ITALY — One game to rule them, guide them and settle the score.
While most of Ellis County is busy settling into summer vacation, two basketball teams will meet head-to-head to decide which holds city supremacy.
Italy High School's famed 1997 district undefeated and state champion boys' basketball team will clash with this year's regional semifinalists Friday at the George Scott Coliseum for bragging rights and benefit.
And though there's a 20-year gap between the 27-4 overall and 10-0 district men and the 28-7 overall and young 12-2 District 19-2A upstart Gladiator boys, pride — and a little trash talk — may cover the distance.
"There's family lineage shared by both teams with Keith Davis, Sr. being a part of the championship team and Keith Davis, Jr. being a part of the regional semifinal team. That's pretty cool in of itself," Italy Athletic Director David Weaver said. "All the guys [from the 2017 team] had seen the videos and heard the stories about our title run and that was one of their goals going into the year — be up there as far as our banners are concerned. There was a lot of healthy trash-talking between the two teams and it was all in good fun but they wanted to play. It really wasn't until the halftime anniversary celebration during the Kerens game that the wheels of the rivalry game really started in motion."
Weaver, who stood casually and his golden ring glistening in the sunlight, was only one of the superstars on one of the city's only state championship teams. The boys that followed 20 years after, though, fell three victories short of taking the 1997-era style and turning it into a post millennium title and the second boys' basketball championship in school history.
The spark for their historic run came, surprisingly, after a loss.
Despite Davis, Jr.'s 21 points — his second consecutive 21-plus point game — 20 points from Kevin Johnson and a a 14-point and 13-rebound double-double by Kenneth Norwood Italy saw their first opportunity to receive state recognition go up in smoke against Kerens High School.
Out of the ashes of a three-point defeat at the hands of the state-ranked Bobcats, though, came two things: a 10-game win streak between Jan. 24 and Feb. 27 and drawn battle lines between two of the best boys' basketball teams in city history.
The parallels between the two teams' rosters, too, are seemingly endless.
Former 1997 Gladiator Head Coach and current Milford ISD Superintendent Don Clingenpeel and Don Rineheart, a former basketball coach and Italy principal renowned for starting famously-known Sunday pickup basketball games, will return as a coach and a referee during the Friday night showdown.
"On Sundays during the basketball season and even into the springtime and summer, we have an open gym here in Italy. You see cats from three or four years back to 10 years back to incoming freshmen coming to be a part of the pickup games on Sunday," Weaver said about the tradition of Sunday basketball in the city. "We've had it forever and I remember coming up here and Coach Rhineheart opening the gym up for us. It may have been started way before him but that's the one I remember starting it when I was there. It's been going on for about 30 years and it's an important part of how this 'rivalry' started. There's been a healthy number of players from the 1997 team that I've visited each week this past year and they've been getting ready, including Keith Davis, Sr.'s brother, DeJuan Davis, who lost 46 pounds and looks great."
The similarities don't end on recreational b-ball courts or at city borders. They don't halt at bloodlines, either.
Current Italy Head Coach David Ervin and his brother Jay Ervin were members of the 1997 Itasca High School team that handed the Gladiators one of their four season losses. The Itasca Wampus Cats beat Italy 90-86 during the first matchup but lost after the second.
Weaver, who said he considers David and Jay a part of that team, joked David doesn't let them forget about their one loss and noted Jay will be the master ceremonies for an event that's gotten coliseum-loads of fan approval.
"I think it's amazing to be a part of this winning program," David said. "Having played against the fathers and families of my current team provides a unique feeling, for the fact that Itasca and Italy were and still are rivals on the court. After coaching them, the 2017 team may have an advantage because of the 20-year gap and their fresh off the court but if they had played that team 20 years ago it would be a tough game for the 2017 team."
The game, which will feature a 3-point shootout at 6 p.m., a dunk contest at 6:45 p.m. and game at 7:30 p.m. is more than a simple tussle for bragging rights. It will also be a fun raiser to help the 2018 basketball teams purchase much-needed equipment for the upcoming season.
Concession stand and ticket sales, as well as a donation box, will serve as conduits for creating funds for things neither the 1997 or 2017 teams had during their playoff runs and equipment that is common at larger 3A, 4A and 5A institutions of learning.
"As we started talking about it, we decided that we weren't just going to play. We were going to make it a fun raiser, make it like the NBA All-Star Weekend and make it about the boys," Weaver said. "We'd like to get tennis shoes across the board that are matching and increase our equipment inventory in the basketball program. There's a lot of things that would make us a better program but those things cost money. They are smaller rims to put on the bigger rims [to improve shooting accuracy] and tools that can test our players' vertical leap and some that will help increase them. There is an incredible amount of gadgets and gizmos that can help a program but they require money. We're a small school that has budgets we must adhere to, so anytime we can raise money and put on a show, we're going to be open to that. We thought the combination of a legendary match up and a fun raiser would help bring excitement to the city and help create funds for next year's team."
Friday will pit youthful exuberance against experience from an era highlighted by the 1994 NCAA National Champion University of Arkansas Razorback's "40 minutes of Hell." Teams were tortured by a half-court defense every bit as stifling as a full-court press in games that could range from fast-paced games to slower, bruising contests.
The result of each left former Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred and analyst Bill Walton gushing about their completeness in the days after they claimed the NCAA title.
Though on a smaller scale, Weaver said it's the same approach the 1997 Italy Gladiators imposed on their opponents. He noted with youth comes speed but with age comes strength and experience and those aspects may dictate the game's result more than exuberance, energy and agility.
"I've probably talked more trash than any of them on either team," Weaver chuckled. "We had good teams before then but it wasn't until then that Ellis County recognized us. We were running and gunning with a fast break offense with a pressing defense at a time that coincided with Arkansas' '40 Minutes of Hell.' There wasn't a player bigger than 6-foot-1 on our team. We were basically a track team on a basketball court. There's no doubt they're going to be quicker than us but we're going to be a lot a bit stronger than they are. They think they're going to run us out of the gym and if the 2017 team should win it, we'll bury it. What they're not getting is they only get to dictate half of the game. The other half belongs to us."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI