Gladiators claim area championship with 35-14 win over the Valley View Eagles

Image: The Italy High School cheerleaders pump up the crowd as the team bus passes thru the school parking lot with fans giving the Gladiators a “good luck” sendoff while on their way to Pennington Field in Bedford to take on Valley View for the area championship.

The Italy High School cheerleaders pump up the crowd as the team bus passes thru the school parking lot with fans giving the Gladiators a “good luck” sendoff while on their way to Pennington Field in Bedford to take on Valley View for the area championship. (Barry Byers)

Bedford — After enjoying a team cookout at the home of Mark Jacinto, the Italy Gladiators (5-0,8-4) received a sendoff from fans outside Italy Coliseum as they departed for their second round playoff challenge against the Valley View Eagles.

Although feeling confident upon arriving at Pennigton Field in Bedford, head coach Hank Hollywood hoped his squad could find a rhythm early after earning a bye the previous week, which could be both a positive and negative. The bye gave his players a chance to heal after sweeping their district competitors for an undefeated District 6-1A District Championship and an automatic Bi-District Championship. As the Gladiators rested last Friday night, however, Valley View moved past Simms Bowie 35-28 for a bi-district championship of their own and, therefore, would be in game shape come kickoff time against Italy.

Valley View takes advantage of the rust that had settled on the Gladiators’ armor during the bye and forces an Italy fumble on the third play of the game which is recovered by the Eagles on their own 35-yard line. Italy’s Zain Byers makes a tackle off the edge and then combines with Ryheem Walker for the next tackle to bring up 3rd and long. Chase Hamilton makes a quick tackle after a completed pass leaving Valley View with 4th and 5 which results in an Eagle punt, 9:50 still to play in the first-quarter.

Cox catches the punt off the bounce near his own 5-yard line but can only wiggle to the Gladiator nineteen. After a false start, Walker carries twice to reach the original line-of-scrimmage. Cox completes a pass to Eric Carson who drags tacklers across for the 1st down at Italy’s 31-yard line. Italy’s next three plays only net 1-yard and the Gladiators punt the ball back to Valley View. Punter Cole Hopkins takes the snap from Kyle Fortenberry and boots the ball deep with Carson and Hamilton making the tackle at the Eagle 29-yard line.

Jalarnce Lewis gives chase as Eagle runner Landon Boax is upended by Carson at cornerback, 2nd and 9. Valley View hopes to catch Italy’s defense unaware by passing on 2nd down but Cox breaks up the attempt, 6:19 on the clock. Two plays later, Walker and Adrian Reed combine for the stop to force an Eagle punt on 4th and 4 that rolls out at Italy’s 31-yard line, Italy’s defense holds with 5:33 on the clock.

A pair of short runs by Walker sets up a 1st and 10 effort by Cox to the forty-four. Cox again runs for a 1st down and then shoots a pass to Levi McBride that is nearly picked by the Eagles. Walker bursts ahead for another Gladiator 1st down to the Valley View 39-yard line. A miscue in the backfield causes Cox to cover the ball back at forty-eight. Cox hands to Walker who gains 3 yards to bring up 3rd and 10. Cox scrambles around for an opening but coughs up the ball for the second time and the Eagles recover at their own 41-yard line, 2:09 on the clock as Valley View begins their third possession of the first-quarter.

Boax heads left and reaches the sideline while avoiding three Gladiator tacklers, cuts back across the field and then eludes a diving Cox from behind to reach the end zone, 6-0 Eagles with 1:52 showing. The point-after kick is good and Valley View strikes first to lead 7-0.

Hamilton returns the kickoff to Italy’s 37-yard line to give the Gladiator offense momentum. Cox keeps up the middle for 3 yards. Carson catches a Cox pass and then has his legs taken out at the forty-five. Cox keeps again and rushes for a 1st down to the forty-nine, :46 seconds left. Cox is knocked out-of-bounds after a gain of one. Carson makes a gutsy midair catch, takes a shot to the back of the helmet and lands for a 1st down at the 36-yard line of Valley View. Cox goes back to Carson who makes another 1st down catch at the twenty-five before being taken out-of-bounds to end the quarter.

To start the second, Walker takes over from there and winds his way thru the Eagle defense for an Italy touchdown. The point-after kick misses right but the Gladiators are on the board trailing Valley View 7-6.

