NAPLES, Italy _ The Naples Wildcats remained undefeated Saturday after fending off the SHAPE Spartans 21-16 in a muddy, hand-wringing Division II playoff semifinal that secured the team from Italy a spot in the DODDS-Europe championship game.
The evenly-matched teams battled under a dark sky and in between roaring rain showers, with Naples scoring three times and the Spartans reaching the end zone twice during the first half. With the win, Naples will take on unbeaten Bitburg, a 56-14 winner over Hohenfels, in Baumholder.
“It was a tough, in the trenches game,” said Wildcat linebacker Bryan Pfirrman. “We had to go in there, stick our heads down and play in the mud.”
SHAPE started strong as running back Conner Manning scored the first touchdown of the game shortly after the kickoff. Naples quarterback Joseph Pitts matched his score with a rushing TD of his own, then connected with Isaiah Wesby for a 26-yard touchdown pass.
SHAPE’s Amari Wilson scored for the Spartans in the second quarter before Naples receiver Howard Pulley hauled in a pass from Pitts to put Naples on top to stay.
Both teams slowed down through the second half of the game, leaving the scoreboard unchanged.
As the clock ticked down, the Spartans made it past the 20-yard line in the fourth quarter, threatening the Wildcats’ winning streak. But their bid to come out ahead fell short with only minutes left in the game.
“We held that,” said Naples head coach Steve Altstiel. “That could have been a game-changer.”
The win was the latest highlight in an already memorable season for the Wildcats, who won for the seventh time. Pitts has been a pivotal player, maintaining a consistently good game in his senior season, Altstiel said.
For the Spartans, it was a difficult defeat after a series of setbacks, including some injuries and several long bus trips that left the team exhausted and prone to errors, according to head coach Randy Potter.
“We really just beat ourselves today,” Potter said. “Today, we didn’t execute like we normally do … You cannot make a mistake in a championship game and win.”
Many of the SHAPE players are football rookies and 17 of the 51 players on the 2012 Spartan roster are non-Americans, Potter said.
Potter said he had been warned about the Wildcats’ strength and speed, and arrived in Naples expecting a hard match.
“We brought a very good team here,” he said. “And we met a very good team here.”