LARUE, Texas — If someone told you a team unranked and projected to finish third in its district at the beginning of the season beat two state-ranked teams in less than two weeks, — much less on the road — you might have raised an eyebrow.
Not at Italy's talent, but at the sheer shock someone outside of Ellis County is aware of the gold mine that lies within the borders of the 1,815 square mile town.
They know now.
Italy knocked off LaPoynor High School 55-48 Friday night at LHS Gymnasium and notched the fifth game out of six it held an opponent to 50 or fewer points.
"I believe, in time, people will start to recognize some of the things we're doing in Italy," said David Ervin, the head boys' basketball coach at Italy High School. "We've worked extremely hard to get to where we are now and will continue to do that now that playoffs are right around the corner."
The Flyers, ranked No. 8 per the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, were one of the 10 best 2A boys' teams in the state.
"I think it has put us on the map because with LaPoynor being another top 10 team, just like Kerens, it's making people stop and look at the talent in our little city," Italy guard Keith Davis II added. "We've come a long way from the beginning of the season. There were times we couldn't play complete games or finish games the way we were supposed to, but we put in a lot of work into getting to where we are today. We believed in ourselves from day one, whether anyone else believed us or not. That belief didn't fade after the losses to Kerens or LaPoynor."
Since falling to LaPoynor High School on Jan. 17, Italy won six consecutive games — including a 17-point win over former No. 9 Kerens High School that catapulted the city into the TABC Top 25 Poll for the first time in six years and for only the third time in city history.
During the second Italy-LaPoynor meeting, the Gladiators dispatched the Flyers to the tune of double-figure performances by Kevin Johson, Christian Lightfoot and Davis. They also controlled three of the four quarters and limited the bulk of LaPoynor's scoring a single player.
"We know what we can do so we don't try to prove much to anyone," Johnson said. "We just play exciting, suffocating and hard-nosed Italy basketball. It's that simple. Some teams may not think we're not on their level, but they're wrong. Underestimating us makes us go that much harder."
Italy, too, controlled the offensive and defensive glass and caused havoc in the Flyers' passing lane. Senior David De La Hoya, whose seven points nearly netted him a double-double, lead the Gladiators in rebounds with nine rebounds along with boards from Jeremiah Washington (7), Johnson (7) and Davis II (6).
They forced more than 15 turnovers via steals by Davis (5), Washington (4) and De La Hoya (2).
The district-finale win landed Italy, the defending district champions, in a three-way tie for first place and the District 19-2A title. Less than a month, though, district odds makers most likely relegated the Gladiators to third or possibly fourth place and fighting for a postseason berth.
"Most of the year, we felt we weren't getting the respect that we thought Italy deserved," Ervin said. "In spite of the victories, I don't believe we've lost our underdog edge because that is the way we've played all year long. Because we've worked so hard to get where we are today, we'll continue to prepare like an underdog."
The Gladiators are now in a three-way tie with LaPoynor and Kerens for first place in the district. Ervin said the three teams will likely settle the three playoff seeds via coin flip after Wednesday's district meetings.
It's funny sometimes how fickle the basketball gods are and how many things can change in a matter of 30 days. The road from unknown to known, in the eyes of the staff, players and coaches, however, means little if the greatest goal isn't accomplished.
That fire and will to bring the little city of Italy it's second state basketball championship burns regardless if their opponents' saddle them with an "underdog" tag or not.
"We never really considered ourselves as an underdog because we knew if we played our style and brand of basketball — Italy basketball — we can beat anyone who steps on the court with us," Gladiator forward Kenneth Norwood said. "It's great to be state-ranked, but at the end of the day it doesn't mean anything without a ring on our finger. There's a three-way tie between us, Kerens and LaPoyor, but we're not worried about it. We're going to go about our business and play whoever they put in front of us. If we play hard and lock them down defensively, everything will work out the way it's supposed to — possibly with a state championship with the name Italy on it."