Mart — As I passed the Mart City Limit sign with passengers from the Gladiator Varsity squad, which included Heath Clemons, De’Andre Sephus, Jalarnce Jamal Lewis and Corrin Frazier, it didn’t take long to notice that the town of Mart was just as intertwined with their football program as Italy is with the Gladiators.
First, I noticed a young boy setting up a tee in his front yard to kick a football and then on the next block was a purple and gold painted picket fence that read “Tradition and Excellence.” As we approached the field, the road to the Mart high school was tracked with bright gold painted paw prints, leaving no doubt we were in Panther country and that this was sure to be a classic battle between two Texas football towns.
As the Italy JV players made their way across the track and onto the turf field, the Mart team was eagerly warming up in anticipation of a Gladiator attack. Zackery Boykin and Paul Harris represented Italy at midfield as captains. As the coin toss landed atop an elaborately painted, snarling Panther head, the Panthers’ captain deferred the results and asked to receive the second half kickoff. After the handshakes, the Panthers kicked to Italy and Eric Carson followed a pancake block by Harris to the 49-yard line of the Panthers.
On fourth down and 7-yards to go, Chase Hamilton lowered his head and lowered the boom on a Panther tackler for 8-yards and a first down. Justin Wood picked up six more but on fourth and 4, Wood came up a half-yard shy of the first down and the Panthers took over at their own 31-yard line.
Jake Escamilla and Tony Wooldridge combine for a tackle and then Harris foils a reverse attempt by the Panthers to setup a third and 6-yards to go for Mart. The Panthers pass for the needed yardage but the ball dropped incomplete and Mart punted the ball over to Italy.
Three plays later, Italy fumbles on a busted play and the Panthers recovered at the 42-yard line of Italy. Mart’s quarterback faked a handoff and ran to the left side all the way to Italy’s 23. Mart’s second reverse attempt struck purple as the Panther runner withstood a hard hit from linebacker Chase Hamilton at the goal line for the first score of the game. The Panthers executed a forward lateral for the 2-point conversion, 8-0 Panthers with 2:00 left in the opening quarter.
Carson returned the ensuing kickoff to Italy’s own 34-yard line. Wooldridge, at quarterback, handed to Hamilton on first down who raced 66-yards for Italy’s first touchdown. The 2-point run attempt by Wood was shutdown by the Panther defense and Mart held an 8-6 lead with over 1:00 remaining in the quarter.
Mart received the kickoff and put together another scoring drive that ended with a lateral pitch to the left side of the field making the score 14-6. A quarterback keeper added 2 more points and the Panthers continued to lead 16-6 with 7:52 left in the 2nd quarter.
Italy fumbled the snap on their next possession and the Panthers picked the loose ball off the turf and headed toward the endzone. Cody Medrano caught the Panther from behind to temporarily keep Mart out of the endzone. After a holding penalty backed Mart to Italy’s 14-yard line, the Panther quarterback run thru the middle of the line for 6-points to make the score 22-6. Mart ran in for the conversion to take a commanding 24-6 advantage, 6:41 remaining in the 1st half.
Italy’s next drive stalls at their own 44-yard line forcing Wooldridge to punt. 41-yards later the ball rolled out of bounds and the Panthers took over at their 25-yard line. A Wooldridge tackle and a near interception by Eric Carson force the Panthers to go for it on fourth and short. Italy holds and takes over at the Mart 38-yard line.
Italy’s Justin Wood breaks tackles and bulls his way over another to give Italy a first down at the Mart 20. Wood later picks up 5 more yards to the Mart 15 but with fourth and 5-yards to go, coach Stephen Coleman calls a timeout to speak with his offense. The speech by Coleman worked as running back Mike Clark ran for the first down and then met a wall of Panthers at the 5-yard line where he broke thru and carried tacklers into the endzone.
Clark’s effort made the score 24-12 with 1:06 left before halftime. The conversion by Clark was stopped but Italy finally had a ray of sunshine on a dark clouded day.
Kevin Roldan’s ensuing kick bounced at the 5-yard line and out of the back of the endzone for a touchback. The Panthers muscled their way to the 26 and then tore loose on the next play to Italy’s 42-yard line where Italy’s Medrano made another touchdown saving tackle from behind. Mart was unable to add to their lead and the halftime buzzer sounded.
Italy forced Mart to punt on their opening possession of the 3rd quarter. Italy made their way into Panther territory and Wooldridge dropped back and passed to Harris who was blanketed on the play by a Mart defender. Harris challenged for the ball and not only robbed Mart of an interception but came away with the ball on his way down and darted into the endzone. The 36-yard connection made the score 24-18 with 5:39 to go in the 3rd.
Mart starts from their own 30-yard line after Roldan’s kick. Mart advances the ball to the 41 for a first down. The next play was a pass into the flat by the Panthers and it appeared it might go the distance. Italy’s Medrano was “Cody on the spot” yet again and caught the Panther receiver from behind at the 5-yard line of Italy.
The Panthers punch it on the second play to take a 30-18 lead. Medrano makes the tackle on the conversion and the score holds with 2:00 left in the 3rd quarter.
Carson avoids tacklers and returns the kickoff to Italy’s own 40-yard line. The Gladiators get stumped and Wooldridge steps back to punt. Wooldridge has his legs rolled into after the punt was away and Italy was awarded 15-yards and a first down on Mart’s side of the field. Wooldridge was sacked from behind on the next play and the Panthers recovered the ball for a first down at midfield.
Moments later, Mart is faced with a fourth and 11-yards to go and try to pass for the yards. Carson leaps high to disrupt a sure catch by the Panthers and Mart must punt with 9:31 left in the game. Zackery Boykin reaches the punter before Mart can get the kick away and Harris recovers the rare gift at the panther 40-yard line.
Woolridge finds Trevon Robertson downfield for a 16-yard completion to the 24 of Mart. Carson catches the next pass and advance the ball toward the goal line. The ball is knocked loose as Carson gets tackled but the ball deflected out at the 11-yard line for a first down for the Gladiators, 8:51 remaining.
A series a mishaps and penalties relocated Italy’s offense all the way back to the 36-yard line of Mart. Italy’s Hamilton benefited on a brilliant play call by Coleman and sprinted 36-yards for the touchdown, Mart leads 30-24 with 7:04 left. Italy couldn’t manage the conversion but were now one touchdown away from tying the contest.
Unfortunately, Italy was unable to cross the goal line again and Mart added another touchdown with 1:54 on the clock. The conversion run counted as well and the Panthers defended their home turf with a 38-24 win over Italy’s JV team.
It was a fun game to watch. Blocked punts, fumbles, great blocks and long runs and big hits. Mart even had a ball boy with a batman cape on. Italy’s defensive coach Jeff Richters questioned the officials as to why Italy’s ball boys weren’t issued batman capes, but it was all in good fun. Coleman commended his team for showing some heart and playing thru adversity after the game.
The Italy Junior High players will see their first action against the Palmer Bulldogs on Thursday, September 9 in Italy. The 7th grade team will start at 5:00 p.m., the 8th grade team will follow at 6:00 p.m. and the JV Gladiators will battle the Bulldogs in the finale starting at 7:00 p.m.