Italy continues playoff run by upsetting Honey Grove 33-20 in regional semifinal

Image: Gladiator senior captains Caden Jacinto(6), Kelvin Joffre(80), Reid Jacinto(11) and Adrian Reed(64) wish the Honey Grove captains luck.

Gladiator senior captains Caden Jacinto(6), Kelvin Joffre(80), Reid Jacinto(11) and Adrian Reed(64) wish the Honey Grove captains luck. (Barry Byers)

Wills, Point — The Honey Grove Warriors entered Friday night’s regional semifinal boasting a 10-0-1 season record as all signs indicated a sure Warrior victory over the Italy Gladiators (5-0,7-4), head coached by Hank Hollywood. With Italy losing to Hico during preseaon 27-8 and Honey Grove defeating Hico 42-27 for an area championship, many “experts” left Italy with little chance. Unless, of course, you were an Italy fan.

Italy seemed better than their pre-season record of 1-4 suggested. All the pieces were in a stack of potential. Coach Hollywood, in his first year as head football coach and athletic director for Italy High School, and his assistant coaches Nate Skelton, Brian Coffman, Brandon Duncan, Josh Ward, Wayne Rowe and Larry Mayberry, Sr. just needed to put the championship puzzle together.

Analyzing Italy’s performance against Hico, Scott Connor, father of Italy’s freshman quarterback Ryan Connor, made a bold prediction going into the matchup against Honey Grove, “Hico did not beat us in that game. We fumbled several times on our side of the field thru mistakes of our own. Our defense managed to keep us in it and we still led 8-7 after three quarters. We were simply unable to finish and Hico got the win. It was the first start for Marvin Cox at quarterback and the first start for center Kyle Fortenberry that had been moved up from our JV squad. It was obvious to me that Italy should have won 35-7. The players just needed to keep believing.”

Mr. Connor added, “I predicted Italy would win by 20-points against Honey Grove. Nine of Honey Grove’s opponents this season finished with losing records, and to me, the Warriors were overrated. True, they beat Hico convincingly last week, but you know how I feel about Hico’s squad.”

When Cox stepped in at quarterback for the Gladiators, junior quarterback Eric Carson returned to receiver where he is more comfortable as a talented route runner, solidifying Italy’s offensive attack. Carson, who had been held off the defensive side of the ball while running the offense, was done so to help avoid an injury to their best quarterback option at the time. With Cox taking the snaps, however, both joined the defensive secondary at the start of district play with Carson a returning all-district cornerback from 2011. Coach Hollywood completely revamped his defensive front, as well, placing Jalarnce Lewis, Zain Byers, Adrian Reed and Reid Jacinto on the front line.

The changes, with tweaks here and there along the way, have strengthened the Gladiator defense which, led by team leading tackler Ryheem Walker at middle linebacker, showed its might against Honey Grove on Friday by suffocating quarterback Jeremy Patt and tailback Demontrae Finney. With Italy jumping out to a 14-6 lead early, the Warriors, who have not trailed an opponent all season, became increasingly frustrated on offense as the game wore on and eventually self-destructed as Italy squeezed the last bit of hope from the Warrior faithful.

Italy’s Kevin Roldan kicked off to Honey Grove to start the regional round with the Warriors calling for a fair catch at their own 28-yard line. Carson brings down Finney to setup 2nd and 10. Patt gains three on the keeper. Honey Grove gains five on the next play to the Grove’s own 47-yard line. Patt dances and jukes to Italy’s 48-yard line for the 1st down. Finney runs for another Warrior 1st down to Italy’s thirty-five. Byers makes the tackle to bring up 2nd and 8 with 9:33 on the first-quarter clock.

An incomplete pass with Walker covering brings up 3rd and long. Patt starts left and then cuts right for a clear run to the end zone. Holding on the Warriors erases the effort and the ball is spotted back at Italy’s 48-yard line leaving the Grove facing a 3rd and 18, as the celebration for the orange cladded Warriors gets cut short.

