MINERAL WELLS — Stamford Bulldog (13-1) quarterback Hagen Hutchinson lived up to his billing to help hand the Italy Gladiators (9-5,5-0) a season ending loss 41-8 in the state-semifinals. Stamford, the 2011 class A state runner-ups, entered the contest ranked #1 while underdog Italy had been snubbed in most ranking polls despite becoming one of just four teams still suiting up for the playoffs in the Region II Division I bracket.
With HFC/AD Hank Hollywood guiding the 2012 Gladiators thru its district challenges and then thru the rugged playoff terrain, Italy managed one upset after another to match a level that the school had only reached in three previous seasons, 1978, 1985 and 1997. With fans clinging to hope that this Gladiator team might be a team of destiny after overcoming so many pitfalls along its path, Stamford was tackling its own grid-iron demons with the Bulldogs on a mission to return to the state round, and perhaps, finally ring that victory bell.
The Gladiators, head coached by HFC/AD Hank Hollywood, would have to contain Hutchinson and an efficient Bulldog offense while Italy’s speedster of a quarterback in Marvin Cox, and their bruising tailback in Ryheem Walker, were definitely on the Bulldog’s most wanting to tackle list.
With freshman linebacker Hunter Merimon out with a sprained knee, Italy’s defense, with leading tacklers Walker, Shadrach Newman, Cox and Byers would face their toughest challenge of the season. With Reid Jacinto, Jalarnce Lewis and Adrian Reed joining Byers on the front lines, Chase Hamilton, Hayden Woods, Eric Carson, Trevon Robertson and Kelvin Joffre, who made it back from a knee injury to play in the semifinal game, would have to disrupt an explosive air attack by the Bulldogs as well contain the edges against the run.
Italy’s offense line of Zackery Boykin, Kevin Roldan, center Kyle Fortenberry, Darol Mayberry and Cody Medrano would have to buy time for Cox and allow the senior gun-slinger time to find receivers Cole Hopkins, Carson, Joffrey and Hamilton open downfield. Plus, help Walker wade thru Bulldog tacklers in the running game as well. The Gladiators would soon realize both tasks are easier game planned than done.
After both sides jabbed at each other on their opening possessions, Stamford jumped on the board first when Hutchinson avoided pressure from Zain Byers and then rolled right finding Bulldog receiver Dalton Mathis for a 16 yard touchdown reception. A successful point-after kick gave Stamford a 7-0 lead.
Italy’s offense continued to struggle with Cox and Walker being swarmed by a hungry Bulldog defense. “They’re not that strong but they are quick and fast,” explained Italy’s left offensive guard Darol Mayberry as Italy’s sideline searched for answers. Gladiator punter Cole Hopkins returned the ball back to Stamford repeatedly throughout the contest averaging almost 37-yards on 6 punt attempts. In the early going, the kicking foot of Hopkins was proving to be Italy’s best weapon in an effort to add distance between the goal line and Hutchinson.
With no distance appearing unmanageable, and with 5:41 still to play in the opening quarter, Hutchinson carried the ball in from 9 yards out to score Stamford’s next touchdown, putting the Bulldogs up 14-0 over Italy.
Walker and Cox continued carrying the load in the ground game but Italy’s offense was swimming against the current as a wave of blue jerseys would crash to the ball on each carry. Again Hopkins punts it away and again Stamford’s offense takes advantage. With just under 6:00 remaining in the first half, Hutchinson passes to James Washington for a 28 yard touchdown pass. Once again, the point-after kick by Ty McLemore is on the money and Stamford takes a commanding 21-0 advantage.
The Gladiators, showing the heart and determination that advanced them to the semifinal round in the first place, put together a drive with Cox guiding the unit downfield. However, with Italy threatening from outside Stamford’s goal line, Cox was unable to spike the ball in time to preserve the one extra second needed to run another play. The first half ends with everything going Stamford’s way and with the Bulldogs still in front by three scores, 21-0.
Respecting Stamford’s scoring ability, Roldan tries an onside kick in the hopes of keeping the Bulldogs from getting their offensive paws on the ball. Unfortunately, Stamford recovers near midfield and suddenly 50-yards doesn’t seem all that far to go as Hutchinson dashes in for a 21-yard touchdown run. The point-after kick is successful and the Bulldogs wag their tails, up 28-0 with 10:15 to play in the third-quarter.
Chase Hamilton and Walker delivered some hard-hitting tackles on defense for the Gladiators while Hopkins hauled in a 19-yard catch from Cox on offense, but consistency and big plays eluded Italy while the Bulldogs were finding treats all over the field. Again, Hutchinson kept the bone, and again Hutchinson found the end zone from 22 yards out for his third touchdown of the game. McLemore’s kick went thru and Hutchinson took an early exit from the game with the Bulldogs’ leading 35-0 with 7:12 remaining in the third-quarter.
As heavy rains began to blur the action on the field, Stamford’s Bo Wimberly runs in from 12 yards out. McLemore’s point-after kick is off the mark but the 41-0 Bulldog lead, glowing on the scoreboard, manages to shine thru the downpour at Ram Stadium, 7:12 remaining.
Again, the Gladiators show character when their offense takes the field. Cox takes the snap from Kyle Forteneberry and then rolls right, comes back to the left and then cuts back to the right where he finds a lane to the end zone as the game’s announcer exclaims, “Cox goes 75-yards to score a 42 yard touchdown for Italy!” Walker bullies his across the goal line for the conversion to make the score 41-8, 4:12 remaining.
Byers blocks a Stamford punt late that is recovered by Roldan but the effort comes much too late in the contest. As the season-ending buzzer sounds, Stamford ends Italy’s state championship hopes but that fact did little to dampen the spirits of Gladiator fans, band members and cheerleaders as they continued to urge their Gladiators forward while rains pound the dedicated yell raisers well into the fourth-quarter.
After all, it was really hard to be disappointed after the Gladiators, who began 2012 just 1-4 after their preseason schedule, went undefeated in district to claim the championship, earned an automatic bi-district championship and received a first-round bye. It just didn’t make sense to feel saddened after after the Gladiators shocked the Class 1A playoff brackets by upsetting Valley View for the area championship and then Honey Grove for the regional final championship. Instead, after knocking off Goldthwaite 14-3 to claim the quarterfinal championship (only the fourth time in the school’s history that Italy has accomplished the feat) in order to reach the semifinal matchup against Stamford, Gladiator supporters were just overwhelmingly proud of this year’s squad to be morose.
Instead, with the band rocking and everyone joining in, Gladiator Nation celebrated as they continued to be drenched, offering a cheer for their team whenever something good would happen on the field. In fact, fan support for the Gladiators, particularly thru district and the playoffs, was really fun to watch and truly appreciated!
Italy Neotribune wishes to congratulate Coach Hollywood, his staff, the players, cheerleaders, band members, the student body and administration for uniting together to help create a special and memorable moment in time for Italy High School. — TPW
Stamford advanced to play the Mart Panthers in the State title game at Cowboys Stadium the following Thursday, December 20. Mart beat Shiner 42-7 to reach Jerry’s World but lost to Stamford 35-28 in the games final moments. Hutchinson becomes the first player in UIL history to be awarded the state championship game’s most valuable player on both offense and defense and the Bulldogs finish their state run with a 14-1 record.
Additional Photographs By Area Photographers — Italy vs. Stamford: