For the third year in a row the defending champion Milano Seamen enter Italy’s championship game – the Italian Super Bowl XXXV – preparing to face six time finalists the Parma Panthers.
Milano won last year’s contest in surprisingly easy fashion, whipping the Panthers, who had been undefeated going into the game, 33-3.
It was embarrassing loss for Parma who had won four straight titles entering the game. The year before, the Panthers were easy winners dismantling Milano 53-28.
Road to the Final
Both teams played in the North division in Italy and finished one-two. The Panthers road to the final went through the Bologna Warriors who they beat handily 43-14. Then they squeezed by the Bolzano Giants 14-7.
The Seamen had no problems defeating the Roma Grizzlies in their quarterfinal matchup, and then had to come from behind a couple of times to finally overcome a tough Milano Rhinos team in the last minute 25-20.
Both head coaches – Paolo Mutti and Andrew Papoccia – have experienced some ups and downs this season and suffered surprising losses. Milano opened the year with a 38-13 loss to the Panthers while Parma dropped a 32-20 loss to the Giants.
Milano seemed to gain its form in demolishing the Panthers in their second meeting of the season 44-3 (before the arrival of Parma running back Joe Martinek) but then lost to both Bergamo and the Rhinos.
Nevertheless, Seamen quarterback Jonathan Dally, who had struggled late in the year, found his rhythm when he needed it versus the Rhinos and will be entering the game with confidence. He scored the last minute game-winning touchdown in the semifinals that propelled Milano to this final.
Parma’s signal caller Tommaso Monardi has played in five consecutive Italian Super Bowls and is no stranger to pressure. Although he struggled in the semfinal game against Bolzano (60 yards passing) he did enough to win the game. His favorite receiver, Tomasso Finadri, is in fine form. Running back Joe Martinek, who arrived in Parma in late May and had been in camp with the New York Giants a couple of years ago and scored a touchdown in the exhibition season, has averaged almost 130 yards rushing a game since then.
Martinek’s running mate in the backfield, Alessandro Malpeli Avalli, carried the load before the arrival of American power back and is still a great complement. He is very shifty and quick while Martinek is more of a power back.
Last year, Parma went into the game as heavy favorites but were embarrassed by a well prepared Milano squad. What is the difference this year?
“We are different this year compared to 2014. We were a little over confident going into last year’s game because we had beaten them easily in the first game and were undefeated. But this year we are very aware of how good they are,”.
Head coach Papoccia has been with the Panthers organization since 2005 while Monardi started playing in the club in 2003. They have a great relationship according to Monardi and that is part of the reason for his own success and the team’s as well.
Papoccia on Monardi’s impact:
“Tommaso has really grown into the role of the leader of our offense. He has such poise that the other players feed off of him.”
Papoccia is well aware of how the team unraveled during last year’s championship game:
“Our preparations last year were about the same as now. But we had been so used to winning, that when they jumped out ahead of us, we could not respond. I guess we were all in shock. This year we are going into this one with a different mental attitude.”
The Milano Seamen seemed to have their course set to winning the league title and crowning it with a second championship. But somewhere late in the season they lost their cohesiveness and started making inexplicable mistakes. Against Bergamo, who were next to last in the division at the time, they coughed the ball up twice within their own five yard line and the Lions scored 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win the game.
These kinds of mental errors were non existent previously.
Seamen quarterback Jonathan Dally:
“We had a wakeup call against the Thonon Black Panthers in the Champions League tournament. We lost that game and they found a way to stop our fast paced, big play offense. It seemed as if other teams picked up on that and used it to beat us. So we have adjusted. We work at controlling the clock and the game better. It helped against the Rhinos in the semifinals.
You also have to remember that we didn’t have our running back Mattia Binda for four games and we had injuries to our slot receivers who are so important to us. Now all of them are back and healthy.
We had seemed to lose our fire but that come from behind win against the Rhinos was great for morale.”
On defense, American import Justin Bell has had a huge impact on the Seamen’s and he seems to be everywhere on the field. According to Dally he is a big play guy, a motivator whose passion seems to rub off on the other players.
Milano head coach Paolo Mutti:
“Justin is a great player and great as a person too. In the beginning, like all American players in their first year in Europe, he had difficulties understanding the game in Europe. But he worked at it every day and got better and better, every day and every week. He is so important to us now.
In answer to the question of how to perform the same as last year when they beat the Panthers so easily Mutti had this to say:
“Last year before the final we were prepared to play against the “unbeatable” Panthers and we played a great game. Now we know that we can beat them but we also know we have to play our best game to do it. They have a better team this year and this will be a tough game”
The Seamen are aiming for back-to-back championships while the Panthers want redemption for last year and to return to championship form. This game is impossible to predict.