WINDHAM—There’s something about Cheverus’ football team that brings out the best in the Windham Eagles.
And that in turn leads to a lot of frustration for the Stags.
Friday evening, Cheverus did enough to prevail in its regular season-ending showdown at the Eagles, but a series of second half mistakes prevented the Stags from earning a highly coveted playoff bye.
A year after twice losing to Windham, including a gutwrenching setback in the regional final, Cheverus shot to a 7-0 lead when freshman Tre Fletcher scored on a 35-yard run, but the Eagles bounced right back and tied the game on a 2-yard TD run from junior quarterback Desmond Leslie.
In the second period, Leslie hit senior Mitchell Eskilson for a 53-yard score, but the extra point was blocked, then Stags senior Justin Johnston scored on a one-yard dive, only to have the PAT blocked, sending the game to halftime tied at 13-13.
The Stags’ special teams and defense came up huge in the third period, as senior quarterback Isaac Dunn booted a 57-yard punt to pin Windham at its 1 and three plays later, senior Frankie Curran tackled Eagles junior Kyle Houser in the end zone for a two-point safety and a 15-13 lead.
Cheverus could have opened things up in the quarter, but it shot itself in the foot three different times with fumbles, the last coming after the safety when the Stags appeared to be driving for a touchdown which could have provided a healthy working margin.
Windham took advantage of Cheverus’ largesse and drove 81 yards on nine plays to go on top as Leslie scored on a 5-yard run. A two-point conversion pass failed, but the Eagles were up four with 8:34 to go.
Again, Cheverus drove into Windham territory, this time looking to answer and regain the lead, but with 4:21 to go, Fletcher fumbled at the Eagles’ 14.
The Stags held on defense and appeared primed to get the ball back with one final chance to win it, but on the punt, Cheverus was called for roughing the kicker, giving Windham a new set of downs and the Eagles managed to run out the clock and prevailed, 19-15.
Windham closed the regular season 6-2, earned the No. 2 seed in Class A North and a quarterfinal round bye and dropped the Stags to 5-3 and the third seed in the process, forcing Cheverus to host Lewiston next weekend.
“I think it shows where we are as a team,” said Stags coach John Wolfgram. “They’re a good team, but we were right there and should have won the game. Too many physical errors killed us. “
“These guys battled and believed in each other,” said Eagles coach Matt Perkins. “I’m very proud of them. Cheverus brings out the best in us and I think we bring the best out of them too. They’ve improved and played really hard. They wanted it just as badly as we did.”
Cheverus has gotten consistently better as the season has progressed. The Stags pulled away in the second half of its opener to down visiting Oxford Hills, 42-14, then were humbled at defending Class A champion Thornton Academy, 57-0. Cheverus got back on track with a 68-16 home drubbing of Lewiston, then dominated visiting Edward Little, 44-7, before dropping an agonizing 16-14 decision at Portland. The Stags rebounded with a 34-14 win at Bangor, then handled visiting Scarborough last week, 41-13.
Windham, the defending Eastern A champion, dominated host Lewiston (57-8) and visiting Bangor (42-0), then lost at Portland, 10-3. After bouncing back with a shocking 24-14 home upset of Thornton Academy, the Eagles blanked host Edward Little (42-0), lost at Bonny Eagle (33-13) and last week handled visiting Oxford Hills (47-13).
Last year, Windham triumphed twice at Cheverus, snapping the Stags’ 36-game regular season win streak and stopping their regular season win streak at 20 with a shocking 35-7 decision in the regular season, then rallying from a 14-3 fourth quarter deficit to stun the Stags in overtime, 21-20, in the Western A Final, a win that was secured on a blocked extra point.
Entering play, Cheverus held a 7-5 all-time edge in the rivalry, but Friday, on a 38 degree night that felt like 32 with a brisk 10 mile per hour wind, the Eagles had the Stags’ number again.
Cheverus won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half, giving Windham the ball first.
The Stags’ defense came up big early, forcing a three-and-out as Eagles senior Griffin Jacobson ran for four yards, Leslie’s pass to senior Kyle Kilfoil led to a one-yard loss and a low snap led to a four-yard loss.