A pass from Patt is batted down by Cox who closes in on the ball inside the Gladiator 10-yard line, 4th and 18. The Warriors punt and the ball rolls dead at Italy’s five, 8:40. The next test for Honey Grove would be tangling with Walker who is a punishing force out of the Gladiator backfield, the likes of which the Warriors have not seen this season. Coach Hollywood waists no time in releasing his warrior as Walker takes the handoff from Cox and fights to the twelve.

Walker then breaks into the open for a long gainer to Italy’s 42-yard line with the Grove defense already dreading the senior tailback when he carries the ball. Walker hits the middle of the line for one to bring up 2nd and 9 with the Honey Grove defense feeling better about things. Cox decides it’s a good time to introduce himself to the Warrior fan base and hits a lane created by a pad-cracking kick-out block by guard Darol Mayberry and by downfield blocks from tackle Cody Medrano and receiver Cole Hopkins to go untouched 57 yards for a Gladiator touchdown. Roldan’s point-after kick is true to help give Italy a 7-0 advantage at the 7:22 mark of the first.

Roldan kicks off again with Finney working his way to the Honey Grove 37-yard line. Patt loses the handle on the snap but pulls it in just as Byers, from his defensive end position, hammers Patt into the turf. The result is a 2nd and 16 back at the Grove thirty-one. Patt keeps for 5 yards. With solid coverage downfield by Chase Hamilton, Trevon Robertson, Carson, Cox and Hayden Woods who returned to Italy’s lineup after recovering from a shoulder injury incurred during the Gladiator’s district win over Gateway, Byers and linebacker Shadrach Newman force Patt to throw the ball away, 4th and 11. Honey Grove punts for the second time in the opening quarter from their 36-yard line and the ball rolls dead at Italy’s 12-yard line.

Walker powers ahead for three to the 15-yard line. The Warriors jump offsides so Cox wisely takes a chance downfield to Hopkins but the pass is intercepted and returned inside Italy’s 20-yard line. The penalty returns possession to the Gladiators who continue on 2nd and 2 at their 20-yard line, 5:09.

Walker, unstoppable to this point, carries to the twenty-six for a 1st down. Cox passes out to Carson who covers 14-yards after the catch to the forty. Walker finds room to run, yet again, but the effort is cancelled out by an illegal block leaving Italy with 1st and 20 from their own 29-yard line, 4:21. Cox runs behind Mayberry and Medrano to reach the forty-two, 2nd and 8. Walker stretches for all he can get to the forty-four, 3rd and 6. Coach Hollywood takes Italy’s second timeout of the half. Out of the break, Cox keeps and 13 yards to Honey Grove’s 41-yard line and a 1st down for Italy.

Walker loses yards on the next play but Hamilton gains 4 yards to setup 3rd and 8 at Honey Grove’s 39-yard line. A Cox pass goes incomplete to freshman receiver Levi McBride along the Grove sideline to bring up 4th and 11. Fortenberry snaps to Hopkins who punts a perfect 37 yard punt that bounces out at the Warrior’s 2-yard line, 1:04. Finney quickly gives Honey Grove breathing room and bursts ahead for 9 yards. Finney carries again for a 1st down at the Warrior twenty-three. Finney runs to the thirty-two for another Grove 1st down to end the first-quarter with Italy still in front 7-0.

Walker wraps up Finney who reaches the thirty-nine to move the chains. Walker and Byers string out a run to the right by Patt with Byers securing the elusive quarterback after a gain of five. A fake to Finney, who is tackled by Byers causing the decoy runner regret, allows Patt to try sneaking outside. Freshman backer Hunter Merimon, Carson and Hamilton read the play and force Patt out at the 47-yard line, 3rd and 2. Cox and Walker corral Finney short of the 1st down, 4th and 1. Patt tries to keep up the middle but penetration by Mayberry and Byers, with Byers clinging to Patt’s leg beneath the pile up, allows Newman, Merimon, Cox, Carson, Jacinto, and Lewis to push Patt down short of his goal. Gladiators’ ball! Italy takes over at their own 47-yard line as a Warrior teammate retrieves Patt’s dislodged bonnet from the turf and hands it to his disheartened quarterback.

