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PORTLAND—Dating back to the second half of last year’s Class A state final, the Cheverus football team has run roughshod over the opposition in mindboggling fashion.
After being challenged for just one half in the first six weeks of the 2011 season, many wondered if the Stags would ever get a close game and if the team’s starters would ever get play all four quarters.
The answer to those musings came Saturday night at Fitzpatrick Stadium and were a resounding yes, thanks to the upstart Portland Bulldogs.
The young, but plucky Bulldogs weren’t phased in the least by lining up across from the defending champs and drove 89 yards for a touchdown on their first possession of the game to take a 7-0 lead. Cheverus rallied to tie the score by halftime and finally took control of the game with two third period TDs, but Portland hung tough until the end before ultimately dropping a 21-7 decision.
With the win, the Stags improved to 7-0 and the Bulldogs fell to 2-5, but you’d never know such a records disparity existed by what transpired in this game.
“This is the first time we’ve really been challenged this year and we really needed it,” said Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. “(Portland) played us real tough. They’re a physical team. They’re getting better. They have some size. They took away some of our things. We had to play four quarters for sure.”
Cheverus won its first six games this fall by a composite 271-47 margin. The Stags only held a 17-14 halftime lead in the opener against visiting South Portland before erupting for 42 second half points en route to a 59-21 triumph. Cheverus then blanked host Gorham (35-0), rolled at Bonny Eagle (42-18), dominated visiting Sanford from start to finish in a 41-8 win, blanked Scarborough in a playoff rematch, 38-0 and pitched a 56-0 home shutout against Biddeford last week.
Portland, meanwhile, entered the season with no expectations as a young group is finding its way. After a 39-0 drubbing at Massabesic to start, the Bulldogs have been very competitive, enjoying wins at Noble (39-12) and at home versus Gorham (12-8) before hanging tough in losses at Deering (28-7), Windham (16-7) and at home to Thornton Academy (14-12).
The Stags entered this meeting with Portland having beaten the Bulldogs three of the past four years, including a come-from-behind 22-19 home triumph last fall (they had to overcome a 19-7 fourth quarter deficit in that one). The last time the teams met at Fitzpatrick Stadium was in the 2009 season and Portland romped in that game, 28-0.
This time around, the teams had to wait an extra 24 hours to play after the threat of heavy rain and thunder and lightning moved the game from Friday to Saturday.
It was worth the wait as the Bulldogs came out punching and made a big statement.
Cheverus got the ball first and started out marching as usual as senior Spencer Cooke raced for 16 yards and senior quarterback Cam Olson rushed for 18, but the drive was short-circuited by a false start penalty and the Stags had to punt. Olson’s boot pinned Portland at its 11, but the Bulldogs were up to the task.
It was clear immediately that Portland sophomore quarterback Jayvon Pitts-Young was going to make life difficult for Cheverus. He ran on four straight plays, good for 23 yards and a first down at the 34. A 10 yard scamper from freshman Jordan Floridino and a 21-yard Pitts-Young-to-Floridino pass got the hosts into Stags’ territory. The running of Pitts-Young, junior Nick Volger and sophomore Justin Zukowski got the Bulldogs close and after the Stags uncharacteristically jumped offsides on fourth-and-5, the ball was moved to the 4 and Pitts-Young did the rest, bursting in for the touchdown with 32.8 seconds to go in the first period.
The drive encompassed 89 yards on 15 plays and ate up 8 minutes, 16 seconds. When junior Kyle Reichert drilled the extra point, Portland had a 7-0 lead.
“We felt we could match up with them,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Mike Bailey. “We’ve watched enough tape on them and had enough tendencies. We felt we had a good gameplan. The kids felt confident they could handle the person across from them and they did it.”
In the first 12 minutes, Portland had an 89-27 advantage in yardage, ran 15 plays to Cheverus’ five and had the edge on the scoreboard.
Early in the second period, the Stags drove into Bulldogs’ territory, but a hold backed them up and on fourth-and-14 from the 28, Reichert sacked Olson and Portland got the ball back.
Any hopes the Bulldogs had of extending their lead dissipated with back-to-back false start penalties at the start of their next drive. Portland ultimately faced a fourth-and-24 from its 19 and junior Casey Mahoney (the team’s third-string punter, forced into duty due to injury) only managed a 5-yard punt.
“Unfortunately, it’s been our tale, we hurt ourselves, especially with penalties,” lamented Bailey. “We’ve got to get over that hump to start winning football games. We’re a decent team. We play hard, but we keep doing stupid things. We gave them a (short) drive.”
Starting at the Bulldogs’ 24, Cheverus immediately capitalized as Cooke took the handoff, found a hole and outraced the pursuit to the left pylon to get the Stags on the board. Senior Louie DiStasio kicked the extra point and with 4:35 to go in the first half, the game was deadlocked, 7-7.
After Portland was forced to punt, the visitors had a chance to take the lead before the break, but Olson was intercepted by junior Tate Gale.
Instead of killing the clock, the Bulldogs tried for a big play only to see Pitts-Young intercepted by Cheverus junior Brent Green, which ended the half.
Not only was the game even on the scoreboard at that juncture, but there was only a five-yard difference in yardage (Portland, 107-102). The Stags were hindered by a stunning seven penalties for 44 yards.