Kevin Roldan kicks off and Valley View reaches their twenty-seven on the return. Despite tackles by Fortenberry and Lewis, a 1st down run by Boax and a pass completion to Italy’s 35-yard line have the Eagles back in scoring position with 9:38 left in the second-quarter. The Eagles gain 1 yard with Carson making the stop. Valley View tries a halfback pass with Boax doing the honors. Byers rushes the throw and then buries Boax as the pass sails inside the twenty. Carson makes a diving effort to deflect the pass bringing up a 3rd and long situation for the Eagles. Byers pressures Eagle quarterback Ethan McCollum forcing an incomplete pass. Italy declines an illegal man downfield penalty and Valley View goes for it an 4th and 9.

Again, Byers hurries McCollum who flings a pass towards Italy’s endzone. Cox picks off the pass, makes a move, finds a wall of blockers and then follows the Gladiator convoy 94-yards for the defensive touchdown, Italy leads 12-7. Cox runs in for the conversion to give Italy a 14-7 advantage with 7:53 remaining in the first half.

Roldan’s kickoff goes in to the endzone for a touchback. Byers makes first contact on Boax in the backfield but the Eagle runner slips thru the grasp before Hamilton makes the stop after a 5 yard gain. Boax carries for an Eagle first down on the next play to Valley View’s 36-yard line, 6:55. Lewis helps Shad Newman make the stop at the forty-one, 2nd and 4 for the Eagles. An Eagle runner tries to fly over Italy’s defense but Walker, from his middle linebacker position, takes aim and plucks the ball carrier out of the air to bring up 3rd and 1 at Italy’s 45-yard line, 5:25.

A QB keeper by McCollum gets the first at the Eagle forty-seven. Fortenberry tackles Boax who gains five. Newman stops Boax a yard shy of the 1st down. Walker holds the middle to bring up 4th and inches for Valley View, 3:10. McCollum keeps of for the 1st down with Byers pulling him down at Italy’s 42-yard line. Cox makes the next tackle but a holding penalty against the Eagles back up Valley View to midfield, 1st and 20 with 2:15 on the clock. The Eagles gain 1 yard but then Carson breaks up a pass attempt as does Cox on the following play to force a 4th and 19 Eagle punt from Italy’s 49-yard line. The short punt travels out at Italy’s 35-yard line with 1:20 to go in the half.

Italy’s drive quickly stalls and Hopkins punts the ball back to the Eagles where Valley View thinks about things from their 36-yard line. After a run gains only 3 yards, McCollum takes a knee instead of challenging Italy’s secondary to end the half with Italy leading 14-7.

The Gladiator Regiment Band performs at halftime with Drum Major Emily Stiles leading the way. Despite several band members being out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday, the GRB didn’t miss a beat as fans prepared for the second half by drinking hot chocolate to help stay warm.

Roldan kicks off to Valley View starting the second half. Walker and Byers hold the Eagles to 1 yard gain at the Eagle forty-one. McCollum completes a pass at midfield to Boaz for a 1st down. A false start backs the Eagles to their 45-yard line. Fortenberry stops the Eagles after a gain of four, 2nd and 11. McCollum drops back to pass. Byers gets a clear shot into he backfield causing McCollum to sidestep the relentless Gladiator before throwing. Walker breaks up the pass at Italy’s 22-yard line. On the next pass attempt, Lewis forces McCollum to throw while fading backwards causing the pass to deflect off one Eagle receiver and into the hands off another. Hunter French makes the diving catch for a Valley View 1st down at the Gladiator thirty-nine, 9:42.

Byers wraps Boax around the legs as backside defensive tackle Reid Jacinto scrapes down the line to lower the boom on Boax for a 1 yard loss. Another false start charged to Valley View results in a 2nd and 16 problem for the Eagles. Jacinto helps force an incomplete pass by McCollum to bring up 3rd and 16. Boax hauls in a 1st down pass at the Italy 25-yard line, 8:21. Two runs give the Eagles another 1st down at the 14-yard line. Merimon and Carson make a tackle at the nine. On 2nd and 5, Boax runs right and reaches the pylon to make the score 14-13. The point-after kick is good to tie the contest 14-14, 6:21.