Walker starts with another tough run to Honey Grove’s 43-yard line, 9:40 to play in the second-quarter. Walker drags Warrior tacklers across the 1st down line to the enemy’s thirty-six. Cox gains 1 yard to the twenty-six. Cox hands to Walker who charges thru the middle, veers to the right and then goes in standing up for a 26-yard touchdown. Roldan boots thru the point-after kick, with Fortenberry snapping and Hopkins holding, to put Italy up 14-0 with 8:04 left before halftime.

Finney returns Roldan’s ensuing kickoff to the Grove 45-yard line. Cox tackles Finney after a 4 yard gain near midfield. Finney runs for 1st down yardage to Italy’s 45-yard line, 7:16. Byers squeezes down on the B-gap as Newman fills the hole, with help from Lewis, to stop Finney, Honey Grove’s big hitter, for only a 3 yard gain. A completed pass by Honey Grove setups a 1st and 10 run by Finney to Italy’s 13-yard line. Cox and Walker combine for another stop, 2nd and 7. Patt passes to the right where Charles Sanders makes the grab. Hamilton fights off a block to form wrap Sanders, lifts him off his feet and then parks the Warrior at Italy’s 9-yard line, 3rd and 5 with 4:16 remaining before halftime.

Patt wants to pass again but struggles to find an open receiver. Byers makes Patt pay for delaying and sacks the Warrior QB at the 10-yard line, 4th and 6. Honey Grove opts to try for it and Patt buys more time in the pocket allowing him to dart a low pass to Cole Cunningham who makes the diving catch across the goal line for a Warrior TD. The point-after kick fails as Italy remains in front 14-6 with 3:17 to go.

Hopkins fair catches the kickoff at the Italy 36-yard line. Walker begins the drive with a 1st down run to the forty-six. Walker hits the Warrior sideline for a big gain to Honey Grove’s 22-yard line, a 32 yard pickup. Walker gains four more to the eighteen. Cox gains 1 yard to the seventeen. A low snap forces Cox to fall on the ball back at the Honey Grove 33-yard line, 4th and 21.

During an Italy timeout, after realizing Byers, who started the game at center was in considerable pain, Coach Hollywood called on Fortenberry, Italy’s sophomore long-snapper, to take over for the wounded junior. Fortenberry, has handled centering duties previously this season for the Gladiators and had already established a good rhythm with Cox in previous games, so the switch was no reason to be concerned for Italy’s coaching staff.

Returning to the field, Fortenberry snaps to Cox on 4th down but Cox can only reach the Warrior’s 28-yard line. Warrior’s take over from their, 1st and 10 for the Grove with :50 seconds on the clock.

Patt completes a pass to teammate Patrick Harris who is knocked out-of-bounds by Hamilton at the thirty-five. Byers, still in on defense, rushes Patt who throws a pass into the turf intended for Sanders. Another incomplete pass by Patt brings up 4th and 3 for the Warriors as the first half comes to a close.

Senior tuba player, Timothy Fleming, leads the Gladiator Regiment Marching Band onto Ken Autry Davis Field where they perform two songs for Gladiators fans with help from the color guard. JoeMack Pitts formed a quick solo on his sax as Drum Major Emily Stiles worked without a podium as she guided Italy’s award-winning band beat-by-beat.

Hopkins fair catches the Honey Grove kickoff at Italy’s own 28-yard line to start the second half. After a false start leaves Italy with 1st and 15, Cox keeps and reaches the thirty-eight. Walker advances the ball to the forty-seven for a 1st down. Cox has nowhere to run, 2nd and 10. Cox passes incomplete intended for McBride, 3rd and 10. Walker gains just 2 yards causing Hopkins to punt from Italy’s forty-nine.

