2 with 1:08 left in the third, Italy’s K. Jackson ran over a Bulldog to pick up the 1st down across midfield. Jackson carried again giving Italy a 2nd down and 8 with 0:25 left followed by an Anderson middle keeper to run out the quarter.
A few plays into the final period, Anderson hurled a pass down to Dawson’s goal line that was picked off by the Bulldogs giving them a first down on their own 1-yard line with 10:23 remaining in the game.
After some short runs and a holding penalty on Dawson, the Bulldogs with 2nd and 13-yards to go from their 10, threw a pass that netted them them 52-yards and a first down at Italy’s 38-yard line.
A tackle by Italy’s Ethan Simon(50) gave Dawson a 3rd and 6. Then a sack by Jacob Lopez(52) brought up 4th and 6 at the 5:13 mark in the fourth, halting the surge by the Bulldogs, and Dawson punted back to Italy.
Dawson was able to keep the punt from rolling into the endzone and downed it on Italy’s 1-yard line. With the game and the District Championship on the line, Anderson completed a pass to Thomas for a first down at the Gladiator 12.
Italy continued moving the ball as Anderson completed a pass to Jackson for another Italy first down at Dawson’s 44-yard line. Then with 4 minutes left, Anderson, as he has done all season, made it happen by breaking free down Italy’s sideline for the go ahead score.
The celebration was short lived as a dreaded yellow hanky had been left back near midfield. The call was a clipping penalty against the Gladiators and the referees brought the ball all the way back to Italy’s 31-yard line, leaving them with a 1st and 25, 3:38 remaining.
Unable to overcome the penalty yards, Anderson punted the ball over to Dawson. A tackle by Italy’s Ross Enriquez(55) left Dawson with a 2nd and 11 on the Bulldog 39-yard line.
With both teams needing a big play, Dawson completed another long pass down to Italy’s 30-yard line with 1:47 left in the game.
The Bulldogs worked their way to Italy’s 1-yard line and with 0:09 left in regulation. Dawson ran a handoff up the middle and crossed Italy’s goal line for the lead. The PAT was good and Dawson led 27-20 with 0:06 left.
Italy’s Sephus fielded the kickoff and, for a moment, looked as though he might slip through Dawson’s coverage unit. The Bulldogs managed to make the tackle, however, holding on for the win and are now holding the District Championship trophy.
Hats off to both teams for a fabulous effort under great pressure. In the end, it was Dawson’s ability to ground the Gladiators’ high powered offense and hold Italy scoreless in the second half.
Italy will travel to Itasca on Friday, November 6 to take on the Wildcats in the final district game of the season starting at 7:30 p.m. From there, Italy will be headed for the playoffs!