On the prowl, the Italy Gladiators head coached by Craig Bales went on a hunting expedition to Mart looking for Panthers in the second preseason game for both teams. Gladiator quarterback Jase Holden came ready to pull the trigger in the passing game and packed several backfield weapons to try out including Ryheem Walker, Kyle Jackson, Chase Hamilton and speedster Jalarnce Jamal Lewis.
Walker blasted his way thru the Panther defense for the tough yards while Jackson was effective as the sniper back going long distances. Hamilton caused tacklers to recoil upon impact and Lewis eventually shot past the Panther defenders for Italy’s lone touchdown late in the fourth.
Italy wasn’t hunting just any panther, however, they were tracking the Mart Panthers who are the current 1A-1 Region I District 8 state champions. In fact, Mart has five state football titles in their trophy case and has a legitimate chance to return to the title game again this season. Elusive and cunning, the Panthers attempted to keep the Gladiator defense guessing and allow Leonard Williams to run wild. Italy’s defenders proved to be up for the challenge and kept Williams and the other Panther runners targeted.
Italy’s opening drive had a first down plunge by fullback Kyle Jackson, a first down run by Lewis to the 45-yard line of Maypearl and 13-yard first down pass from Holden to Devonta Simmons to Mart’s twenty-five. After a false start penalty on first down, the drive stalled there and Mart took over on downs.
The Panthers’ first play netted 0-yards and then Italy’s Isaac Medrano recorded a sack to setup third and eleven. Mart fumbled on their next and Walker recovered for the Gladiators at the Panther 21-yard line with 4:12 to play in the opening quarter.
Three plays later, Italy fumbles the ball back to the Panthers who start from their own 15-yard line, 2:34 left in the quarter. Mart pushes the ball to the 34-yard line but a backfield tackle by Simmons to end the period forces the Panthers to punt on fourth and three. Italy starts from their forty-seven and Holden completes an 8-yard pass to Simmons to Mart’s forty-five. Walker gains one yard on the next play to bring up third and one. Mart stuffs a run attempt by Jackson and Italy is left with fourth and two and chooses to go for it. The Panthers remain stingy and take over on downs at their own 44-yard line at the 10:22 of the second.
Mart gets to the Italy 47-yard line where a tackle by Ethan Saxon sets up a third and one for the Panthers. Walker again makes a tackle for a loss on Mart’s side of the line-of-scrimmage and on fourth and two, the Panthers go for it. Mart’s short sideline pass sails high, to the delight of Italy’s defensive coach, Jeff Richters, and the Gladiators take back possession of the ball at their own 47-yard line, 8:46 to play in the first half.
Italy’s next three offensive plays fail to advance the ball and Jackson punts it away with Saxon making the tackle on Williams at Mart’s 5-yard line, 6:58 to play in the half. Williams runs for the first down to the Panther seventeen. Williams gains seven more yards to the 24-yard line. Consecutive pre-snap penalties result in second and fifteen for Mart so the Panthers go to the air and complete a pass good for 10-yards, third and five. A short run leaves a fourth and one for the Panthers but a quarterback keeper gets the first down at Mart’s 27-yard line, 3:54 still to play before halftime.
Mart tries to catch Italy unaware and throws a bomb pass down the Panther sideline. Italy’s Hayden Woods defends on the play as the pass drops incomplete, 3:45 on the clock. Mart eventually reaches the 39-yard line of Italy but a tackle in the backfield applied by Gladiator left defensive tackle Omar Estrada forces Panther head coach Rusty Nail to call a timeout. Mart faces second and five on Mart’s own 35-yard line with 2:50 still showing. Out of the timeout, the Panthers complete a pass and run in for the games first touchdown with 2:40 remaining in the half. The point after kick is good as the Panthers strike first, 7-0.
Jackson returns Mart’s ensuing kickoff 32-yards to the Panther forty-nine, 2:33 left. A few plays later, Italy goes for it on fourth and one at Mart’s 42-yard line with 0:59 remaining before halftime. Unfortunately, a bad snap kills Italy’s momentum and the half ends with the Panthers in the lead, 7-0.