Honey Grove is penned inside their own ten, but not for long. After Byers tracks down Finney from behind on a pitch-play to the opposite side of the field, bringing up 3rd and 12 at the 16-yard line, Grove passes for the 1st down at their own 27-yard line. Byers and Reed combine for a two yard stop on Finney, 2nd and 8. Woods trips Finney up at the Warrior thirty-one, 6:51 to play in the third-quarter. On 4th and 6, Patt tries a connect with Sanders over the top but the pass attempt is a disconnect and the Warriors punt the ball back to Italy.

Cox covers the punt. A holding call charged to Italy gives the Grove new life and a 1st and 10 at the Warrior 41-yard line. Merimon contains a lateral pitch to only allow a 3 yard gain. Patt gains 1st down yardage to Italy’s 47-yard line with Cox making the stop. A pass completion gives the Warriors a 1st down at Italy’s 37-yard line. Another pass completion for another 1st down pushes the ball to the twenty-six, 4:38. Finney finally escapes a Gladiator tackle and completes the drive with a 26-yard touchdown run. The conversion try fails allowing the Gladiators to maintain a lead, 14-12, 3:59 left in the third.

Again, Hopkins collects the Warrior kickoff at Italy’s 36-yard line. Sensing a bit of momentum on Italy’s sideline with Honey Grove unable to tie the matchup, Walker takes the handoff from Cox and blasts forward for 4 yards to the forty-one. Then, as if Coach Hollywood hit his easy button on his clipboard, Cox sprints right and receives downfield blocks from Hopkins and Lewis as Lewis continues to escort his quarterback into the end zone to finish the 59 yard scoring effort. Roldan kicks thru his third point-after kick on the night to put the Gladiators up 21-12, giving Italy a crucial 9-point lead, 3:06.

Roldan sends the kickoff into the end zone as the Gladiators begin to assert their will. Honey Grove tries to counter with a deep bomb but Woods has the coverage on Sanders and the ball drops incomplete. A Byers tackle brings up 2nd and 10. Patt connects with Warrior receiver, Zach Cunningham, for a much needed 1st down to the forty-five, managing to hang on to the football after absorbing a violent hit from Hamilton. Byers draws a holding penalty, coming off the edge with Patt looking to throw, resulting in 2nd and 15 for the Warriors at their own forty-one.

Walker tackles Patt to force 3rd and 10, 1:02. Patt goes deep but Italy’s has tight coverage and the attempt fails. The Warriors are left with a 4th down but try to pass, yet again, from Italy’s forty-five. The attempt fails. Coach Hollywood declines a holding penalty, as well, to put Italy’s offense back on the field. Cox runs for 7 yards to the Honey Grove 47-yard line to end the third, Italy continues leading 21-12.

To start the fourh-quarter, Walker dishes out another determined run but a holding call on Italy leaves the Gladiators with 2nd and 20 from their own 42-yard line. Moments later, Cox dashes in for his third touchdown run, a 58-yarder to increase Italy’s lead 27-12. The point-after kick is off the mark but Italy’s has control of the game with 10:03 to play.

Honey Grove tries to cultivate some quick momentum after the kickoff by Roldan. Byers and Newman contain the edge as Patt launches a pass down the sideline. Carson picks it off on the run and hurries across the field to follow a Gladiator wall of blockers but is captured from behind before Carson can cross midfield. From Italy’s forty-five, Walker makes to hard runs to mush the ball to Honey Grove’s 48-yard line, 8:40. Walker motors again for 20 yards to the Grove’s 28-yard line. Cox does the honors from there scoring a 28-yard touchdown, his fourth TD of the game, to distance the Gladiators 33-12 on the scoreboard. Again, the point-after kick misfires but Gladiator Nation is all fired up, chanting, “TPW,” the Gladiators’ battle credo, 7:10 remaining.

