PORTLAND — On a scenic final day of October, with the various shades of foliage in full bloom overlooking Back Bay, the fourth-ranked Cheverus Stags on Saturday colored the fifth-ranked Biddeford Tigers blue – as in black-and-blue – riding a heroic defensive effort from junior linebacker Zach Dulac to a 21-0 victory in a physical Western Class A quarterfinal game at Boulos Stadium.
The Stags’ first playoff win since 2001 and the first in the four-year John Wolfgram Era, earned Cheverus a semifinal round date Saturday in Saco for a chance to knock off unbeaten and top-ranked Thornton Academy (9-0) at Hill Stadium at 1 p.m.
The Golden Trojans advanced with a 45-14 home rout of No. 8 Massabesic. Cheverus (7-2) did not play Thornton Academy during the regular season.
Dulac and the Stags’ “Purple Wave” defense pitched a shutout at the most opportune time of the year, stopping the Tigers on fourth down on five different occasions, including a momentous fourth-and-goal at the one-inch line that preserved a two-score lead deep in the third quarter.
Biddeford had put together its best drive of the day, covering 71 yards on 13 plays to set up the game’s most pivotal moment. Senior Trevor Parker had exploded off tackle on third down from the 4 yard line but was dropped by Dulac just inches short of the end zone.
On fourth down, Biddeford went to the same play and initially it looked this time as if it would go in for score, but once again Dulac appeared at the last second and caught Parker at the threshold in mid-air, stopping his momentum and wrestling him to the ground to protect the Stags’ 14-0 lead with only 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
“That was a big momentum changer for us,” said Dulac. “If they put points on the board right there, it’s a completely different game. It changes the mindset. Being up two scores gives us a lot more confidence. We have a great defensive line. The key was to get a good push and free guys up to make plays.”
In true Cheverus fashion, the offense did just enough to win the game, thundering away on the ground between the tackles until the Tigers finally ran out of gas late, as sophomore Spencer Cooke (79 yards rushing) finally broke a big run and went 44 yards for a touchdown with less than one minute left in the final quarter for the 21-0 win.
“Scott (Descoteaux) has a done a nice job coaching that team,” said Wolfgram. “He’s done a great job restoring that Biddeford pride. We stepped up when we had to and made some nice plays. That hit by Dulac was just a great hit. That changed the complexion of the game. Being up by two scores is a big difference. We have some competitive kids that take pride in playing defense.”
In the early going it looked like the Stags might have their way with the Biddeford defense, driving 80 yards on 13 plays on the first possession of the game. Cheverus junior quarterback Peter Gwilym struggled to move the chains through the air on a particularly windy afternoon, but his 15-yard connection with senior tailback Matt Ball extended the opening drive.
On fourth-and-goal at the 2, Gwilym used play-action to set up the naked bootleg play he’s made a living on all season, outracing the Tigers’ secondary to the left pylon to finish off a six-minute drive. Sophomore Cam Olsen booted the first of three extra points on the day and the Stags led 7-0 with 5:49 left in the first quarter.
Biddeford took over and strung together a 10-play drive inside the Cheverus 35, but senior quarterback Travis Vigneault was sacked on fourth down by Stags senior Jon White (three sacks) and turned the ball over on downs for the first time.
The two teams traded punts before the Cheverus defense halted a seven-play Biddeford drive at its own 18 when Vigneault threw incomplete high over the middle and once again turned it over on downs.
That’s when Cheverus sprung a surprise on the Tigers, hitting them with the counter-trap play as Gwilym handed to junior Liam Hobbins for an 81-yard touchdown run with 6:21 remaining in the first half. After Cooke picked up very little on first down, Hobbins took the inside handoff and raced down the numbers on the visitors sideline for a 14-0 lead.
In a game that matched a pair of teams with very similar methods for producing wins, Biddeford continued to hammer away on the ground in the second half behind fullback Nick Gagne (48 yards) and halfback Chad Scott (72 yards).
With possession to begin after intermission, the Tigers appeared rejuvenated with an impressive nine-play drive down to the Cheverus 35. But after a roughing the passer penalty backed up the Stags 15 yards. Vigneault then tried to connect with Parker down the right sideline, but Cheverus senior James Rutter ran it down and picked it off like he was the intended receiver with eight minutes left in the third.
Cheverus took over but was forced to punt when, for the third time, Gwilym just missed connecting with his favorite target, senior Pat Chadbourne, with the wind hampering the passing game.
The Stags had plenty of trouble trying to advance the ball against a stingy Biddeford defense that loaded the box with nine players for the entire game. Cheverus particularly labored on offense in the second half, when it managed just 93 total yards, a number that includes Cooke’s 44 yard score late in the fourth.
“We were able to do just enough out there on offense,” said Gwilym. “We had some big plays. The run by (Hobbins) was a huge play for us. Biddeford is a very similar team. They like to come right at you with the run on offense. They made some big plays but we were able to keep them out of the end zone. We showed what type of character we had on that goal-line stand. We call that the ‘gut zone,’ and it’s big anytime you can keep points off the board.”
With 5:39 left in the third and time quickly becoming a factor, Biddeford marched confidently down field hoping to cut the Stags’ lead in half and close within a touchdown.
After 13 plays and 71 yards, Dulac turned in a remarkable individual effort, one of several he managed on the afternoon while hobbling around on a balky right ankle. His devastating hit on Parker at the one-inch line was by all accounts the biggest play of the year for the Stags.
Dulac seemed to be in on every tackle, but he had plenty of support from a Cheverus defense that stopped Biddeford five times on fourth down, twice in the fourth quarter. White, Ball, Gwilym, senior Matt Place and junior nose tackle Evan Jendrasko stood tall and answered every challenge. Place, considered the Stags’ top threat on offense in the running game, has battled injury all season and played only on defense in the big win over the Tigers.
Saturday, Cheverus will meet Thornton Academy in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 (a 28-19 quarterfinal round victory). The teams also met in 1991 (a 36-6 loss in the quarterfinals).
Cheverus junior quarterback Peter Gwilym fought his way into the end zone during his team’s 21-0 home win over Biddeford in the Westen Class A quarterfinals Saturday.
Cheverus senior John White proved to be an imposing obstacle for Biddeford’s quarterback Saturday. The Stags defense pitched a shutout and advanced.