Scoring three touchdowns in 43 seconds, Italy stunned Valley Mills in their bi-district matchup Friday, winning, 47-23, at McGregor’s Bulldog Stadium. The Gladiators, down 16-13 to start the fourth quarter, scored 34 unanswered points to advance to the area round of the Class 2A Division I high school playoffs.

What had been a a defensive battle turned into an offensive explosion in a matter of seconds. Actually, the game had three distinct parts: A tight, low-scoring first half, a Valley Mills third-quarter awakening, and the game-clinching Italy lightning strike.

After a plodding first half, Italy (8-3) led, 7-0. However, Valley Mills took the opening possession of the second half and drove 75 yards in seven plays, capped by a 31-yard touchdown run by Alex Simmons. Then, after forcing a three-and-out, the Eagles only needed two plays to take their first lead of the game, as quarterback Braydon Richardson scampered 42 yards, and Valley Mills led, 14-7.

On the Gladiators’ next possession, it appeared Italy was about to tie the game back up, but Valley Mills blocked the extra point, and Albert Franco scooped the ball up, returning it 80 yards for the rare 2-point play, giving the Eagles a 16-13 lead.

That is when things went bad quickly for Valley Mills. Very quickly. First, Gladiator running back Jaiden Barr rumbled in from 44 yards out on an option pitch. With the score now 19-13, Valley Mills fumbled the very next play, and Barr scored on the play right after that on a 9-yard run. Then, once again on the next play, the Eagles fumbled again, and Italy defensive tackle Drake Lemire scooped up the loose ball and ran 25 yards. All of the sudden, the Eagles looked up and found themselves trailing 33-16, after leading by three just 43 seconds earlier.

Italy added two more fourth-quarter touchdowns on an interception return and another run by Barr, this time for 36 yards. The sophomore running back was a force all night, scoring four touchdowns and rushing for 228 yards.

Richardson connected with Simmons on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 3:41 remaining for the game’s final points.

Valley Mills finished the season 6-5.

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