PORTLAND—The beat goes on and on and on.
Cheverus’ football team still stands alone in Eastern Class A.
And Portland continues to be stymied by its crosstown rival.
Saturday morning/afternoon at Boulos Stadium, in the teams’ mutual regular season opener, the Bulldogs had some early chances to seize control and perhaps snap a nearly five-year skid against the Stags, but Cheverus’ defense twice held tough and Portland only managed three points.
Then, the Stags hit their stride and didn’t look back.
The comeback was sparked by another impressive play from unheralded junior receiver Kenny Drelich, whose catch and run set the stage for Cheverus’ first score, a 25-yard scamper from senior standout Joe Fitzpatrick.
The Stags’ new-look offensive line came of age in the second period, as senior Liam LaFountain twice broke free for 15-yard touchdown runs which made it 21-3 at halftime.
While Cheverus’ defense was holding Portland at bay, the Stags’ rushing attack continued to turn heads in the third quarter, as junior Justin Johnston broke away for a 59-yard scoring run.
Then, in the fourth, Cheverus slammed the door, as Fitzpatrick scored on a short run and a Johnston sack led to a fumble recovery for a score by senior Zordan Holman, which gave the Stags’ a statement-making 41-3 triumph.
Fitzpatrick, a favorite for the Fitzpatrick Trophy, rushed for 165 yards, Johnston also broke the 100-yard threshold and Cheverus increased its regular season win streak to 34, its regular season home win streak to 17 and sent the Bulldogs back to the drawing board in the process.
“I thought overall that it was a really good effort for a first game,” said legendary Stags coach John Wolfgram. “It was a little bit of a slow start. (Portland’s) a good football team. They’ll win a lot of football games.”
This contest was highly anticipated ever since the teams walked off the same field in the wake of Cheverus’ come-from-behind win in last year’s Eastern A Final.
Both squads were hit hard in different ways by graduation, but they appear to still be the gold standard in the region as a new season begins.
The Stags are still stinging after their agonizing 31-28 loss in the Class A state final to Bonny Eagle (their only setback in 11 games last season) and are eager to return to the pinnacle.
“(Last year is) always in the back of our minds, but guys from last year give us inspiration,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re focused on getting back there and we’re thinking about (a Gold Ball).”
The Bulldogs went 8-2 last season and entered the game hungry to finally knock off a Cheverus squad which had beaten them six straight times (see sidebar, below), including 22-19 in last fall’s memorable regional final.
Saturday, in a game moved up to an 11 a.m. kickoff due to the threat of afternoon thunderstorms, Portland was hoping to vanquish the Stags for the first time since Sept. 25, 2009, but instead, Cheverus, after a sluggish start, continued its hex with a vengeance.
With the kickoff temperature reading 82 degrees and the humidity at 64 percent, conditions weren’t exactly screaming Maine high school football, but those on hand did their best to persevere.
The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss, but deferred. The Stags then went three-and-out and after a low snap, Fitzpatrick’s 29-yard punt set Portland up at its 45.
The Bulldogs then threatened to take the lead.
Junior George Chaison-Lapine got things started with a six-yard sweep, then he ran for 10. Two plays later, senior quarterback Jordan Talbot hooked up with junior Austin Phillips on an 11-yard pass play. Talbot moved the chains with a seven-yard run for a first down despite a fumbled snap (something which would prove to be an epidemic on this day), but three more runs only gained five yards and junior John Williams came on to attempt a 29-yard field goal for the lead.
The kick had plenty of distance, but was just wide to the right and the game remained scoreless.
Portland got another opportunity immediately, as on Cheverus’ next play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Isaac Dunn was intercepted by junior Joe Esposito, who made a gorgeous one-handed grab. A helmet-to-helmet hit penalty on the Stags set up the Bulldogs on the Cheverus 14, but they still couldn’t find paydirt.
A flast start penalty (the first of many) pushed Portland back and it gained just one yard on the next three plays. Williams came back out to attempt a 35-yard field goal and this time it was true.
The Bulldogs had a 3-0 lead, but could (and probably should) have had much more.
“Our defense played really well,” said Fitzpatrick. “They had a lot of big stops and did their thing. We pride ourselves on having a rock-solid defense. They showed it there. That helped the offense get going.”
“(Portland) played well at the beginning,” Wolfgram said. “They had field position on us. I liked the way we stayed the course. I thought we showed good resiliency. The defense played tough and made some nice plays. It could have been a two touchdown deficit, but we shut them down and played hard. That was important.”
Cheverus’ third offensive possession started inauspiciously as well, as Fitzpatrick gained just two yards on two carries, but on third-and-8, the complexion of the game changed suddenly and irrevocably.
