Even in a 50-39 victory over the Wichita Force on Saturday night at Tingley Coliseum, the top-seeded Duke City Gladiators still had to sweat out the final seconds before celebrating their first-round Champions Indoor Football playoff triumph.
It was the first postseason win in the Gladiators’ four-year history and propelled them into the CIF semifinals next week.
With 4:30 left in the fourth quarter before a hushed crowd announced at 2,800, the Force had just taken a 39-31 lead on the fourth field goal of the night by Brett Mathis.
But the Gladiators (11-2) outscored the Force 19-0 the rest of the way, including a fumble recovery in the Wichita end zone as time expired.
“When you want to have a championship team you’re going to have to face adversity, and against a team with that kind of pedigree, our team showed great character coming back,” coach Dominic Bramante said.
The Force was only 4-9 this season, but won the league title two seasons ago.
After Mathis’ late field goal, it took the Gladiators two snaps to score, which came on a 40-yard pass from Caleb Holbrook to Dello Davis, who broke free along the left sideline. That made it 39-37, but Duke City failed on a pair of 2-point conversion tries. First, a pass fell incomplete, but there was a roughing the passer penalty. Running back Juwan Lewis then was stuffed on a run from the 1. It remained a two-point Wichita lead.
With 3:29 left, the Gladiators’ recovered Kimo Naehu’s ensuing onside kick and scored 59 seconds later on another Holbrook TD throw, this one for 36 yards to Jared Elmore. It was Elmore’s second scoring reception of the night. The PAT made it 44-39 for Duke City with 2:30 left.
But the drama was far from over.
Just after the 1-minute warning, Wichita faced third down and goal at the Duke City 15. The Gladiators’ Donnie Duncan then intercepted a tipped Rocky Hines pass and fell to the turf to spoil that rally.
But, with about half a minute remaining, it still wasn’t over.
The Gladiators were not able to run out the clock and kicked the ball back with 3.9 seconds left. It was then that Wichita fumbled in the end zone before Hines could hurl a Hail Mary, with Fatu Ulale recovering for a TD.
“We knew it was a new season, so we came out here and fought hard,” said Wichita WR Charles Johnson.
The Gladiators advance to next week’s league semifinals against the winner of Monday night’s game between the Texas Revolution (third seed in the South) and host Amarillo Venom (second seed in South), which is scheduled for Monday. That semifinal is scheduled to be played at Tingley on Monday, June 25.
The league title game would be played at Tingley on June 30 if the Gladiators advance again.
OTHER RESULTS: Two first-round games were played in the North Conference on Saturday night: Sioux City beat Quad Cities 54-46, and the North’s top seed, Salina, beat Bismarck 81-51.
GLADIATORS 50, FORCE 39
Wichita 17 6 10 6—39
Duke City 14 7 10 19—50
Leading passers: W, Rocky Hines, 24-for-40, 180 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs; DC, Caleb Holbrook, 13-for-30, 211 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT.
Leading rushers: W, James McCartney, 5 yards, 2 TDs; DC, Juwan Lewis 18 yards, 1 TD; Leading receivers: W, Charles Johnson, 9 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD; DC, Jared Elmore, 5 catches, 117 yards, 2 TDs.