After an Eagles’ punt, Cheverus started at the Windham 41 and four plays later, had the lead.
Junior Rylan Benedict ran for six yards on first down and after Dunn was held to no gain, then threw incomplete, on fourth-and-4 from the 35, Fletcher took a handoff and swept right before cutting back to the middle of the field where he didn’t stop until crossing the goal line for a 35-yard touchdown. Sophomore Jack Casale’s extra point was good and with 8:30 to go in the first period, the Stags were up, 7-0.
The Eagles picked up a first down on their next possession, as Leslie ran for eight yards and Jacobson gained three, but after Curran threw Houser for a one-yard loss, Leslie threw incomplete and even though Houser ran for eight yards on third-and-11, Windham had to punt again.
Cheverus started at its 17 with a chance to extend its lead, but this time, the Stags went three-and-out, as Dunn lost a yard, Fletcher was held to no gain and Dunn threw incomplete.
With 4:10 remaining in the opening stanza, the Eagles started at midfield and in eight plays and 2 minutes, 59 seconds, drove to tie the game.
After Benedict held Leslie to no gain on first down, Houser had runs of eight and four yards to move the chains. An incomplete pass was followed by a Leslie three-yard run, but on third-and-7, Houser broke free and appeared goal line-bound until he was stripped of the ball by Fletcher inside the 10. Luckily for the hosts, Kilfoil alertly fell on the fumble at the 5, giving Windham first-and-goal. After Houser ran for three yards, Leslie completed the march with a 2-yard scoring run and senior Robert Innis’ extra point tied the game, 7-7, with 1:11 left in the period.
Cheverus started its next drive with a holding penalty and runs of two and three yards by Fletcher set up third-and-15 from the 14 as the first quarter (which saw Windham outgain the Stags, 67-30) give way to the second.
Just when it appeared the Eagles were going to force a punt, Fletcher willed his way to 15 yards and a first down, thanks to a great second effort. After Johnston lost a yard, Dunn lost six and Dunn’s pass to Johnston on third down led to a loss of four, forcing a punt.
Windham started its next series at its 46 and two plays later, had the lead.
Leslie only ran for one yard on first down, but on second, he dropped back and threw a bomb down the left side for Eskilson, who was alone behind the defense. All Eskilson had to do was catch the ball and complete the 53-yard pass and run to put the Eagles ahead. Innis’ extra point was blocked by Cheverus sophomore Max Coffin, but Windham was up, 13-7, with 8:49 to play before halftime.
Undaunted, the Stags marched right back to tie the score, moving 76 yards in 12 plays, eating up 7:03 in the process.
Runs of two yards by Dunn and nine by Fletcher moved the chains. After Fletcher picked up three more, Dunn went to the air, connecting with Casale for 25 yards down the left sideline for a first down at the Windham 37. Fletcher then lost a yard and Dunn only gained one on a scramble, but Dunn hit Johnston for six yards on a screen and the Eagles jumped offsides on fourth-and-4 to give Cheverus a first down at the 26. After Fletcher ran for 11 yards and a first down to the 15, Benedict ran for three and Dunn hit senior Kenny Drelich for three more, plus a personal foul penalty on Windham, which set the Stags up at the 2. After Benedict got the ball to the 1, Johnston finished the march with a 1-yard burst, tying the score with 1:41 to play before halftime. In an unpleasant repeat of last year, Casale’s PAT was blocked.
The Eagles hoped to go back on top before halftime, but after a nice kickoff return from freshman Blake Houser put the ball at the Cheverus 42, two Jacobson runs gained three yards and Leslie threw incomplete, forcing a punt.
The Stags got the ball back at their 16, but only 4.9 seconds remained and Dunn took a knee to send the game to the half tied, 13-13.
In the first half, Windham had a slight (119-111) edge in yardage, on the back of Kyle Houser’s 50 yards on six carries and Leslie’s long TD hookup with Eskilson.
Cheverus’ offense was paced by Fletcher’s 77 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
The second half would prove to be a series of missed opportunities for the Stags, who quickly set the tone on the second play of the third quarter as Benedict fumbled and Blake Houser recovered at the Cheverus 34.
