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Rota Admirals running back Wes Penta runs past Aviano Saint's defenders en route to a touchdown during Saturday's game held at Aviano.

Rota Admirals running back Wes Penta runs past Aviano Saint's defenders en route to a touchdown during Saturday's game held at Aviano. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Rota Admirals running back Wes Penta runs past Aviano Saint's defenders en route to a touchdown during Saturday's game held at Aviano.

Rota Admirals running back Wes Penta runs past Aviano Saint's defenders en route to a touchdown during Saturday's game held at Aviano. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Aviano Saints quarterback Michael Hauser drops back to pass to wide receiver Donavin Robinson during Saturday's game at Aviano between the Rota Admirals and Aviano.

Aviano Saints quarterback Michael Hauser drops back to pass to wide receiver Donavin Robinson during Saturday's game at Aviano between the Rota Admirals and Aviano. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Rota admirals quarterback Campbell Lamb drops back for a pass during Saturday's game held at Aviano where the Aviano Saints edged out Rota 24-21. Aviano will host either SHAPE or Naples in next week's semi-final game.

Rota admirals quarterback Campbell Lamb drops back for a pass during Saturday's game held at Aviano where the Aviano Saints edged out Rota 24-21. Aviano will host either SHAPE or Naples in next week's semi-final game. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Aviano Saints wide receiver Donavin Robinson runs past Rota's defenders on a play that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown.

Aviano Saints wide receiver Donavin Robinson runs past Rota's defenders on a play that resulted in a 55-yard touchdown. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Aviano Saints running back Raymond Harden gets tackled by Rota Admiral defenders during Saturday's game held at Aviano where the Saints edged the Admirals 24-21.

Aviano Saints running back Raymond Harden gets tackled by Rota Admiral defenders during Saturday's game held at Aviano where the Saints edged the Admirals 24-21. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

Rota wide receiver Judge Tice lays out to grab a pass for a touchdown from quarterback Campbell Lamb during Saturday's game at Aviano. The Saints won the game 24-21 and will host Naples next week in the semifinals.

Rota wide receiver Judge Tice lays out to grab a pass for a touchdown from quarterback Campbell Lamb during Saturday's game at Aviano. The Saints won the game 24-21 and will host Naples next week in the semifinals. (Norman Llamas/Stars and Stripes)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – On paper, the matchup Saturday between the Rota Admirals and the Aviano Saints looked pretty even. Both entered the contest with perfect 3-0 records in Division II conference play this season.

They didn’t play on paper, of course. But the game did live up to expectations as the Saints edged the Admirals 24-21 in a back-and-forth affair that could have gone either way.

Down 21-16 with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Aviano drove down the field propelled by passes from Michael Hauser to Donavin Robinson.

Josiah Cooper capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run to put the Saints on top. DJ Vaughns then caught Hauser’s pass for a two-point version with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left to create the final score.

Rota, which had missed two earlier field goal attempts, drove down the field and reached the Aviano 21-yard-line. But the drive stalled and Aviano took over on an incomplete pass with 30 seconds left.

“They are clearly the better team,” Rota coach Luke Spencer said after the game. “We need to work on blocking and tackling. They are clearly the better team, hats-off to them.”

The Admirals, who beat the Saints 20-0 to open the season in a non-conference game, may very well got another shot at Aviano. With Saturday’s win, Aviano gets the top seed and hosts No. 4 Naples on Saturday. Rota will entertain Vicenza. The two winners will then meet Nov. 2 for the championship.

“A good game between two solid teams,” Aviano coach Rick Dahlstrom said. “This team has made me immensely proud. We were fortunate to come out on top today. We understand that next week’s game is win or go home. However, we will prepare as usual, like we do for all our games.”

Both teams displayed their defensive prowess in the first quarter and neither scored.

Aviano opened up the scoring in the second period with a field goal that seemed to ignite both teams’ offenses.

Rota responded five plays later with Lamb scoring from the 2 to take the lead. Aviano then answered with Hauser connecting with Robinson for a 55-yard touchdown, only to have Rota again take the lead after a long drive ended with a beautiful outstretched diving catch by Admirals wide receiver Judge Tice.

Rota got the ball back but missed a field goal attempt to lead 14-10 at halftime.

Aviano took the first drive of the second half across most of the field, but Robinson fumbled the ball after a hard hit.

The Admirals then went on a long drive that used up most of the third quarter and ended with an 11-yard Rota touchdown pass from Lamb to wide receiver Ray Reyes.

The teams exchanged possessions before Aviano’s Robinson ran the ball in from the Admiral’s 37-yard line for a Saints touchdown. But after failing to convert a two-point try, Aviano trailed 21-16.

The teams exchanged possessions before Aviano’s Robinson ran the ball in from the Admiral’s 37-yard line for a Saints touchdown. But after failing to convert a two-point try, Aviano trailed 21-16.

Rota then tried another field goal but missed again and the two teams exchanged possessions before Aviano took over and executed its winning drive.

llamas.norman@stripes.com Twitter: @normanllamas

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Norman covers the U.S. military in Northern Italy and sometimes elsewhere for Stars and Stripes. He was born in Guatemala and raised in Rhode Island. He has more than 10 years of experience as an Army photojournalist and has served as a photojournalism instructor at the Defense Information School.
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