ITALY — While fans flooded entry gates for Friday's opener against Valley Mills High School, boys on the field were strapping on pads and studying the turf of Italy's new football monolith.
Gladiator Stadium was open for business.
"I knew they were going to win because they're Gladiators, but I didn't know they were going to win like this. I can't think of a better way to open the new stadium and say goodbye to Willis (Field)," said Christy Fleming, a 20-year city resident, about the resounding 53-13 victory she witnessed against the Eagles.
With the brash, take-no-prisoners running of senior Kendrick Norwood, junior running back Anthony Lusk and freshman Daylon Slade, the Gladiators amassed 361 yards rushing — the majority of which came in the games first two quarters.
Norwood (15 rush, 164 yds) scored each of his four touchdowns in the first half while Lusk added a pair from 25 and 6 yards away.
Slade, who took center stage in the backfield because of an injury to Lusk on a defensive play, gained 96 yards on 11 carries and powered the Gladiators in the second half as the primary rusher. He scored his only touchdown of the game on a 3-yard bull rush into the end zone.
Junior Al Waits added 40 yards rushing. Marcos Duarte's 25-yard strike to sophomore Michael Gonzales capped the 40-point victory, scoring Italy's 53rd point of the matchup.
While Italy's offense chewed clock time, its defense shut down lanes for Eagle running backs Spencer Eccleston and Aaron Shell and flushed quarterback Kolton Kendrick out of the pocket and into trouble.
"They have a good offense and skilled guys," said David Weaver, who serves as both Italy's athletic director and head football coach. "We knew if we let them scramble and throw the ball down the field, they'd be dangerous. "That was the emphasis all week long. We have the utmost confidence in our secondary and are going to keep working on the pass rush and our inside linebacker play."
The Gladiators recorded six sacks via senior Clay Riddle (3), junior Caleb Telatnyk (2) and sophomore Bryson May (1) and intercepted Kendrick twice.
One of the takeaways was a near touchdown.
"I was just doing what I was supposed to," Gary Escamilla said of his third quarter interception. "I followed him down and just happened to whip my head around and find the ball."
The senior defensive back's near pick-6 interception — thwarted by an Eagle receiver that ran him down from behind and made a touchdown-saving tackle — was the second turnover Italy's defense created under the Gladiator Stadium's Friday night lights.
A second quarter interception by Tylan Wallace — three plays after Kendrick tossed a 64-yard scoring bomb to Jayson Jones — was the first. Wallace also recovered a fumble.
Kendrick, the Eagles starter, ended the game 7-for-14 with 121 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
"We always have to start off with defense," Escamilla continued. "We hit 'em hard and keep hitting 'em. That sets the tone for us. It's one of the engines that power our offense."
Kendrick also fumbled the ball twice. When considering the more than five misplaced snaps and four fumbles, Italy could have capitalized on 10 takeaway opportunities.
The game, however, was more about the resounding statement Italy made about opening its season. It was about Fleming, a 1998 IHS graduate and mother of Lusk, and the many residents packed shoulder to shoulder witnessing history and waving a solemn goodbye to an old friend.
There were residents in the stands that had played Gladiator football in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when the team played less than 500 feet from where the new stadium stands and on the grass and dirt of Willis Field.
Memories, she said, were left on that patch of Earth.
"It's awesome," Fleming said. "I kind of miss the old field because we were closer to the band and could get on the field in yell with the guys, but this stadium is awesome. It was crazy tonight."
Interwoven with the history of Willis Field, was former Head Coach Charles Tindol, who led Italy to a 6-4 overall record and an undefeated run and subsequent UIL District 6-1A-1 championship. The Gladiators knocked off rival Kerens High School 33-7 in 2013 to win their second consecutive district title.
There was one-year Head Coach Hank Hollywood, the current Ennis High School safeties and outside linebackers coach, who led the city the furthest in more than a decade and a half. His Gladiators, powered by running backs Marvin Cox (169 rush, 957 yds, 15 TDs) and Ryheem Walker (231 rush, 1,829 yds, 19 TDs), reached the UIL 1A state semifinals in 2012.
There were Norwood, Wallace and a pair of offensive lineman — Aaron and Austin Pittmon — dubbed the "beast brothers" during their time in the Italy Youth Athletics Association that ruled Willis with an iron fist as seventh through twelfth graders.
From 1976 and 2004, Italy's Gladiators failed to make the playoffs every year except 1979 and 1994. Between 1990 and 2000, they won more than 100 games.
Post millennium, between 2004 and 2016, they were 32-27 at home.
At their new digs, however, they are 1-0.
"It was great to get one in the new stadium. That's always how we'd want to start a season. It was Italy football," Weaver said. "We rode and are going to ride the backs of our offensive linemen. We preach battling in the trenches. Tonight, I think you saw a little bit of what we preach on a daily basis."
Constant improvement, he said, will keep his Gladiators' record clean against a high-powered Corsicana Mildred team that blew out Boles High School 53-26 in their week one matchup. They face Mildred's Eagles at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Gladiator Stadium.
"It comes down to stopping the run," he continued. "We know with the offense that they have and the quarterback that they have we have to take it to the next level and have a pass rush better than we had tonight. We are going to turn on the video and watch tape. That's going to get us back into our hard hat and lunch pail mentality. [Mildred] has a quarterback that is phenomenal. If he gets into the open field he can go the distance. He has skilled receivers around him and he can find them. We are going to have a great week of preparation. It starts for us [Saturday] we've got to have a great Labor Day practice as well."
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.