ITALY — When the Gladiators face Valley Mills High School on Sept. 1 at the newly-minted Gladiator Stadium, they will look to build on a season that saw the team reach the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The yells and cheers of Italy High School football fans will also usher in the senior seasons of Kendrick Noorwood, Tylan Wallace, and All-State outside linebacker and defensive end Clay Riddle.
According to Head Coach David Weaver, the Gladiators, which finished 6-5 overall and 2-3 in District 8-2A-1, may also have a tough road ahead with two state-ranked high schools sharing divisional space.
"Mart and Bosqueville were both top-10 state-ranked opponents last year and were tough contests," he said. "We dropped a winnable game against Riesel due to not being the mature football team that we have focused on [being] in the off-season, and are becoming this year. Self-discipline is a focal point in our program, as well as controlling our emotions and not allowing our emotions to control us. We are starting to see that play out in our practices. We saw it during our first scrimmage this year, too."
The Reisel defeat came by way of a 27-13 finish. Italy fell to Bosqueville 34-21 on Oct. 21 despite 221 yards of total offense and two touchdowns from Wallace and 125 yards on 25 carries from Norwood.
A week later, Italy lost to Mart 41-7.
It was the only time during the season the Gladiators lost back-to-back games.
Part of that increased maturity and the subsequently raised expectations, Weaver noted, comes courtesy of key returning players like Norwood, Riddle, Wallace, defensive end Christion Washington and cornerback Garrett Janek.
Norwood was the team's leading rusher last season, running for 920 yards and seven touchdowns. Wallace fell 200 yards shy of the 1,000-yard passing milestone, completing 49.7 percent of his passes (75-for-151) for 819 yards.
He also found eight receivers in the end zone.
Riddle had 44 (44 solo) of the Gladiators 406 tackles last season, dropping 10 players in the backfield for tackles-for-loss. He also recorded three sacks and 13 quarterback hurries.
Weaver said, despite graduation attrition, they will look to take a step forward rather than backward. Defensive tackle Terry Dixon, outside linebacker Caleb Telatnyk, offensive guard Alex Garcia and, special teams kicker Mauro Ibarra and punter Gary Escamilla will also play vital roles when cleats hit the grass in less than two weeks.
So will health.
"We lost a lot of beef on the offensive and defensive lines from last year's team, but we will have more overall team speed to compensate," Weaver said. "Every team faces [graduation] yearly and we are no different. Like most small schools, we have to play 'iron man' football. A key injury creates a domino effect. We, however, will be prepared to roll the next guy in. The program demands all be ready when their number is called, and the Gladiators have always met that challenge."
Challenge, too, may come with a change in both offense and defense. According to the Gladiator head coach, Italy will veer away from the spread and toward the Power I.
The team will also shift to a 3-4 defensive scheme after its defensive coordinator left the district to accept a head coaching position.
"We believe this will bring a tougher mindset to our football team in all three phases. We want to be the most physical football team on the field every Friday night. Regardless of the outcome, we will be physical. We'll also base out of a 3-4 that fits our personnel a little more."
The change, Weaver said, is meant to bring a more physical brand of football to the 2A stage, a characteristic of the salt-of-the-earth residents that may flood the ISD's new monolith and sit under its Friday night lights.
Change or not, Weaver articulated, the formula for Italy and its gridiron future is clear.
Sprinkle with tradition, mix with physicality, season with maturity and serve cold with excellence.
"Most coaches at this point in the year feel as if they got a chance to be pretty competitive," he continued. "We are no different. We believe that if we continue to focus on us, Italy will have a chance regardless of the competition. Every day and night, we must have a great approach due to our tough schedule. We must never forget our tradition here and that it demands excellence. This team will come out fighting every week and finish the same way."
Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.