Going into week 14 of the 2012 Class A football playoffs, the Italy Gladiators (9-4) were one of eight teams still standing, “The Elite Eight.” Going into week 15, the Gladiators (9-4) are one of just four teams remaining with Italy the only school still in the UIL Region II Division I brackets that has never reached a state football championship.
Italy’s first year head coach and athletic director Hank Hollywood and his grid-iron soldiers, who finished the regular season with only a 1-4 record, have since recorded 9 straight wins (10 straight wins if you include the automatic bi-district championship for winning district) earn their school another shot at claiming the ultimate prize. With previously #1 ranked Mason being ousted from the playoff picture by Shiner, this past Friday night as well, it would suggest that anything is possible.
The Gladiators made the final four list by upsetting Valley View 35-14 for the area championship, by upsetting Honey Grove 33-20 for the regional semifinal championship, which earned the squad the Army Strong Week 13 Team of the Week award, and by upsetting the Goldthwaite Eagles this past Friday night 14-3 for the regional quarterfinal championship. It’s just the fourth time in Italy’s golden tradition to win in the quarterfinals and, consequently, this will be Italy’s fourth time to ever reach the semifinals.
Coach Hollywood’s grid-iron soldiers have persevered thru many challenges to reach this point of the season. Coach Hollywood laid out the game plan for his players during a two-a-days’ post-practice huddle back in August. He explained how many weeks it would take, how many months it would take to still be playing in December, a memory that seems so distant now but its vision has come to pass for the Gladiators….and here they stand.
After exiting the locker room in Glen Rose and then dashing thru the tunnel, emerging from the smoke while being flanked on both sides by a spirit line that seems never-ending, the Italy sideline soaks in its first rush of reality as the National Anthem plays followed by a roar of the crowd. The four Gladiator senior captains of Marvin Cox, Hayden Woods, Jalarnce Lewis and Ryheem Walker meet the Goldthwaite Eagles’ captains at midfield as the remainder of the Gladiators stretch the field in formation with the a row of their cheerleaders and Gladiator mascot, Reagan Adams, behind them and with the band and Gladiator Nation behind them all….and here they stand.
Italy wins the toss to start the quarterfinal matchup and elects to receive. Goldthwaite waived a white flag early fearing the speed of the gold rush by tapping an onside kick to Italy where Woods covered the ball near midfield. Italy’s offense gets rolling and a pass completion from Cox to Walker keeps the chains moving to the Eagle 42-yard line. Cox then finds Cole Hopkins for a 30 yard completion to the Eagle 5-yard line.
Two carries by Walker spots the ball close to the 2-yard line, 3rd and goal. Italy’s offensive line passes the test with guard Kevin Roldan and center Kyle Fortenberry clearing space for Cox to step across the goal line. The point-after kick sails right but Italy staggers the touted Goldthwaite defense by taking a 6-0 lead with 8:58 remaining in the first-quarter.
Roldan kicks off and the Eagle’s start from their own 30-yard line. Italy’s defense unleashes on the the Eagle runners
with Walker, at middle linebacker, making a pair of hard-hitting tackles to bring up a 3rd and 6. Defensive end Zain Byers blows thru the Goldthwaite line to smack the Eagles right in the beak for a 3 yard loss. Goldthwaite punts from their own thirty-one, 7:30 on the clock.
Italy begins again from their own 47-yard line. Cox keeps for 3 yards. Eric Carson makes the catch for a gain of 4 yards, 3rd and three at Goldthwaite’s 46-yard line, 6:00. Cox runs for the first down to Goldthwaite’s 31-yard line but loses 2 yards on the next play. Roldan records a pancake block to help Walker reach the Eagle 21-yard line. Cox is sacked by the Eagles for a loss of five back to the twenty-six. Again, Cox is stopped on a middle run try where his helmet dislodges during the play forcing him to, by rule, exit for at least one play.
On 3rd and 13 at the Eagle 23-yard line with 2:40 showing, Walker takes a step over to fill in at QB and then hands off to Lewis who reaches the edge to the 19-yard line. Cox returns but his pass into the end zone on 4th and 7 sails past the reach Carson. Goldthwaite takes over with 2:19 on the clock from their own nineteen.
Goldthwaite hits their best run thus far to the 33-yard line for a 1st down. Walker stuffs the Eagles on the next play delivering another crunching hit to bring up 2nd and 9. Byers leads the charge as Italy makes the stop at the 31-yard line to force the Eagles into a 3rd and 8 situation with :50 seconds to play in the first.
Eagle quarterback T.R. Jones rolls right but Walker makes the tackle to force a 4th and 4 punt from Goldthwaite’s 35-yard line with :29 remaining. Italy begins from their own 31-yard line. An offside penalty and a 6 yard run by Cox ends the quarter with Italy still in front, 6-0.
To start the second-quarter with 2nd and 4 at their 44-yard line, Cox hands off to Walker who gains 3 yards, giving Italy a 3rd and 1 at the forty-seven. A keeper by Cox causes a measurement resulting in 4th and half-a-yard for Italy. Goldthwaite is offsides, again, spotting the ball at the Eagle 46-yard line, handing Italy a 1st down. With Cox separating from his helmet for the second time, Italy’s drive quickly stalls as their sideline works furiously to solve the equipment malfunction. Hopkins takes the deep snap from Fortenberry and punts the ball 33 yards to the Eagle 21-yard line, 8:54 to play in the second.
Despite tackles by Italy’s Adrian Reed and Darol Mayberry, Goldthwaite manages a pair of 1st downs to their 42-yard line, 5:05. Byers and Lewis combine for a stop in the backfield to bring up 2nd and 13 for the Eagles. Lewis goes on the attack, once more, and sacks Jones for a 7 yard loss. Lewis’s effort leaves Goldthwaite with a 3rd and 20 back at their 37-yard line, 3:45 remaining before the half. After a 5 yard pass completion, the Eagles punt the ball with Cox fielding the punt on the fly but unable to stay in bounds at Italy’s 24-yard line, 2:19.
A block by Roldan creates a wash with Walker hitting the hole to the thirty-five. Cox carries for 5 more yards but loses his headgear for a third time. Cox opts to switch helmets on the sideline but is out for an offensive play. Italy loses 1 yard with Cox out to bring up 3rd and 6 at the Gladiator 39-yard line, :49 seconds to play. Cox is unable to connect with Carson on a downfield pass forcing Coach Hollywood to call for another Hopkins punt. Hopkins responds with a 46 yard effort to the Eagle 15-yard line where, moments later, Goldthwaite takes a knee to end the first half.
First half summary:
In what was a super fast first half of play, two things were apparent after the buzzer sounded. The first reality being, Goldthwaite could not outrun the Gladiator defenders with the Eagles failing to cross midfield during the the first two quarters. The second factor being, Goldthwaite’s best defense was the malfunction helmet of Italy’s quarterback Marvin Cox who missed three offensive plays which aided the Eagles in stalling three Gladiator possessions. Unfortunately for Goldthwaite, the helmet problem was solved while the Eagles were not getting any faster during halftime.
The Gladiator Regiment Band, directed by Jesus Perez and assistant band director Erica Miller, performed during the intermission. With drum Major Emily Stiles directing the notes and the band playing their hearts out, Italy’s drum line filled Tiger Stadium with the Beat of Champions. Brett Kirton, Brenya Williams, Whitney Wolaver, Alex Minton, Noah Ramirez, drum line captain Gus Allen, Maddie Pittman and Reagan Adams mesmerized the audience while the color guard graced the field with colorful flags. Be sure to check out the band in action by viewing the video link provided within this article!
After a Roldan kickoff to start the third-quarter, the Eagles first play from their own 30-yard line is stuffed by Byers, Reed and Lewis for a meager 1 yard gain. Goldthwaite hits a long run but the try is foiled by a holding penalty leaving the Eagles with a 2nd and 18 back at their twenty-two. Eagle back Dakota Perry gains 4 yards to the twenty-six. A pass completion pulls Goldthwaite out of the jam for a 1st down to the forty-two.
Reed and Byers make the tackle but the Eagles gain 3 yards. Woods tackles Perry hard after a gain of two. Cox tackles Perry for no gain to bring up 4th and a long 5 at the Eagle 47-yard line. Goldthwaite is unsuccessful on a fake punt attempt but Italy was lined up in the neutral zone for an offsides call. The penalty advanced the ball, and the Eagles, across midfield for the first time in the game to Italy’s 48-yard line. On 4th and 1, the Eagle offensive line gets the push they needed for a first down carry to the forty-five with 7:59 to play in the third.
Reed makes the tackle to hold Goldthwaite to a 1 yard gain at Italy’s 44-yard line. Reid Jacinto makes the next tackle for Italy to leave Goldthwaite with a 3rd and 8 at the forty-three. Newman and Woods cage up an Eagle receiver after a 3 yard grab to the forty, 5:45. The Eagles bust a 1st down run to Italy’s 33-yard line. Goldthwaite repeats the play but a holding call backs them up to Italy’s 37-yard line for a 1st and 15. Perry breaks a tackle and appears to have a chance to reach the end zone but Cox uses his superior speed to track down the Eagle back at Italy’s 13-yard line. Newman and Chase Hamilton combine for the next Gladiator stop at the twelve. The Eagles reach the nine where Cox holds his ground with 3:12 now remaining in the third, 3rd and 6.
A fasle start backs Goldthwaite to the fourteen with 2:11 on the clock and Italy yet to possess the ball during the quarter. Jones passes to Perry who leaps at the goal line to get a hand on the ball but a hard hit by Carson ensures an incomplete pass and a 4th and 11 decision for Goldthwaite head coach Gary Proffitt. Coach Proffitt sends in his field goal unit and the 31 yard attempt is successful. Goldthwaite cuts Italy’s advantage in half, 6-3 with only 2:29 left in the third-quarter after the 17-play drive by the Eagles.
Trusting their defense, that had only given up 21-points in their first two playoff games, the Eagle’s squib another kick that is covered by Fortenberry along Italy’s front line at the Gladiator 49-yard line. Italy’s offense seemed undaunted by the Goldthwaite surge as Walker carries across midfield to the Eagle 36-yard line. Though Cox is contained in the backfield for a 2 yard loss on the next play, bringing up 2nd and 12 for Italy at the Goldthwaite 39-yard line, the Gladiators keep rolling. Carson gets the carry and turns upfield, thanks to left tackle Cody Medrano who helps seal the edge, to the Eagle 25-yard line, enough for an Italy 1st down to keep the drive alive. Cox picks up 2 more yards to the twenty-three with just :28 seconds on the clock. Hopkins hauls in his second catch of the game, off a pass from Cox, and advances the ball to Goldthwaite’s 8-yard line to end the third.
Italy scores on the first play of the fourth-quarter when Walker runs behind senior tackle Zackery Boykin and then carries Eagle tacklers across the goal line during a determined run by Walker. The Gladiators take a 12-3 lead, make that 14-3, after Hopkins hauls in pass from Cox and then taps both feet down in the end zone before being pushed out for the two-point conversion, 11:38 remaining.
The Eagles manage a long return down Italy’s sideline after fielding the kickoff by Roldan. Goldthwaite’s return man steps out at the forty-four but steps back into the field-of-play and continues forward when Roldan viscously knocks the hapless Eagle out-of-bounds the hard way. There is no flag on the play and the ball is spotted at the Goldthwaite 44-yard line.
Needing two scores in a fast-paced game, Coach Proffitt abandons the Eagles’ running game. An Eagle pass attempt by Jones goes incomplete but Italy is flagged for holding giving Goldthwaite a 1st down at Italy’s 46-yard line. Walker slings down Perry after a gain of 2 yards prompting Coach Hollywood to take a Gladiator timeout and talk with his defense. Jones tries another pass but it’s unsuccessful and brings up 3rd and 8 at the Gladiator 44-yard line. The Eagles’ make a miracle grab on the next play, with Hamilton in close coverage, to possibly extend Goldthwaite’s drive with a 1st down at Italy’s 37-yard line. The catch is ruled short of the 1st down marker, however, to bring up 4th down and 1 for the Eagles at the Italy thirty-eight. With their season on the ropes and that touted offensive line to lead the charge, Coach Proffitt calls a running play but the Gladiator defense rises to the challenge and stops Goldthwaite short of the 1st down marker.
Cox and company take over at their own 33-yard line with 9:52 still to play. Walker breaks a nice run to Italy’s 46-yard line. Italy’s drive is threatened on 3rd and 10 but Cox keeps for a 9 yard gain to the Eagle forty-five. Italy goes for it on 4th and short when another offsides call, charged to Goldthwaite, gives Italy an automatic 1st down at the Eagle 45-yard line. The Eagles grab Cox by the face mask on the next play with Italy advancing to the Eagles’ twenty-three after the penalty is marked off. Moments later, Italy has a 3rd and 6 at the Eagle nineteen and tries to pass for the 1st down. Cox is knocked out-of-bounds for a loss of 1 yard stopping the clock with 5:42 showing. Italy’s tries to pass for the 1st down but Cox lets the pass attempt sail out-of-bounds, not taking any chances, 5:36.
Goldthwaite returns to offense but there is little hope for the Eagles who are not built to play from behind. Hamilton breaks up a pass attempt to further demoralize the Eagles for a 2nd and 10. Back-to-back false start calls push the Eagles backwards to their own 22-yard line. The Eagles eventually manage a 1st down to continue their drive. By the 3:42 mark of the fourth-quarter, however, the Gladiator defense stops Goldthwaite one last time before running out the remaining time on the clock with Cox taking a victory snap.
Italy’s team speed, its hard-hitting defense and the bruising running style of Ryheem Walker made the difference in this one. Quarterback Marvin Cox did enough in the passing game to keep the Eagles off balance with solid performances from receivers Cole Hopkins and Eric Carson. Before every playoff game, the competition has been praised for the strength of their offensive and defensive lines. However, its the Gladiator lineman that are raising the championship trophies after every challenge. O-lineman Kyle Fortenberry (Soph.), Zackery Boykin (Sr.), Kevin Roldan (Jr.), Darol Mayberry(Jr.) and Cody Medrano (Jr.) and D-lineman Jalarnce Lewis (Sr.), Zain Byers (Jr.), Adrian Reed (Sr.) and Reid Jacinto (Sr.) are to be congratulated for making big time plays in these big time games.
Italy’s linebacking and secondary crews have led the way with Walker, Shad Newman, Cox, Hamilton, Carson, Hunter Merimon, Hopkins, Fortenberry, helping to contain the high-powered offenses the Gladiators have faced the post-season. Mix in freshman receiver McBride on offense and sophomore Cody Boyd on special teams, the Gladiators are proving their might during this playoff run.
With the win, the Gladiators earn a berth in the semifinal championship game where they will face a Stamford Bulldogs (12-1) team that likes to pass the ball. A win in the semifinals will catapult either school into the state championship game to be played at Cowboys Stadium on Thursday, December 20 starting at 4:00 p.m. For now, the Gladiators are still taking it one game at a time…
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