Carson returns the ensuing kickoff to Italy’s 35-yard line. Left offensive tackle Cody Medrano leads the way for Walker who reaches midfield. Cox rushes for 1 yard and then gains 28-yards on his next carry to the Valley View thirty-six for a Gladiator 1st down in Eagle territory. Right offensive tackle Zackery Boykin helps Cox gain 2 yards. Hopkins catches a pass from Cox but is upended for a gain of two, 3rd and a long. Carson makes a catch but is stopped a yard short of the 1st down, 4th and 1. Walker tries the middle but hits a wall of shoulder pads and helmets. Refusing to go down, Walker keeps fighting, gives ground and then pitches to Hamilton who dashes 28 yards for a Gladiator touchdown. Eagle fans boo in protest feeling Walker was down before he made the pitch but there was no whistle on the play and the touchdown stands. Cox finds Carson open in the end zone for the two-point conversion and Italy jumps back in front 22-14, 2:33 remaining in the third-quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, Boax finds a crease and heads for the end zone. Hopkins tracks the sprinter down and pulls Boax out-of-bounds at Italy’s 31-yard line. Walker and Carson combine for the stop after the Eagles gain four. Eagles pass for a 1st down to the sixteen with 1:36 on the third-quarter clock. Fortenberry and Walker make the stop at the twelve. Carson applies tight coverage to force an incomplete pass. McCollum passes again but Cox brilliantly jars the ball loose from an Eagle receiver inside the five. Merimon flies in to pressure McCollum who lofts a pass to the left pylon intended for a leaping Boax. Cox, again, bats the pass down to bring up 4th and 6 with :48 seconds showing.

The Eagles lineup for a field goal attempt but run a fake instead. The pass attempt lands incomplete and Italy regains control of the ball at their own twelve with :43 seconds to play in the third. Cox keeps up the middle but a flag backs Italy dangerously close to their own goal line at the seven. Walker manages to fall forward to the 8-yard line ending the third-quarter with Italy clinging to a 22-14 lead.

A short run to start the fourth-quarter, followed by a completion to Carson, pushes the ball to the seventeen but Hopkins punts it away from there. Moments later, the Eagles reach Italy’s 37-yard line. Byers trips Boax who stumbles to the thirty-two, 9:36 is left in the battle for the area championship. Reed and Walker combine for the tackle at Italy’s twenty-nine. Walker keeps the Eagles a yard shy of the 1st down but Valley View picks up the needed yardage with Boax bumbling forward to Italy’s eighteen. Boax pushes thru the middle of Italy’s defense to the eight for an Eagle 1st down. Eagles run again but are unable to punch thru with Newman stripping the ball only to have the runner ruled down, 7:35 to play. Timeout Eagles. Boax returns to the field and takes the handoff from McCollum, but before reaching the end zone, a hit by Walker loosens Boax’s grip on the ball. The ball pops out and bounces across the goal line and into the end zone. Merimon quickly pounces on the fumble for a touchback, Gladiator football!

Italy begins from their 20-yard line. A pass from Cox to Carson sails high and is nearly intercepted for what could have been a game changing defensive touchdown for the Eagles. Runs by Walker and Cox give Italy some breathing room. Cox then hands to Walker who runs right, cuts back left and then picks up a downfield block from Carson that springs Walker to the Eagle 25-yard line for a 40 yard gain. Cox keeps to the sixteen on the next play. Walker reaches the eleven. Cox runs in from there to put the Gladiators up 28-14. Roldan’s kick is true and Italy leads Valley View 29-14 with 4:37 remaining.

Roldan kicks off to the Eagles who start from their own 29-yard line. Two passes by McCollum advance the ball to the forty-nine. McCollum goes to the well once too often and Cox picks off the Eagle QB and drags a tackler to the 38-yard line of Italy. Cox records his second interception of the game. Back on offense, Cox keeps for 3 yards. Cox then makes a dazzling run for big yards but fumbles at the Valley View 19-yard line where the Eagles recover the ball with 1:37 still to go.

With the Eagle out of options, McCollum fires passes downfield with Hamilton, Walker and Cox batting down attempts. The Eagles do manage a couple of 1st downs, however, as Coach Hollywood implores his defense to finish the game. After a near interception by Hamilton in the end zone that stops the clock with :6 seconds remaining, McCollum passes one more time. Cox intercepts the final effort by the Eagles and dashes 94-yards for his third interception and second defensive touchdown on the night.

The game ends with Italy on top 35-14 at which time both sidelines merged for a group prayer. Coach Hollywood and the Gladiators are then presented the 1A Division 1 Region II Area Championship trophy at midfield. Several Italy players leaped into the stands to celebrate with fans while Jalarnce Lewis paraded the trophy down Italy’s sideline for all the fans to see. With the win over Valley View, Italy claims their third trophy for the shelf this season after securing the district championship and bi-district championship previously.

Next up for the Italy Gladiators (5-0,8-4) will be a tough Honey Grove team who is ranked in the 1A top ten and defeated Hico 42-27 in an area championship contest this past Friday night as well. Italy will have to slow down 6’,1" 185 pound senior tailback Demontrae Finney of the Warriors and deal with a scrappy lineman group for the regional Championship prize.

Congratulation to the Gladiators on their accomplishments so far this season!

Italy will take on Honey Grove in neutral Wills Point on Friday, November 30, starting at 7:30 p.m.

Go Italy!

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