PORTLAND—After successive playoff losses and six defeats in a row overall to their rival, the Cheverus boys’ soccer team was ready to serve up a little revenge to the defending Western A champion Portland Bulldogs in the teams’ quarterfinal round matchup Wednesday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Luckily for the sixth-ranked Stags, they had a revenge-maker on their side, in the form of senior Elliot Maker, who scored twice in the first half to help Cheverus build a lead. After the No. 3 Bulldogs had ample chances to answer in the second half, the Stags made it a 3-0 game on senior Alexander Hoglund’s tally and although Portland got a goal right back, it wasn’t nearly enough and Cheverus moved on to the semifinals for the first time since 2004, improving to 12-3-1, advancing to meet No. 2 Windham Saturday and ending the Bulldogs’ season at 10-3-2.
“It’s awesome,” said Maker. “We’ve been through so much against Portland the last two years. We were confident. There was no doubt in my mind. I knew it would happen. There was something about today. We were ready.”
The Bulldogs made it to their first state championship game this century in 2010, but dropped a heartbreaker to Bangor, 3-2. Three games prior, in the quarterfinal round, Portland dominated Cheverus, 6-0.
This year, both teams impressed as the Bulldogs bounced back from a 3-2 loss to visiting Windham in the opener and went on a 9-0-2 surge, which included a scoreless tie at perennial powerhouse Scarborough and a 3-2 double OT win over the Stags. Portland then lost at South Portland in double overtime and had to rally to beat host Thornton Academy in overtime to wind up 10-2-2, good for the third seed behind Scarborough and Windham.
Cheverus won its first three games this fall, lost at home to Scarborough, 4-0, won two more, then lost at Portland in overtime. Two more wins were followed by a 1-1 home draw with South Portland and an ensuing three-game win streak was ended in the finale by visiting Gorham, 6-3. The Stags’ 10-3-1 mark left them sixth in the region and they had to host and beat No. 11 Deering, 2-0, in Saturday’s preliminary round.
Portland had taken three of the prior four playoff meetings, 4-1 in the 1994 quarterfinals, 1-0 in the 2009 quarterfinals and 6-0 in last year’s quarterfinal round. Cheverus’ lone previous postseason win over the Bulldogs was a 1-0 decision in the 2007 preliminary round.
That was also the Stags’ last victory over Portland.
It was clear early that Cheverus had plenty of energy and confidence, but the Bulldogs had the first good scoring chance with 34:36 to play in the 40-minute first half when junior Tim Rovnak, who scored all three goals, including the winner in overtime against the Stags in the regular season encounter, took a pass from senior Liam McNeill and sent a header just wide.
In the 11th minute, Cheverus had its first corner (it scored both goals against Portland in the regular season off corner kicks) and had two good looks, but senior Nick Melville’s shot was saved by Portland junior goalkeeper Chip Weber and senior Jotham Illuminati’s follow-up bid went over the crossbar.
In the 23rd minute, Maker was just wide on a free kick. In the 29th minute, Rovnak shot just wide.
“Rovnak’s an aggressive player and a great player,” said Cheverus coach Bill LeBlanc. “We controlled him in the first 15, 20 minutes. We wanted to make sure in the first half, we knew where he was all the time.”
Then, with 7:05 left in the half, the Stags struck and took the lead for good.
On a counter, senior Tyler Friedman played the ball ahead to a surprisingly wide open Maker, who had gotten behind the defense. Maker raced in and Weber came out to try and cut his angle, but Maker sent a shot past the goalie and into the net for a 1-0 advantage.
“I kind of lost my mark since we had a lot of ball movement,” Maker said. “We tried to chip it over and they played it to Tyler and I got by my mark and he spotted me and it was one-on-one with the goalie. Getting the lead was huge.”
“I felt if we came out in the first 15 minutes and played them even and possessed the ball, we’d be alright and we did that,” LeBlanc said.
Portland was stunned.
“(Senior back) Ben (Day) was playing him and left him to go help in the corner and it just seemed like the ball found its way and Elliot just sprinted through and it found his foot,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Rocky Frenzilli. “When he goes one-on-one with a goalie, it’s pretty much a sure thing.”
With 2:59 left, Maker struck again to give Cheverus some breathing room.
This time, a long pass was played ahead by senior Jacob Smith and Maker fought his way through two defenders before getting a clean look at the goal and launching a shot past Weber for a 2-0 advantage.
“The second one was kind of a defensive breakdown,” Maker said. “They tried to clear, but I got past them and put it up.”
