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(Ed. Note: For the complete Cheverus-Thornton Academy and Portland-Scarborough game stories, with additional photos and reaction, along with box scores, please visit theforecaster.net)
It was a triumphant and historic weekend for city football teams.
In case you hadn’t heard, the two-time defending Class A state champion Cheverus Stags had a pretty big test Saturday afternoon when they went to unbeaten Thornton Academy in the most highly anticipated regular season contest in recent memory. Not only were the Stags looking to stay undefeated on the season and lock up the top seed for the upcoming playoffs, but oh by the way, they entered the game one win shy of equalling South Portland’s record for all-time consecutive Class A wins (31).
When the dust settled, the “Game of the Century” proved to be just another day at the office for the finest football team in the state.
Cheverus displayed every reason why it is the program that all others now measure themselves against.
When the Stags needed to run the ball, they did, to the tune of 313 of their total 399 yards. When they needed to mix it up and go to the air, that worked as well. Then, of course, there was the defense, which held the potent Golden Trojans to just 196 yards.
Cheverus made an immediate statement by driving 67 yards in seven plays on its first possession and going ahead when big-game standout extraordinaire Donald Goodrich bulled in from 2-yards out.
The Stags had a chance to open things up in the second period, but quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick was intercepted in the end zone by Thornton Academy standout Andrew Libby and with 4:33 to go before halftime, a 4-yard Libby TD run pulled the Golden Trojans even.
No one does halftime adjustments like legendary coach John Wolfgram, however, and Cheverus was a new, more confident and even more unstoppable force in the second half.
The Stags marched 77 yards in nine plays to begin the third quarter and went on top for good when Goodrich scored from the 4 with 7:27 remaining. After forcing a punt, Cheverus got a bit of a cushion on a 15-yard Goodrich scamper with 2:35 to play in the third.
“We made a couple adjustments,” Wolfgram said. “They worked right away on that first drive of the half. That changed the pace of the game.”
As expected, Thornton Academy battled back and when Libby scored on a 6-yard run with 9:33 to go, the Cheverus lead was cut to 21-14.
After the Stags ran over four minutes off the clock, but missed a field goal, unheralded junior Sam Cross, starting in lieu of injured senior Brent Green, intercepted a pass and returned it 30-yards to paydirt in what was essentially the coup de grâce.
“It was exciting,” Cross said. “It was just a reaction, really. I just jumped the route. I didn’t think about it. It just happened. It ended up in my hands. For my first varsity start ever, it was great. The starters talked to me, helped me out in practice. They definitely pulled me through.”
Cheverus’ defense held two final times, then the Stags ran out the clock and celebrated their No. 1 seed-clinching, bragging rights-rich 28-14 victory, which made them 7-0 on the year, dropped the Golden Trojans to 6-1 and matched the consecutive wins record.
“It was great,” Cheverus quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve been in big games, but there’s never been a game like this before in the regular season. It was exciting. A lot of fun to play in. (Thornton’s) a good team and they were going to battle until the end like we did and we came out on top this time. It’s a statement win. Without a doubt, we’ll see them again. We’re looking forward to the next time we see them.”
“It wasn’t just another game, because we were out there playing for Brent Green and Michael Flaherty,” Goodrich said. “Two seniors who work hard for us. That’s what this game was for. We wanted to win it for them. I was pointing to Brent and Michael after every play. We were determined in the second half. We came out and played Cheverus football.”
“It’s more special than just another win,” said Wolfgram. “No question. Mainly because Thornton Academy’s an excellent football team. It gives us a chance to have a high seed in the playoffs. It was a fun week. It was a great day for high school football. We prepare the same way every week, but I think we had a little extra focus this week because it was a game for a very high seed.”
Goodrich stole the show with 166 yards (and three TDs) on 25 carries.
“We’re just going to give him the ball until they stop him,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s a strong kid. He’s fast. He’s good at eluding tackles.”
“Donny’s very, very good,” Wolfgram said. “I can’t compare him to other people. We like to have him on our side. He’s a competitor. He’s quick, he runs hard. He’s a good player. He’s got the heart of a lion.”
Fullback Cody O’Brien, who filled in for Green on offense, was stellar as well, gaining 110 yards on 19 carries.
“We have a very diverse offense and I’m not the only one who can run,” Goodrich said. “Cody stepped up. We have depth.”
Following the game, Wolfgram again reiterated that the win streak is merely a number and that his and the team’s focus is on the present and immediate future.
“The streak doesn’t mean anything to me,” Wolfgram said. “We’d like to get a top seed in the playoffs. That’s the way our kids are thinking and that’s the way I’m thinking. The other stuff is extrinsic stuff.”
While Wolfgram doesn’t want to dwell on the magnitude of coaching a team to 31 straight victories (for a mindboggling second time, since he happened to be the Red Riots’ coach in the 1990s), the rest of the local high school football world sure does. The Wolfgram legend was well established before he even set foot at Cheverus, but the job he’s done with the Stags will be the standard by which all other coaches are measured.
He’s certainly made an impact on his players.
