Parma Panthers HC Marc Mattioli and QB Reilly Hennessey preview Italian Bowl

Saturday’s Italian Bowl national championship game will pit the Parma Panthers (9-0) against the Seamen Milano (6-2) in the neutral field location of Piacenza’s Garilli Stadium.

AFI had the chance to chat with Panthers’ head coach Marc Mattioli and quarterback Reilly Hennessey about the “Grande Partita.”

AFI: Coach Mattioli, what’s your approach to the upcoming Italian Bowl, and having to play your rivals the Seamen Milano for the third time in a short season, this time for all the marbles?

Mattioli:  We’re definitely not approaching this as a third game against the Seamen. Nobody here is thinking “Oh, we have to beat the Seamen again.” Our focus and preparation is for this one game, the Italian Bowl on Saturday.  The circumstances leading up to the game, and whatever might have happened in our previous games against the Seamen are not in our line of thought right now.

AFI:  How can you not think about the other two games against the Seamen? They were absolute thrillers, with your team winning both on last-minute drives…

Mattioli:  Our mentality is, we want to get better every week, every practice. That means focusing on us and what we do. Of course I’m looking back at my game-notes from the other games, but I’m watching tape as if it were the first time we play these guys. In some way, my coaching experience at Vanderbilt University (NCAA), playing the same teams in the SEC East each year, helped me develop this kind of outlook. You see the same coaching staff, many of the same players, they know us, we know them, and yet it’s imperative that you approach each game with a fresh perspective.  Every game is a one-game season.

The Panthers will be attempting to crown a perfect season with an Italian Bowl conquest. Parma led the Italian league in an array of regular season team statistics, including Total Offense, Red Zone Offense, Red Zone Defense, and Sacks.  On offense, Parma has dangerous weapons across the board, starting with stud receiver Simone Alinovi, and including the ferocious and sure-handed tight end Nick Diaco, who also takes snaps at quarterback in the wildcat formation, as well as a highly productive running back tandem featuring veteran Alessandro Malpeli-Avalli and youngster Modeste Pooda.  The Panthers’ offensive and defensive lines have often manhandled opponents.  To top it off, Parma also boasts one Europe’s best kickers in Teo Felli.

Still the team leader is former Central Washington University (NCAA) quarterback Reilly Hennessey, whose brainy approach combined with outstanding athleticism and calm under pressure has helped the Panthers rack up nine victories in nine games thus far.  Over the eight-game regular season, Hennessey threw for 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions for over 1,600 yards.

AFI: Reilly Hennessey, looking back on the way you’ve performed this season, you must feel a certain sense of satisfaction…

Hennessey:  Actually what happens on the field on game day is only a part of a much bigger picture.  This team has been so focused at every single practice. We watch film together, we game plan together. We have fun together, too. That’s something that I’m so proud of. When I came here in 2019, I wasn’t able to finish the season due to injury. We got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. It was tough.  I felt awkward. All I wanted was to be out there, helping my teammates in practice and in games, but I couldn’t. Then I would look across the field and see other teams having fun. That became my goal. I wanted to play winning football, having fun with my teammates. And that’s what we’ve been able to do thus far this season.

AFI:  Does all of that change if you don’t win the Italian Bowl?

Hennessey:  Absolutely not. Like Coach Mattioli was saying earlier, we don’t see the Italian Bowl as a culmination of a ten-game season. It’s a game unto itself. We are preparing to the best of our ability and getting ready to leave it all on the field.

Alex Byrd Jones is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia currently living in Italy. Besides teaching high school English and working as a translator, he is the English-language play-by-play voice of the Parma Panthers home streaming broadcasts.