“The second one bounced around our two guys and it ended up on his foot and he put it away,” Frenzilli said. “I just don’t think our intensity was there. I thought we were a step behind in the first half to most of the balls. In a playoff atmosphere, with Cheverus being as aggressive as they were and as fired up as they were, you can’t be second to balls that many times and expect to have positive results. Obviously, being first to balls gives you positive results and that’s what they were for Cheverus.”
With 1:23 left before halftime, a free kick by Portland senior back Brett O’Kelly was on target, but Stags sophomore goalkeeper Charlie Mull punched the shot away to keep his team up by two at the break.
As expected, the Bulldogs came out strong in the second half and looked to rally.
After Melville just missed scoring on a header off a corner (each team had four for the game) from sophomore Sterling Weatherbie, Portland transitioned to offense and Rovnak’s one-timer forced Mull to make a save. He didn’t corral the shot, however, and the rebound came to freshman Tony Yekah, who shot high.
In the 51st minute, a low shot from senior Paley Burlin forced Mull to made a difficult save.
With 10:57 remaining, the ball was loose in the Cheverus box, but Bulldogs freshman Guled Hussain-Ali couldn’t get to it. Two minutes later, Yekah shot just wide on a loose ball in the box.
With 5:23 remaining, the Stags looked to lock things up, but Melville’s left-footed rocket on a corner kick hit the post. Cheverus kept at it and with 4:43 showing, Hoglund scored as his shot on goal was whiffed at by a defender and found its way in.
Portland finally got on the board just seven seconds later when Rovnak raced in and scored, but the hosts could get no closer and the Stags held on and moved on by virtue of the 3-1 triumph.
“We knew we couldn’t let Rovnak get loose, since he’s a great player,” Maker said. “We played a lot better in the back and we finished. It was tough holding them off. We had to play defensive. It worked out.”
“We played well,” LeBlanc added. “We really did. After the last two years, my seniors, especially Hoglund, Maker and Melville, really wanted this game and they rose to the occasion and played well. Our big-time goal scorer showed up and Melville and Hoglund played well in the middle. We didn’t mind the draw. I love playing Rocky’s teams. He’s a good friend of mine. They played hard, but we knew we could play with them. The only thing I was somewhat nervous about was being young in the back. Two freshmen and a sophomore and a sophomore goalie and they played well. With 15 minutes to go, I put Maker back on Rovnak to make sure he was marked. Rovnak only got loose one time when we were celebrating.”
Portland’s season came to a sooner-than-hoped-for conclusion.
“They had a great game plan against Timmy,” Frenzilli said. “They hemmed him in. We wanted to play it wide, but didn’t do it as much as we needed to do. It was a weird game. Cheverus took advantage of what they needed to take advantage of. They played hard and were deserving of the win in every aspect. You always feel bad for the players when your season ends, especially when you’re a higher seed. At this point, there are no easy matchups. When you get in the tournament, anything can happen.
“Credit to the kids for not giving up. I’m proud of them. They worked hard, but unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be tonight. I said at halftime to step it up a little bit and be more aggressive and if we can make it 2-1 before they make it 3-0, we’re in it. We had some chances a couple times early in the second half. I’m very proud. I’ll always be proud of them. We didn’t have a bad season at all. We had some wins against very good teams.”
Portland loses 13 seniors, but as always, returns promising youngsters and should once again be one of the top Western A contenders in 2012.
“We have some kids coming back,” Frenzilli said. “We’ll probably have to retool the back line. We lose all our guys in the back. We have Timmy coming back and Tony. We’ll see. It makes me sad that the season’s over, but I’m excited about putting it back together next year and seeing how it goes.”
Cheverus will go to 13-2 Windham for the semifinals Saturday at a yet-to-be-determined time. The Eagles are coming off an impressive 5-0 victory over Cape Elizabeth in their quarterfinals. The Stags beat host Windham, 2-0, back on Sept. 20.
Cheverus downed the Eagles, 4-0 in the 2000 regional final, 2-0 in the 2001 second round, 2-0 in the 2002 quarterfinals and 2-1 (in overtime) in the 2005 preliminary round in the other postseason meetings.
Once again, the Stags will be plenty confident.
“I think it’ll be a great game,” Maker said. “We beat them once so they’ll come out with more fire.”
“We’ll be ready for it,” LeBlanc said. “(Windham’s new coach Colin Minte’s) done a nice job with the program up there. We play well up there. It’s a big grass field. We’ll see what happens on Saturday.”