The Stags’ defense rose up and held strong, however.
After Jacobson ran for eight yards, Johnston threw him for a three-yard loss. Leslie then tried to hit Eskilson in the end zone, but Fletcher broke up the pass. On fourth-and-5, Kyle Houser only gained three and Cheverus got the ball back at its 26.
On the very next play, disaster struck again, as Fletcher lost two yards, was stripped and senior Patrick Leavitt fell on the ball at the Stags’ 24.
Again, Cheverus’ defense was equal to the task, as a holding penalty backed Windham up, then Houser gained a yard, Leslie threw incomplete (with junior Bobby Slattery almost coming up with an interception) and Jacobson only gained five yards on third-and-17, forcing a punt.
The Stags didn’t fumble on their next series and that helped flip field position.
After Coffin ran for three yards and Fletcher picked up eight to move the chains, Coffin lost a yard, Fletcher gained seven and Dunn threw incomplete, forcing a punt.
Dunn then came up with a booming gem, one which rolled all the way to the brink of the goal line before Slattery downed it to pin the Eagles deep.
Cheverus’ defense then came up with two points.
After Jacobson barely got out of the end zone on first down and Houser gained two yards to the 3 on second down, Houser got the ball again and this time, he was smothered by Curran before he could exit the end zone, giving the Stags a two-point safety and a 15-13 lead with 3:47 remaining in the third.
By rule, Cheverus then got a chance on offense and drove for what could have been a score to open up the game, but alas, the Stags hurt themselves instead.
Starting at its 46, Cheverus got a 10-yard run from Johnston, then, three plays later, on third-and-12, a 17-yard Dunn-to-Drelich pass in the flat for a first down at the Windham 29. Johnston then gained six yards and Fletcher broke free for seven more, but at the end of the play, he fumbled again and Kilfoil came up with his second loose ball of the game, this one a defensive recovery, and the Eagles had dodged a bullet and still only trailed by two.
But not for long.
As the third period gave way to the fourth, Windham embarked on a nine-play, 81-yard drive which chewed up 3:46.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, facing third-and-8 from their 21, Jacobson ran for five yards and it appeared the hosts would have to punt, but despite an Eagles’ holding penalty, a personal foul call on the Stags put the ball at the 31 and moved the chains. A seven-yard Jacobson run and an offsides penalty gave Windham a first down at the 43 and on the next play, Jacobson broke free for 39 yards until he was finally dragged down by Dunn as the Cheverus 18. On the next play, Jacobson ran to the 1, but a blocking in the back penalty moved the ball back to the 21. Runs of nine and two yards by Leslie set up third-and-2 and on the next play, Houser ran for five yards to set up first-and-goal at the 5. Leslie then capped the drive with a five-yard burst up the middle to put the Eagles ahead to stay.
Windham chose to go for the two-point conversion, but Leslie’s pass was knocked down by Dunn. Regardless, the Eagles were up, 19-15, with 8:34 to play.
Cheverus got the ball back at its 20 and began a march that appeared destined for a go-ahead touchdown, but 14 yards shy of paydirt, the Stags committed their final and fatal mistake.
A 20-yard Dunn-to-Casale pass got the Stags moving. A 15-yard Dunn-to-Fletcher pass on third-and-10 moved the ball to the Eagles’ 45. After Fletcher lost two yards, Dunn hit Drelich for 14 yards and a first down at the 33. After Johnston was held to no gain, Dunn again found Drelich, this time for 16 yards as Kyle Houser bid for an interception only to come up empty, and Cheverus appeared in great shape at the Windham 17.
Instead, the Stags had just one offensive play left in the game.
Fletcher got the call and ran to the 14, but for the third time, he was separated from the football and for the fourth time, Cheverus lost a fumble, as Windham senior Gerry Valliere pounced on it with 4:21 remaining.
The Stags tried desperately to get the ball back, but failed to do so.
After the Eagles backed themselves up with a holding penalty, Houser ran for four yards, Leslie threw incomplete and Leslie was held to six yards on third-and-13, forcing a punt.