“We play every game for coach,” Goodrich said. “He puts in a ton of effort every week and we want to reward him for that effort. He’s dedicated to us. He puts in the same kind of effort we do. He studies film, gets the game plan together and prepares us.”
For all the hype this showdown generated, it was just the penultimate game of the regular season. Cheverus (first in the Western Class A Crabtree Points standings) is back in action Saturday when it hosts 3-4 Deering, a team riding a three-game win streak. Last year, the Stags struggled at the Rams in the regular season, winning just, 14-0, but in the Western A semifinals, they drubbed Deering from start to finish, 45-0.
“(This win is) a good thing for the program, but we’re looking forward to Deering next week,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ll be riding home on the bus watching Deering on my iPhone.”
“We’ll get ready for Deering now,” Goodrich said. “That’s who’s next.”
Friday evening, Portland and Deering made resounding statements.
The Bulldogs and Scarborough went back-and-forth for four quarters, with Portland’s grind-it-out, chew-the-clock drives countered by quick strikes from the Dillon Russo-led Red Storm aerial attack.
Scarborough grabbed a 7-0 lead in the first period on a 44-yard scamper by junior Dan LeClair. Portland roared back behind TD runs from sophomore quarterback Ryan Ruhlin and junior workhorse Justin Zukowski, but Russo hit senior Greg Viola from 37 yards out for a 14-13 lead at halftime.
The Bulldogs went back on top, 19-14, when senior Nick Volger (9 carries, 105 yards an a touchdown) broke free for a 62-yard TD run in the third period, but with 6:23 left in the game, Russo and Viola hooked up again, this time from 17 yards out, and the Red Storm appeared en route to victory.
Instead, Portland embarked on a final scoring drive. An unexpected 40-yard pass play from Ruhlin to senior Joe Nielsen got the Bulldogs close and with 1:28 left, Ruhlin sneaked in from the 1.
“The line was great tonight,” said Ruhlin. “We found holes and went through them. The sneak worked well tonight. I was a little nervous with the game on the line. I think the tip of the ball was on the goal line. Fraction of an inch. That’s all that matters. It was a great feeling.”
“I thought I got in (the play before), but give it to the quarterback,” said Zukowski.
“Why risk the handoff?” Portland coach Jim Hartman added. “We knew what they would do. It was mano-a-mano. We felt we could do that. He said he scored by the length of the football. Our boys wanted it.”
A pair of sacks denied Russo and Scarborough’s last gasp and the Bulldogs held on to win, 25-20, leaving both teams 5-2 with just one regular season game remaining.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Ruhlin. “We were motivated. We knew we were playing a great team. To go on top at the end was a great feeling. We have a lot of confidence. We came into the huddle and said, ‘It’s time to go to work boys,’ and we did.”
“It feels pretty good,” said Zukowski, who had 167 yards and a TD on 29 carries. “We’re bringing tradition back to Portland High. That’s what all the coaches preach and that’s what we’re trying to do. We just focused on this game. Scarborough played well, but we wanted it.”
“It’s an enormous win for Portland High,” Hartman added. “This helps us believe in ourselves. I was pleased with how we kept (Scarborough) off balance. It’s the first week I’ve felt really comfortable calling the game with this group. We have to get our kids used to playing this style of football. If we can do that next week, it’s a pretty good first year.”
The final statistics favored the hosts, who had a 421-225 advantage in total yardage, 348 of which came on the ground.
Portland (fourth, but breathing down Scarborough’s neck in the Crabtrees) finishes the regular season at 1-6 South Portland next Saturday in the “Battle of the Bridge.” The Bulldogs hope to snap a two-year losing streak to the Red Riots and jump up to the third spot.
“Battle of the Bridge, baby,” Zukowski said. “We have to stay focused and work on penalties and turnovers. This is only good for a week.”
“We’ll enjoy this and get ready for South Portland next week,” Ruhlin said. “We’ve matured as a group and have come together. We’ll come ready to play like we did tonight. We’ll prepare the same.”
“We are just focused on playing one game at a time,” Hartman added. “Hopefully the kids build on this. It’s my job to make sure there isn’t a letdown.”
Deering put its game against visiting South Portland away by the end of the first period as a 32-yard Kenny Sweet run (55 seconds in), a 26-yard Dominic Lauture scamper, a 4-yard Sweet run and a 54-yard Lauture score made it 27-0 after 12 minutes. Sweet scored from 7-yards out to make it 34-0. After the Red Riots got on the board with a TD run, Sweet returned the ensuing kickoff 90-yards for a score. Another Lauture touchdown run (4-yards) extended the lead to 48-6 at halftime. A 14-yard Sweet TD run and a safety were sandwiched around a third quarter touchdown by South Portland, accounting for the 57-12 Deering win, its third in a row after an 0-4 start.
The Rams (now sixth in the Western A Crabtrees) closes at Cheverus Saturday and needs a win to ensure a postseason berth.
Cheverus junior Sam Cross is congratulated by his teammates after his backbreaking interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 28-14 win at Thornton Academy.
Portland senior Joe Nielsen soars to make a pivotal 40-yard reception during the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs’ 25-20, come-from-behind win over Scarborough Friday.