Dunn hit Drelich with a short pass in the flat and Drelich broke a tackle and turned it into a 24-yard reception down to the Portland 43.
Fitzpatrick ran for nine yards on the next snap and a five-yard facemask penalty was tacked on. After Johnston ran for five yards and Fitzpatrick picked up six, Dunn kept the ball, but slipped and lost seven yards, setting up a second-and-17 at the Bulldogs’ 25.
On the next play, Fitzpatrick got the call and wouldn’t be denied, breaking an initial tackle attempt before cutting to the left and beating the pursuit into the end zone for his first of what figures to be many touchdowns this autumn. Senior Patrick Mourmouras sent the extra point right through the uprights and Cheverus had a 7-3 lead with 21.7 seconds to go in the opening stanza.
The drive traversed 67 yards on eight plays, took up 3 minutes, 50 seconds and signified an irreversible momentum change.
As the first period gave way to the second, Portland got a first down on an Esposito run and Talbot moved the chains with another first down run, but after moving into Stags’ territory, the Bulldogs were again done in by penalties, as a false start moved them back and after Talbot somehow escaped a couple Cheverus rushers in a fashion that would make Fran Tarkenton proud, his 33-yard pass to senior Ryan Ruhlin was negated by an illegal blocking transgression, leading to a punt.
Problem was, Talbot wasn’t able to get the punt off, as his fake attempt was short-circuited by a slip on the grass.
The Stags then took over at the Bulldogs’ 33 and six plays later had another TD.
After Fitzpatrick got the hosts close, LaFountain did the scoring honors on fourth-and-4 from the 15. After Dunn faked a handoff to Fitzpatrick, he gave the ball to LaFountain and LaFountain raced in untouched to make it 14-3 with 5:29 remaining in the first half.
Portland then went three-and-out, but despite driving to the Bulldogs’ 23, the Stags couldn’t add to the lead, as they turned the ball over on downs.
It was only a momentary hiccup, as a bad exchange led to a fumble which Stags senior Dan O’Brion pounced on at the Portland 29.
With just under a minute to go, Cheverus opened things up further, as Fitzpatrick picked up eight yards on fourth-and-4 and two plays later, LaFountain scored again from the 15, again racing untouched up the gut. Mourmouras’ extra point with 20.2 seconds to go stretched the lead to 21-3 at the break.
In the first half, the Stags enjoyed a 175-73 adavntage in yardage, thanks in large part to 77 yards from Fitzpatrick. The Bulldogs were done in by six penalties for 40 yards, a turnover and a failed fake punt.
Cheverus then ended the competitive phase of the contest in the third.
Portland got the ball first and fittingly, had a fumbled exchange on first down. The Bulldogs got a first down when a desperation heave from Talbot found Phillips for 31 yards, but the drive stalled and the visitors had to punt.
The Stags weren’t able to do anything on their first possession of the second half and a bad snap on the punt saw Fitzpatrick taken down by Ruhlin at Cheverus’ 27, but Portland wasn’t able to capitalize, turning the ball over on downs after LaFountain broke up a pass in the end zone.
The Stags then extended their lead.
After Johnston ran for two yards and Fitzpatrick picked up a dozen, Johnston got the ball and broke free for a 59-yard TD scamper.
“It’s a lot different playing two ways this year, but I’m loving it,” Johnston said. “My line was awesome. I just had a hole. I saw one guy, got past him and kept on running.”
Mourmouras added the PAT and with 4:09 to go in the third, Cheverus was in command, up, 28-3.
The Stags forced another punt and Talbot’s throw on a fake went incomplete, giving the hosts the ball at the Portland 33.
As the third quarter gave way to the fourth, Cheverus drove 33 yards on seven plays for its final offensive score. Fitzpatrick capped the march with a tremendous individual effort, bouncing out to the left and outrunning the pursuit before diving over the pylon. A bad snap led to the PAT being no good, but the Stags led, 34-3, with 9:48 to play.
After forcing a punt, Cheverus got the ball back, but it turned the ball over on downs at the Bulldogs’ 9.
That merely set the stage for a defensive touchdown.
On second-and-7 from the 12, Talbot dropped back to pass, but Johnston threw him down for a sack and dislodged the ball in the process. It rolled into the end zone, right into the big paws of Holman, who was laying in the end zone waiting for it.
“I don’t think they picked me up and I just went through,” said Johnston. “I’m kind of jealous (Zordan) got the ball.”
Mourmouras added his final extra point and with 3:27 to go, the Stags were up by 38.
