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PORTLAND—Two titans are gone, but Cheverus’ unrivaled reservoir of pride continues to carry the Stags to victory.
Cheverus, attempting to fill holes after standout running back Joe Fitzpatrick and behemoth lineman Zordan Holman graduated, kicked off the 2015 football season on a sunsplashed Saturday afternoon at Boulos Stadium and got pushed by upstart Oxford Hills.
The Stags grabbed a quick 7-0 lead thanks to an 18-yard touchdown scamper from unheralded senior back Dan Baker, but the Vikings bounced right back and tied the score on a 71-yard burst from senior Jacob Spinhim.
In a theme that continued all afternoon, Cheverus bounced right back off the deck and went ahead to stay as senior Justin Johnston returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a 14-7 advantage. Before the first quarter came to a close, Baker scored again, this time from 25 yards out, for a 21-7 lead.
Early in the second period, Baker scored his third TD, this one a 72-yard scamper, but Oxford Hills, which gave the Stags fits with its physicality, answered behind a 4-yard run from Spinhim to pull within 28-14 at halftime.
Needing to make a statement, Cheverus came out strong in the second half, milked the clock and extended its lead to 35-14 on a 15-yard scoring run from junior Rylan Benedict.
While the Stags defense was holding the Vikings at bay, thanks in large to the dominance of senior lineman Frankie Curran, Cheverus put the finishing touches on its victory when senior quarterback Isaac Dunn scored from the 6 in the fourth quarter and Cheverus prevailed, 42-14.
Baker ran for 141 yards and three scores, the Stags mustered 331 yards of offense, forced three turnovers, won their regular season opener for the seventh year in a row and improved to 1-0, dropping Oxford Hills to 0-1 on the young season in the process.
“We’re pretty green, but the guys fought back,” said Cheverus coach John Wolfgram, who earned his 304th career victory. “We’re an athletic group and a high character group. We have to gain experience on the fly. The only way you can get experience is by playing. I’m impressed with how we came out in the second half and the number of people who contributed.”
Cheverus reached the regional final for the sixth year in a row last autumn, but for the third straight season, the Stags fell short of a Gold Ball in agonizing fashion, as a blown 11-point fourth quarter lead and a blocked extra point in overtime spelled a 21-20 defeat to Windham.
Cheverus isn’t expected to be as explosive this fall, but still has to be taken seriously.
Oxford Hills is viewed as a team on the rise.
The teams played each of the past two autumns, with the Stags enjoying a 54-0 win in 2013 and a 38-0 triumph a year ago.
Saturday, under a sunny, 74 degree sky, the Vikings kept things closer, but ultimately Cheverus wore them down.
The Stags won the opening coin toss, but chose to defer possession to the second half.
Oxford Hills started at its 20 after Curran boomed the opening kickoff into the end zone for a touchdback. Curran has taken over kickoff duties from Holman, who had a booming leg, and is clearly up to the challenge.
“Coach (Paul) Roy told me to put on the shoe and kick it as hard as I can,” Curran said. “I got inspiration from Zordan.”
After junior quarterback Connor Truman threw incomplete on first down, Spinhim rushed for three. Truman’s third down pass fell incomplete and the visitors had to punt, giving Cheverus good field position at the Vikings’ 46.
Six plays and 2 minutes, 30 seconds later, the Stags were in the end zone.
Cheverus showcased all three pieces of its running back by committee on the drive. Benedict got the ball first and ran for three. Johnston then picked up seven to move the chains. Johnson ran for five and then two and on third-and-3 from the 24, Benedict picked up six. That set the stage for Baker to score on an 18-yard sweep to the right. Junior placekicker Jack Casale added the extra point and the Stags were up, 7-0, with 8:16 to play in the first period.
Oxford Hills answered immediately. On first-and-10 from the 29, Spinhim got the ball, raced up the middle, broke two tackles, then was on to the races. With 7:59 remaining in the quarter, he reached paydirt and sophomore Dawson Stevens kicked the PAT to tie the score, 7-7.
Just as suddenly as the Vikings scored, Cheverus responded.
Johnston fielded the ensuing kickoff at his 12 and took off. He would go 88 yards with several Oxford Hills players in pursuit and scored to put his team ahead for good. Casale’s extra point gave the Stags a 14-7 advantage with 7:45 left in an eventful first period.
The Vikings hoped to answer, but after Truman hit junior Connor Bickford to move the chains, Curran twice came up with tackles for losses and Oxford Hills had to punt.
Cheverus started at its 41 and began to drive again.
