The Champions Indoor Football title game certainly didn’t lack for drama at Tingley Coliseum on Saturday night.
The outcome came down to the final play, with the Duke City Gladiators clinging to a 35-29 lead and the Salina (Kan.) Liberty at Duke City’s 3-yard line.
Moments later it was bedlam in the venerable arena after a pass over the middle from Salina QB Andrew Jackson fell incomplete in the end zone, resulting in the Gladiators securing their second straight CIF crown. A crowd announced at 4,650 reveled in the moment.
“It’s humbling, absolutely humbling,” sweat-soaked Duke City coach Dominic Bramante said on the field before the trophy presentation. “The last two games and the way we won this game against a tough Salina team, we earned it.”
Two weeks ago in the Southern Conference title game, Duke City beat Amarillo in similar fashion, winning 70-62 with Amarillo looking to throw deep into Gladiators territory as time expired.
Saturday’s loss was particularly bitter for Salina defensive back Frankie Solomon, a former University of New Mexico player.
“It really hurts, but at the end of the day, man, both teams left it all on the field,” said Solomon, who added that he was OK after getting “his bell rung” late in the game. “Somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose.”
Despite the defeat, it was a magical season for the Liberty and coach Heron O’Neal, who was voted the league’s Coach of the Year. Two seasons ago, Salina finished 1-11. In the past two years, they first made it as far as the Northern Conference title game and this year to the grand finale.
With about 11 minutes to go Saturday, it appeared the Liberty was in charge and would give O’Neal his fourth indoor title as coach. Salina held a 23-20 lead and had the ball at the Gladiators’ 3. The crowd was hushed.
At that juncture came one of several turning points in the game. On a second-down play, Salina bungled the center-QB exchange and Duke City’s Jayson Serda, a Manzano High and Eastern New Mexico alum, recovered at the Gladiators’ 5.
About five minutes later, Gladiators receiver Sedrick Johnson capped a nine-play drive by making a one-handed snag while draped over the end zone wall. That made it 26-23. But with kicker Billy Perry out of uniform after injuring his groin, Duke City opted to go for 2 — and scored on another catch by Johnson for a 28-23 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Gladiators scored again when the Liberty was pinned in its end zone for a rouge, which put Duke City ahead 29-23.
The tension continued to mount as Salina began a drive with 5:03 left and marched to the Duke City 1. That’s when Jackson burrowed his way into the end zone on third down with 1:06 left. The score was tied 29-all.
Salina could then have taken the lead with a PAT by Jimmy Allen, but his boot clanked high off the left upright. Overtime loomed.
The Gladiators promptly marched from their 21 to inside the Liberty 2. That’s when Romello Brown barreled around left end and narrowly crossed the goal line with 17 seconds left. In fact, Liberty asked for a video review, but the result was upheld.
“I knew I was in,” Brown said. “I didn’t think it was that close.”
With the score 35-29, Duke City failed to convert on the 2-point attempt, giving Salina a chance to win in regulation.
That would end the scoring, but not the excitement.
Early on, it appeared the Gladiators’ smothering defense was going to result in a dominant victory. Through 14 minutes, Duke City led 14-3 and every play for Salina to that point resulted in no gain or lost yardage.
The Liberty finally scored a TD on the first of two Jackson-to-Rashad Pargo connections, this time for 3 yards.
Duke City countered about two minutes later when Robert Kent hit Sherman Carter for an 8-yard tackle-eligible pass over the middle from 8 yards out to make it 20-10. The second Pargo TD catch made it 20-16 at halftime.
SUSPENSION: Duke City WR Dello Davis, who led the team with 22 TD receptions, was fined $250 and suspended for the first half of the championship game by the CIF because of Facebook posts deemed inappropriate by the league.
POSTSEASON PARTY: The Gladiators will be playing host to a Fan and Sponsor Appreciation Party at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Downtown Hyatt Regency, 330 Tijeras SW.
“We want to thank all of our supporters, the businesses and fans that made this the most successful season in franchise history,” team owner Gina Prieskorn-Thomas said.
Tickets are $10. All ages are welcome. Food and drinks will be provided.
GLADIATORS 35, LIBERTY 29
Salina 3 13 7 6 — 29
Duke City 14 6 0 15 — 35
Leading passers: S, Andrew Jackson 15-for-27, 142 yards, 2 TDs; DC, Robert Kent 13-for-23, 128 yards, 2 TDs.
Leading rushers: S, Jackson 6 carries, 20 yards, 2 TDs; DC, Romello Brown 14 carries, 46 yards, 3 TDs.
Leading receivers: S, Rashad Pargo, 6 catches, 58 yards, 2 TDs; DC, Sedrick Johnson 4 catches,29 yards, 1 TD; Dello Davis, 3 catches 53 yards.