MINERAL WELLS – The Italy Gladiators learned for a fact Friday night that when it rains, it most definitely pours.
If things couldn’t get any worse for the Gladiators in their 1A State Semifinal game Friday night against Stamford, trailing 35-0 in the third quarter, it began raining heavily.
It remained that way through the rest of the night as Stamford knocked off the Gladiators 41-8.
“We came a long way. We had to change the mentality of the team before the season,” Italy coach Hank Hollywood said. “At halftime we told them to finish this with class and that there were people out here that they may never see again and leave them with a good impression. We could have shut it down, but we kept fighting.”
The Bulldogs (13-1, 4-0 in 4-1A) added another score with six minutes to go in the game to make it 41-0, but the Gladiators (9-5, 5-0 in 6-1A) kept pushing and made sure they weren’t leaving the field with a goose egg on the board.
Senior quarterback Marvin Cox scored his final touchdown as a high school player when he broke a 42-yard touchdown run with 4:12 left in the game.
His run really covered about 75 yards as he rolled to his right, then back well behind the line of scrimmage to his left and then picked up some blocks and streaked down the right sideline to score Italy’s lone touchdown of the game.
Fellow senior Ryheem Walker punched in the two-point conversion in his final plunge into the end zone of his high school career.
The game started out looking like it might have been a defensive struggle, which is not what this contest was billed as.
Both teams were forced to punt to start the game and that looked like it may have given Italy momentum early as the defense stopped the high-powered Stamford offense.
“We knew they try to go deep on their first possession and our guys did a good job of stopping that,” Hollywood said. “But their quarterback is a legitimate all-state player. He can flat out do it all.”
Hagen Hutchinson is that player and he threw for two and ran for three of Stamford’s six touchdowns before leaving the game as the rain started.
His first touchdown pass really started the negative chain of events for Italy.
After the Gladiators’ offense was forced to punt on its second possession and the defense came close to shutting him down twice, but just couldn’t do it.
Stamford got the ball at Italy’s 49-yard line after the short punt and after a 22-yard run to start the drive, suddenly the Bulldogs were in striking distance. Hutchinson scrambled on a third and four play to pick up five yards and extend the drive once in the red zone then facing fourth and 10 at the 16, he threw a touchdown pass to start the offensive onslaught.
The Italy defensive back was in a tough position as he was forced to choose between staying with his receiver or attacking Hutchinson.
He broke off the receiver to try and keep the quarterback from running for the first down and he lobbed a perfect pass for the first score.
“We were coming after him and even though we were playing solid man-to-man defense, we couldn’t come off our guys to chase him,” Hollywood said. “Unfortunately, the corner got put in a tough spot there.”
Italy’s offense couldn’t get anything going to respond in the first half. Of Italy’s first 21 offensive plays, 17 of them went for two yards or less, including one interception. The other four plays went for a combined 36 yards.
The one time the Gladiators started moving the ball was just before half.
Trailing 21-0 with just more than five minutes left in the second quarter, Italy marched from their own 32, all the way to the one-yard line, but Cox was stuffed there as the final few seconds ran off the clock before the half.
Stamford scored on its first possession of the third quarter then again off a fumble just a few plays later to seal the game and Italy’s season.
Despite reaching the state final four, Hollywood isn’t quite satisfied.
“The ultimate goal is a state championship. I don’t talk about district championships and neither did the coach I grew up playing for,” Hollywood said. “But these kids have nothing to be ashamed of and they all learned something tonight.”
A dozen of Italy’s 29 players played their final game in an Italy jersey and their coach knows this year wasn’t easy, but he’s proud of them.
“It’s tough with a new coaching staff coming in and I’m proud of them getting used to us,” Hollywood said. “We were trying to figure things out at the beginning of the year and they persevered and look what happened.”