On a third-and-7 from the 44, Dunn threw his first pass, connecting with senior Kenny Drelich for 21 yards on a slant. A late hit penalty on the Vikings put the ball at the Oxford Hills 20. Johnston ran for three yards and after the Stags lost a yard on a fumbled exchange, Dunn threw incomplete. On fourth-and-8 from the 18, Wolfgram went for it, but Baker only gained three yards and Oxford Hills took over on downs at its 15.
Cheverus stood tall on defense again, as after a holding penalty on the Vikings, Truman twice threw incomplete before Baker tackled Truman for a six-yard loss.
After another punt, the Stags began their next drive at the Oxford Hills 24 with just over a minute left in the frame.
One play was all it took for took for Baker to extend the lead. He scored on a 25-yard run on another sweep and after Casale added the PAT with 59.6 seconds to go, Cheverus had a 21-7 advantage.
“It’s a new play,” Wolfgram said. “It’s a different kind of sweep than we’ve run before.”
Before the lengthy first period ended, Oxford Hills went three-and-out and the Stags got the ball at their 29. After Johnston ran for five yards, the first quarter gave way to the second and Dunn was thrown for a six-yard loss. On third-and-11, Baker took off again, this time breaking two tackles before bouncing outside to the right sideline. He didn’t slow down until he broke the plane and completed a 72-yard scoring run.
“We haven’t run that play in the past,” Baker said. “Coach knows I’m speedy. We got good blocks, I saw the corner and sprinted as fast as I could. It’s very rewarding. I’m very thankful. Last year, I was only on defense. I didn’t see offense at all.”
Casale added the PAT and with 11:02 to go in the half, Cheverus was up, 28-7.
The Vikings were on the verge of punting again, when a Stags’ pass interference penalty kept their drive alive. Junior John Bowen then ran for 15 yards on a jet sweep, Truman hit senior Cordell Stuart for five yards and Spinhim picked up 18 on a sweep to set up a first down at the 13. After sophomore Connor Galardo threw Spinhim for a two-yard loss, Spinhim gained 12 to set up a first-and-goal at the 3.
Cheverus refused to allow Oxford Hills into the end zone, however, as junior Bobby Slattery threw Truman for a three-yard loss, senior Matt Smith was gang-tackled for a five-yard loss and after Spinhim got five yards back, Truman’s pass to Stuart on fourth-and-goal from the 6 was only good for five.
The Stags started at their 1 and went three-and-out, giving the Vikings another short field.
Starting at the Cheverus 36, Oxford Hills again threatened, as a personal foul on the Stags put the ball at the 20, but after Bowen ran for a yard, Curran threw Smith for a loss of a yard, sophomore Max Coffin pressured Truman into throwing incomplete and sophomore Christian Gilliam brought down Smith for two yards on fourth-and-10.
With 3:18 to go before halftime, Cheverus hoped to run out the clock, but Coffin fumbled and Bowen recovered at the Stags’ 24.
This time, the Vikings capitalized, driving 24 yards in three plays and 42 seconds.
After Spinhim got Oxford Hills close with a 19-yard scamper and Smith was held to a yard, Spinhim broke through, scoring from the 4 with 2:31 left. Stevens’ extra point cut the deficit to 28-14.
The Vikings got one more possession before halftime, as Cheverus went three-and-out, but a combined sack by Coffin and Curran slammed the door and the Stags took a 14-point advantage to intermission.
In the first half, the Stags had a 208-161 advantage in yardage, but Baker’s three TDs proved to be the difference.
Cheverus then came out in the second half and took complete control of the game, extinguishing any remaining Oxford Hills hopes.
The Stags got the ball to start the third period and drove from their 35 ito Vikings’ territory.
A 10-yard run from Baker got things started. Dunn then connected with promising freshman Tre Fletcher for nine-yards and a first down. A 15-yard Dunn-to-Drelich pass put the ball at the Oxford Hills 26, but a hold backed Cheverus up and a sack by Vikings senior Ty Wyman on third-and-20 forced a punt.
Oxford Hills began at its 21, but the Stags dominated the line of scrimmage and backed up the Vikings a yard on three plays.
After a 23-yard punt return from sophomore Griffin Watson, Cheverus started at the Oxford Hills 24 and three plays and 85 seconds later, had some breathing room.
After Benedict gained seven-yards, then two, he got the ball again and bounced off a tackler before breaking free to the left and outrunning the pursuit to paydirt for a 15-yard TD. Casale’s PAT made it 35-14 Stags with 4:33 left in the third period.
After the visitors went three-and-out again, Cheverus started at its 35, but after Dunn gained a first down and Benedict did the same, a fumbled exchange was recovered by Vikings’ junior Connor Bickford at the Oxford Hills 39, but on the next play, the Vikings botched the snap and junior Kieran Conley came up with the recovery at the Oxford Hills 35.