Cheverus’ defense then held Portland at bay while running out the clock and that brought the curtain down on the Stags’ impressive 41-3 triumph.
“I definitely think we made a statement today,” Johnston said. “We met their challenge.”
“Once we got going, we didn’t stop,” said Fitzpatrick. “Our line is a lot of young guys, but they have a lot of potential. They got it going. Liam and Justin really stepped up today. I knew Liam was fast, but I didn’t know he was that fast. JJ is definitely not a finesse fullback like people say. Both of them are tough, hard-nosed runners.”
“It was a good test,” Wolfgram added. “The score was no indication of their team. We had good balance in the running game. We had some nice passes. I liked that we stayed with what we do and executed.”
The Stags wound up rushing for 309 yards. Fitzpatrick had 165 and two scores on 23 attempts. Johnston broke the century mark as well, gaining 102 (with a TD) on nine rushes. LaFountain scored on two of his five attempts, gaining 46 yards.
Dunn completed 2-of-6 passes for 43 yards with an interception.
“I think Isaac stayed really calm,” Fitzpatrick said. “He showed a lot.”
Drelich caught both completions.
Cheverus wound up tripling Portland in yardage, 351-117. The Stags were penalized just three times for 33 yards.
The Bulldogs couldn’t overcome their miscues. Talbot did complete 8-of-18 pass attempts, good for 104 yards. Floridino caught five balls for 54 yards. Phillips had three catches for 50. Chaison-Lapine was the top rusher (46 yards on nine attempts).
“It’s a tough way to start, but we’re going to get better,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “Actually, there’s a lot more positives than negatives for us. It’s a tough loss, but we’re growing. Hopefully we’ll continue to learn from this. Jordan had a hell of a game. He did everything right. I’m extremely pleased with how he threw the ball. I’m extremely pleased with our receivers today. Our run game had guys running the ball for the first time.”
Unlike a year ago, when the teams went their separate ways after opening night and proceeded to run roughshod over every subsequent foe until meeting up again in the regional final, that likely won’t be the case this time around in a league that appears much more balanced.
Portland figures to be tested in its home opener Friday against rival Deering, which it can never overlook.
Look for a much stronger effort from the Bulldogs.
“We’ll focus on taking things play by play and getting better each play,” Hartman said. “I know we’ll be much better.”
Cheverus, meanwhile, takes to the road Friday at Lewiston.
The Stags are flying high early, but know they still have a long way to go.
“We’re still a contender,” Johnston said. “We have to get better at communication and keep building on this game.”
“We have to work hard in practice and stay healthy,” Fitzpatrick said. “It will be a busy week of practice this week, but we’ll be alright.”
“It’s going to be a process,” Wolfgram added. “You can’t rebuild an offensive line with five new players in one week. They’re good kids. They’re working at it. I thought we were good today, but we have a long way to go.”
As he did in last year’s regional final, Cheverus junior Kenny Drelich made a big play on a reception, sparking the Stags’ offense after a catch and long run in the first quarter.
Cheverus junior quarterback Isaac Dunn braces for a hit from Portland junior Dan Marzilli.
Portland junior Joe Esposito bounces out of the tackle attempt of Cheverus junior Kenny Drelich.
Cheverus senior Joe Fitzpatrick breaks a tackle attempt by Portland junior George Chaison-Lapine.
Cheverus junior Justin Johnston races up the sideline for some of his 102 yards on the day.
Cheverus senior Liam LaFountain lays into Portland senior Jordan Floridino after a Floridino reception.
Cheverus senior Fritz Gemmer breaks up a pass intended for Portland junior Austin Phillips.
Portland senior Ryan Ruhlin hauls in a reception after a nice scramble from senior quarterback Jordan Talbot. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, a penalty negated one of their biggest gains of the day.
Portland senior quarterback Jordan Talbot looks for a receiver as senior Dominic DiMillo blocks Cheverus junior Justin Johnston.
Cheverus 26 @ Portland 7
@ Cheverus 35 Portland 0
@ Portland 27 Cheverus 14
Portland 40 @ Cheverus 7
Portland 42 @ Cheverus 7
Cheverus senior standout Joe Fitzpatrick sails through the air over the far pylon for a fourth quarter touchdown during the Stags’ season-opening showdown versus rival Portland Saturday. Cheverus overcame a slow start to beat the Bulldogs for the seventh straight time, 41-3.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
P- 3 0 0 0- 3
C- 7 14 7 13- 41
P- Williams 35 FG
C- Fitzpatrick 25 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- LaFountain 15 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- LaFountain 15 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- Johnston 59 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 5 run (kick failed)
C- Holman recovered fumble in end zone (Mourmouras kick)