Roldan’s kickoff is a touchback. Finney gets loose for a long gain before being swung down by Cox at the Grove’s 49-yard line. Patrick Harris gets the carry for the Warriors but is leveled by Byers when trying to juke outside. Reed makes the next tackle for Italy but the Warriors are driving. A 1st down run by the Warriors puts them in scoring position at the Gladiator 14-yard line, 3:38.

Patt passes incomplete with Hamilton and Walker covering. On 3rd and 4 at Italy’s 8-yard line with 3:12 remaining, Sanders lunges to the goal line but fumbles into the end zone. Cox retrieved the loose ball but Sanders is ruled down at the one. Italy holds the Warriors short of the goal with Reed and company making the stop. Finney gets in from there to make the score 33-18. The conversion is good, as well, to make the score 33-20 but time is running out the Warriors’ season with 2:09 remaining.

Byers takes the brunt of Honey Grove’s rage during the ensuing onside kick allowing McBride to cover the ball challenge free. Cox carries to the Warrior 43-yard line where, moments later, Cox would take a final victory snap to seal the deal as Italy claims the regional semifinal championship by knocking the 9th ranked Honey Grove Warriors out of the playoff race. Italy is now in the elite eight of the UIL playoff bracket joining Goldthwaite, Stamford, Stratford, Alto, Mart, Shiner and #1 ranked Mason.

keys to the game:
Credit the senior bruiser in Walker who punished the Warriors defense on his way to 200 brutally earned yards, putting his team on his shoulders. As Walker rested on the bench after the fourth TD run by Cox, an energetic Cox commended his backfield mate by saying, “Hey, you’re doing all the work. I’m just running it in,” with Cox feeling his 4 scoring runs, and his eventual 238 rushing yards, were a direct result of Walker’s tough running.

Give Italy’s offensive line a pat on the back as well. senior tackle Zackery Boykin, Mayberry, Medrano, Roldan, Byers in the first half and Fortenberry in the second half handled a Honey Grove defensive line that was expected to have more of an impact against Italy’s running attack.

By jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, Italy forced Honey Grove to pass with the Warrior quarterback seeming hesitant to tuck and run against the Gladiators’ rugged defense. “My defensive ends complimented each other real well in this one. Jacinto would create an obstacle and Byers would reach their runners from the backside and then Byers would contain the rollout pass while Jacinto kept their QB from changing direction,” commented Hollywood.

Italy’s backers including Walker, Newman, Merimon and Cox totaled 34 of Italy’s 68 tackles which was a big plus as well while Lewis, Reed, Mayberry and Fortenberry won the fight in the middle. Italy’s secondary has managed 4 interceptions in their first two playoff rounds while forcing numerous throw aways thanks to solid coverage by Hamilton, Carson, Cox, Woods and Robertson.

Gladiator Stats

Warrior Stats:
Junior quarterback Jeremy Patt threw a touchdown pass, an interception and went 9-for-21 for 76 yards. Senior tailback Demontrae Finney had 155 yards on 21 carries and ended the season with 1,992 yards on 175 attempts, finishing short of his goal of reaching 2,000 rushing yards compliments of the Gladiators.

As well as being named the Central Texas Defensive Player Of The Week after his performance during Italy’s 35-14 area championship win over Valley View, Italy’s senior quarterback, Marvin Cox, was selected as Player Of The Week in the 2nd round of the playoffs by for his performance as well. Congratulations, Marvin!

The Gladiators (8-4) will face the Goldthwaite Eagles (7-5) in the region final at Glen Rose on Friday, December 7, 2012, starting @ 7:30 p.m. Goldthwaite is big up front and likes the wishbone. They will pull the play side guard and tackle outside with their tight end trying to seal the edge. They have team quickness but lack overall speed and depth. It will be physical but Italy’s big play ability gives them a chance. Defense! Defense! Defense!

Go Italy!

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