For the first time in the three-year history of the Duke City Gladiators, they will be going to the playoffs.
On Saturday night at Tingley Coliseum, the opportunistic Gladiators (7-5) beat the Dodge City Law 43-22 in a must-win game to clinch a berth in the Champions Indoor Football league postseason.
Ex-Lobo quarterback Donovan Porterie had another strong outing in throwing for four TDs and no interceptions, increasing his league-leading touchdown pass total to 60.
But it also was the play of the defense and special teams that earned gold stars in the resounding victory. Gladiator defensive backs Ray Little and Darrain Winston had two interceptions apiece, and fellow backfield mate Jayson Serda, a Manzano High/Eastern New Mexico alum, recovered a fumble by Law quarterback Rudy Johnson and returned the ball 15 yards for a touchdown.
“When the schedule came out, we knew it would be a tough challenge to get to the tournament,” Gladiators coach Dominic Bramante said while accepting congratulations after the game. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team overcome as much adversity on and off the field.”
He made reference to a schedule that included two road games apiece against South Division titans Dodge City and Amarillo, and seven against them overall, and also key injuries and call-ups to the Canadian Football League.
In addition to Serda’s TD return, he also repeatedly harried Dodge City’s QB in the pocket.
“I started to see his eyes getting big after we were putting those hits on him,” Serda said of Johnson.
The Law scored only eight points after intermission as the Gladiators pulled away thanks to a pair of Porterie touchdown throws to Sedrick Johnson to make it 37-14.
The turning point of the game, though, occurred with 1.2 seconds left before the half. With Duke City leading 14-13, Dodge City lined up for a 28-yard field goal try by Jared Wood. The kick was blocked by Brett Bowers and recovered by Duke City’s Juvi Ray Berry, who returned the ball 18 yards for a score. Brian Weems’ extra-point kick made it 23-14.
Tempering the Gladiators’ joy on this night, however, was the news that the Dallas Marshals (7-5) defeated the North Division’s Omaha Beef 62-55 on Saturday, creating a four-way tie for third with Wichita, Dodge City and Duke City. In that scenario, the Law got the third seed because it was the only team of the four to beat each of the others. Had Dallas lost, it would have been a three-way tie and the applicable tiebreaker was strength of schedule, which would have given the Gladiators the edge and the third seed.
Next weeks, at a time and date to be announced, the Gladiators will face the No. 1 seed in the South, Amarillo, which finished 9-3. The Venom has defeated the Gladiators in three of four meetings this year, including both games in Texas. But last week, in the Gladiators’ drive to the playoffs, they beat the Venom 69-46.