Mart receives the ball to start the second half and after the return begins at Italy’s 49-yard line. Mart quickly fumbles on offense and Medrano recovers for the Gladiators from his noseguard position and Italy take over at the Panther forty-six. Holden goes to the air hoping for a big play following the change of possession but the Panthers pick it off and get a sizable return. Called for a holding penalty during the runback, Mart completes a pass to Italy’s 43-yard line and a first down to make up the yardage lost to the penalty.
At the 9:11 mark of the third, Mart throws an interception straight into the hands of Woods who is tackled immediately by the intended receiver. Italy takes over at their own 34-yard line, 9:04 to play in the third. Mart jumps offsides to give Italy 5-yards but strips the ball on the next play and returns the gift to the Gladiator 17-yard line where Eric Carson makes the touchdown saving tackle for Italy.
Walker holds the first Panther runner to a one yard gain at the seven, Medrano corrals Mart’s quarterback for a loss back to the 25-yard line and then Carson deflects a pass on a screen attempt by the Panthers as Italy’s defense causes Mart to attempt a field goal. The twenty-five yard try lands short and the score remains 7-0, 7:33 left in the third.
Italy takes over but struggles to gain ground so Jackson steps back to punt. Jackson’s line drive kick bounces end-over-end a few times and is downed by Italy at Mart’s 5-yard line, a 74-yard punt. The ball seemed to touch the Mart kick receiver which would have giving Italy a first down at the five but the officials ruled otherwise.
Mart begins to quickly chew up the turf and quickly reaches the 39-yard line of Italy where Tony Wooldridge brings down Williams with 3:46 to go in the third. Mart runs left to score on the next play and takes a 13-0 lead. Italy’s Medrano rolls his ankle during the touchdown run and is out the remainder of the contest. Mart kicks in the point after and leads 14-0, 3:25 left in the third.
A hard 17-yard return by Walker on the ensuing kickoff lets fans on both sides know Italy is still in the fight. On third and nine after a false start penalty, Holden passes to Simmons who withstands a simultaneous hit from three Panthers before being tackled. Simmons immediately rises and flexes for the crowd to rouse Italy’s fans and gives the Gladiators a first down at their own 40-yard line.
Italy is unable to capitalize on the momentum and punts from their 35-yard line early in the fourth quarter. A long return by Mart is called back on a clipping call but the Panthers are back in business with a first and twenty from their own twenty-five. Mart mounts another long drive and gets to Italy’s five. On second and one, Mart runs in for their third touchdown of the night. The point after kick counts and the Panthers lead 21-0 with 7:54 to play in the game.
Moments later, a seven yard pass completion from Holden to sophomore receiver Trevon Robertson gives Italy a first down at Italy’s 42-yard line with 5:32 left in the game. Jackson runs for six more yards to the forty-eight. Two plays later, Italy fumbles on the next play but right guard Adrian Reed recovers for the Gladiators to keep the drive alive. With the Panther defenders gasping for air, Lewis sprints right for a 30-yard touchdown run to put Italy on the board, 21-6 with 3:36 to play.
Holden scores the 2-point conversion to make the score 21-8 but Kevin Roldan’s onside kick attempt is covered by the Panthers who use consecutive runs to melt away the remaining time on the clock. Mart survives the Gladiator attack and holds on for the 21-8 win to post a 2-0 record while Italy’s record is now 1-1. Afterwards, a very pleased Gladiator coaching staff praises their team’s efforts while keeping the team’s focus on Italy’s first main goal, capturing the district championship. The hunt is on!
The Gladiators host the Palmer Bulldogs in a non-league test on Friday, September 9 starting at 7:30 p.m. at Willis Field. The Bulldogs come into the test with a record of 1-1 after losing their second preseason game 41-12 in a non-league test against the Mildred Eagles.