Jacobson managed to unleash a 36-yard punt, which was pretty impressive considering he was run into.
The flag came out, 15 yards were marched off and Windham had a new set of downs at its 32.
“We went all out,” Wolfgram said. “That was the plan. I thought we could get it, but we just ran into the punter.”
Cheverus still had time, if it could force a punt, but after Houser was held to no gain, Houser broke free for 23 yards to the Stags’ 45 with just over two minutes to play.
Following a two-yard Jacobson loss, Wolfgram called his last timeout, but it didn’t work, as Leslie gained five yards and Jacobson ran for seven more on third-and-7, moving the chains a final time.
After a delay of game penalty, Leslie took a knee twice to make it official and the Eagles celebrated their 19-15 win.
“We’ve faced adversity all year,” Perkins said. “You look at our schedule against anyone else in the state and no one has played a tougher schedule. That and what we’ve lost with injuries. We’ve been counted out and we had to do a lot of gut checks.”
Windham finished with 254 yards of offense.
Houser, who hadn’t played since the Thornton Academy game due to mononucleosis, ran for 82 yards on 10 carries in the second half, giving him 132 yards on 16 attempts for the game.
“(Kyle’s) an emotional guy,” Perkins said. “He wears it on his sleeve. He gets physical and gets downhill. It was great to get him back.”
Leslie threw for 52 yards and a touchdown of 2-of-8 passing and rushed for 38 yards and two TDs on a dozen carries.
Jacobson gained 33 yards on 13 attempts.
Eskilson had just one reception, but it went for a 53-yard touchdown. Kilfoil had the other reception, for negative-1 yard.
Windham played turnover free and overcame nine penalties for 56 yards.
Cheverus had 234 yards of offense.
Fletcher finished with 100 yards and a TD on 18 carries, but ball security will be his focus going forward after he fumbled three times.
Johnston rushed for 14 yards and a touchdown on six carries. Benedict had four carries for 15 yards.
Dunn completed 9-of-13 passes, good for 112 yards. Drelich caught four balls for 50 yards, Casale had two receptions for 45, Johnston two for 2 and Fletcher one for 15.
The Stags committed five costly penalties for 50 yards and were doomed by four turnovers.
Windham gets a week off to rest, heal and recharge its batteries.
“Thank goodness for the bye,” Perkins said. “We have a chance to heal up. Chances are we’ll see (Cheverus) again. We’ve had some really good battles and I think there will be another one in a couple weeks.”
Cheverus won’t have that luxury, as it hosts No. 6 Lewiston (2-6) in the quarterfinals Saturday. The Stags had no trouble with the visiting Blue Devils Sept. 19, putting up 68 points in a 52-point victory.
The teams played twice previously in the playoffs. The first was one Cheverus will long remember, a 65-13 romp in the 1985 Class A state final. The Stags also prevailed, 27-21, in the 1990 semifinals.
Cheverus will look to take care of business, then make a return trip to Windham for the semifinals either Friday, Nov. 6 or Saturday, Nov. 7.
“We have some work to do,” Wolfgram said. “I wish we could have gotten the bye.”
Cheverus senior Kenny Drelich is dragged down by Windham junior Kyle Houser during the Eagles’ 19-15 win Friday night.
Mike Strout photos.
Cheverus sophomore Max Coffin blocks Windham senior Robert Innis’ extra point in the second quarter.
Cheverus freshman Tre Fletcher breaks free for a 35-yard touchdown run in the first quarter as Windham freshman Blake Houser gives chase to no avail.
Cheverus senior quarterback Isaac Dunn throws a pass.
Chilly Cheverus coach John Wolfgram looks on during the Stags’ loss.
C- 7 6 2 0- 15
W- 7 6 0 6- 19
C- Fletcher 35 run (Casale kick)
W- Leslie 2 run (Innis kick)
W- Eskilson 53 pass from Leslie (kick blocked)
C- Johnston 1 run (kick blocked)
C- Safety, Curran tackled Houser in end zone
W- Leslie 5 run (pass failed)