“We didn’t execute very well in the first half and we had the most penalties we’ve had all year,” Cooke said. “(Portland) didn’t really surprise us. We took them as we take every other team. They had a nice drive in the first quarter. It almost seemed like we were a little bit asleep in the first half.”
“We absolutely shot ourselves in the foot,” said Wolfgram. “It was a tough environment. Playing on a Saturday night, a very windy night. We didn’t execute well.”
The champions finally kicked into gear in the third period.
The Bulldogs got the ball first and appeared in good shape when Volger motored 19 yards to the Cheverus 44, but the next three plays netted just five yards and a false start penalty backed Portland up further, forcing another punt, which this time went for no yards.
The Stags took over at their 44 with 10:02 to go in the third and exactly a minute later were on top to stay.
Cooke rushed for 12 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 44. After Cooke was held for no gain on the next play, Olson made his presence felt with his legs instead of his arm. On a keeper, Olson turned the corner on the right sideline and didn’t stop until he was in the end zone for a 44-yard score. DiStasio added the point-after and finally, Cheverus was on top, 14-7.
When Portland fumbled the ball away on its first play (junior Parker Doyon recovered for the Stags), the visitors had a chance to take advantage, but Olson was intercepted by Pitts-Young and the Bulldogs had dodged a bullet.
While the hosts were able to drive from their 10 to the 36, they had to punt again and this time Mahoney delivered a kick that had a favorable bounce, forcing Cheverus to take over at its 27 with 2:54 to go in the third.
A 12-yard run by Green got the drive started. Cooke rambled for 16 into Portland territory. After Olson found DiStasio for 20 yards to the 25, Cooke did the rest, scoring on a 25-yard TD run with just 3.7 seconds left in the period. DiStasio kicked the extra point and at last, the Stags had some breathing room and a 21-7 lead.
“We had to come back and we woke up in the second half,” said Cooke. “We knew we had to put points on the board. These are always tough games.”
“Spencer played very well,” Wolfgram said. “He was excellent.”
With still a quarter of football to be played, the Bulldogs still had hope, but their first drive of the final period ended with a Cooke interception and the second ended with a punt.
Cheverus took over at the Portland 49 with 2:59 to go and managed to run out the clock, bringing down the curtain on the much harder than anticipated 21-7 victory.
“It’s sort of like a gutcheck for us,” Cooke said. “We know we have to come out and play hard every game. We can’t take teams lightly.”
“We changed a couple things up,” Wolfgram said. “But I think it was more the kids executed better in the second half. I think it was more that than the adjustments we made. We made the plays in the second half when we had to.”
Cooke finished with 156 yards on 21 carries with two touchdowns and was given the Robert Duffy Award as the top Stags’ player in the annual Cheverus-Portland meeting.
Olson rushed seven times for 80 yards and a score. He only threw eight times, completing three, for 37 yards with two interceptions. DiStasio had two catches for 32 yards. Green had the other for 5.
Cheverus finished with 295 yards of offense, but committed 11 penalties for 79 yards.
Portland was paced by Pitts-Young, who rushed 15 times for 60 yards with a TD.
“He definitely brings an exciting element,” said Bailey. “It will be a great complement when we get (injured freshman quarterback) Ryan Ruhlin back, to give two different looks.”
The Stags did a much better job on Pitts-Young as the game went on.
“We just had to tackle better and wrap up,” Cooke said. “We had him a couple times in the backfield, but he’s a shifty guy and he broke loose.”
Pitts-Young was just 3-of-11 passing, good for 18 yards. He was intercepted twice. Volger rushed 11 times for 45 yards. Floridino had 33 yards on six attempts.
Reichert won the Jack Duffy Award as the top Portland player in the game.
Ultimately, the Bulldogs were done in by three turnovers and 10 penalties for 92 yards.
“There’s frustration,” said Bailey. “Mistakes are why we didn’t win against Windham, Thornton Academy and Cheverus tonight. It’s not that they’re beating us. We’re hurting ourselves in critical situations and we have to overcome that. Deering, Cheverus, South Portland, we all play each other tough. We’ve played good defense all year. We just need to be more consistent on offense. I’m playing five seniors. All our skill kids are young. Undersized right now. We’ll keep plugging.”
Despite its 2-5 record, Portland is still clinging to the slightest of playoff hopes. The Bulldogs close at home with 5-2 South Portland in the annual Battle of the Bridge game Friday night. A win there and some help and perhaps Portland will make the postseason a year ahead of schedule.
“I think we’ll end up playing the toughest schedule opponent-wise, so that will help us,” Bailey said. “If we can beat South Portland, I don’t know if we can beat out a 4-4 team.”
As for 7-0 Cheverus, the top seed for a second straight season appears a formality. The Stags could get another test in their finale at 5-2 Deering Friday. The Rams are reeling after a 41-7 loss at Bonny Eagle and will be eager to avenge last year’s epic regional final loss.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Cooke said. “We have to come and prepare hard all week.”
C- 0 7 14 0- 21
P- 7 0 0 0- 0
P- Pitts-Young 4 run (Reichert kick)
C- Cooke 24 run (DiStasio kick)
C- Olson 44 run (DiStasio kick)
C- Cooke 25 run (DiStasio kick)