The Gladiators’ offensive players, including Demarius Washington (1), whose second TD of the game proved to be the winner. Watch the action on the field Saturday evening at the Rio Rancho Events Center. (Gary Herron/Observer)
At 6-feet, 2-inches tall, Duke City lineman Mason Newton does not look like a kick-blocking fiend.
But for the second time this season, Newton thwarted two potential field goals, helping turn the tide for the Gladiators (8-8), who came from behind Saturday to beat the Northern Arizona Wranglers 39-32 in their regular-season finale.
Duke City now heads to Phoenix to meet the Arizona Rattlers Sunday afternoon in the first round of the Indoor Football League playoffs. Arizona is the top seed in the West. Duke City is fourth-seeded. Tucson heads to Prescott to meet Northern Arizona in the Western Conference’s other semifinal game.
The Rattlers (13-3) are 6-0 all-time vs. the Gladiators ending Duke City’s 2021 season with a 58-55 win in the playoffs and opening Duke City’s 2022 season with a 50-28 setback. Two-time IFL champ Arizona also beat Duke City, 58-38, June 18 at the Rio Rancho Events Center.
“Yeah, we lost to them earlier in the season, but the reason we lost, it came down to special teams,” Duke City coach Sherman Carter said. “The guys did a great job this week on understanding that special teams beat us last week and they took care of it this week.”
Both of Newton’s blocks came in the last five minutes of the game and led to the Gladiators’ final two touchdowns.
Trailing 32-26 with 4:39 left, Newton sliced through the Wranglers’ line and took Adrian Trevino’s 57-yard attempt off his chest. The ball popped up and teammate Eriq Swiftwater returned it 12 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
With 1:30 left, Newton got his right hand on Trevino’s 40-yard try and was able to recover it himself.
Still, there was the matter of breaking the 32-all deadlock.
Backup QB Javin Kilgo, a former Gladiators player signed earlier in the week and who recently led Salina to the championship of the Champions Indoor Football League, found another returning Gladiator in Demarius Washington – also late of Salina and a former IFL MVP – for the game-winning touchdown with four seconds left.
Washington also scored the Gladiators’ second TD of the game for a brief 16-14 lead, which turned into a tie after the PAT was blocked and returned for two points by the Wranglers’ Marquis Bridges.
A final pass attempt by Northern Arizona went incomplete and the game was over.
“It motivates the guys,” Carter said of the win in the finale. “It gives them that step that they are successful and that they can beat any team in this league.”
In the Eastern Conference playoffs, the No. 4 Iowa Barnstormers (9-7) are at No. 1 Frisco (14-2) and the No. 3 Quad City Steamrollers visit No. 2 Massachusetts (11-5) this weekend.
(Glen Rosales of the Albuquerque Journal contributed to this story.)