As the third quarter gave way to the fourth, Benedict had successive seven-yard runs. Watson appeared to run for a first down near the 10, but a hold backed up the Stags and Cheverus gave the ball up on downs at the Vikings’ 27.
This time, Oxford Hills managed to run two plays before fumbling and Curran pounced on the loose football at the Vikings’ 28.
This time, the Stags took advantage and produced a final touchdown.
After Benedict gained 16 yards to the 12, Benedict was held to no gain, then picked up six. On third-and-4 from the 6, Dunn put the finishing touches on the scoring, running up the gut for a 6-yard TD. Casale’s extra point with 5:11 to play capped a four-play, 1:58 drive.
Oxford Hills started to drive, as Truman hit Stuart for eight-yards and a first down, but after Stuart made a catch for 12 yards, he fumbled and Drelich came up with the loose ball at the Cheverus 28.
With 3:29 to go, the Stags gained a first down on a Benedict run, before Wolfgram put in their second string offense, which ran out the clock on the 42-14 victory.
“They’re a good team and we knew that,” said Baker. “They’re big and physical. They gave us a good first quarter last year. I was very nervous. We all feel like we’ve been a little disrepsected. That was fuel to our fire.”
“We really wanted to make a statement,” Curran said. “A lot of people are doubting us this year. We just wanted to play our game. One play at a time. We knew they would score and we’d have to come back on them. I’ve learned to never give up. A lot of teams can talk 48 minutes, but you have to grind through it.”
“We’re very young up front and it takes awhile to grow and do the things you have to do effectively to be a good team,” Wolfgram added. “We blocked much better in the second half. We’re not a one trick pony like last year. We faced some challenges and some adversity. (The Vikings) are improved. They’re big and strong. They were twice as big as we were.”
Cheverus was paced by Baker’s 141 yards and three TDs on a eight carries.
Baker was inspired to help carry on the Stags’ tradition of dominant running backs, a litany which includes Spencer Cooke, Donald Goodrich and Fitzpatrick.
“Personally, I had (Joe’s number) on my wrist today,” Baker said. “I think it was just me. He’s a good friend of mine and a great player. I wanted to remember him and 90 (Zordan).”
“Baker’s a player to watch,” said Curran. “He’s really quick.”
Benedict was the workhorse, carrying 20 times, gaining 100 yards and scoring a touchdown.
Johnston gained 37 yards on 10 attempts.
Dunn rushed for eight yards on seven attempts and also had a TD. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 45 yards.
In all, the Stags rushed for 297 yards.
“Numbers 27 and 90 were good, but two players couldn’t bring us as far as we went last year,” Curran said. “We’re a machine, a unit. Every player has to work. I think we’ll be fine with the line and Rylan and Baker.”
Drelich had two catches for 36 yards and Fletcher had the other reception, good for nine.
Cheverus overcame two turnovers and committed five penalties for 60 yards.
While Oxford Hills mustered 194 yards, the Stags consistently came up with big defensive plays when they had to.
“The D line played well,” Curran said. “We have a lot of younger kids on the line. Connor Gallardo at nose and (sophomore) Zeb Leavitt at right tackle. The linebackers played well. Our defensive backs played great.”
The Vikings were paced by Spinhim’s 135 yards and two TDs on 18 carries. Truman went 7-of-19 for 52 yards. Stuart caught five balls for 36 yards. Bickford’s lone reception went for 10 yards. Bowen had a catch for six.
Oxford Hills committed four penalties for 29 yards and fumbled three times.
Oxford Hills has its home opener Friday versus Lewiston.
Cheverus, meanwhile, has to go to Thornton Academy for a delicious showdown Saturday afternoon. Last year, the Stags edged the Golden Trojans, 48-41, in a double overtime instant classic.
“We have to work on overall efficiency,” Wolfgram said. “We’re inconsistent. Our pass game will come.”
“We have a big game coming up,” Curran said. “We have to work hard in practice and prepare well.”
“We have to concentrate,” Baker said. “They’re obviously a very talented team. We just need to concentrate and we need to execute offensively and defensively. Last year, we were underdogs too. I’m excited for the rest of the season.”
Cheverus senior Justin Johnston leaves Oxford Hills’ kick coverage pursuit in his wake as he returns a kickoff 88 yards for a first quarter touchdown which gives the Stags the lead for good. Cheverus went on to a 42-14 victory in the teams’ mutual season opener.
Bruce Feeley photos.
Cheverus senior Dan Baker reaches paydirt for one his three touchdowns.
Cheverus senior quarterback Isaac Dunn prepares to hand off.
Cheverus junior Kieran Conley tries to bring down Oxford Hills senior Jacob Spinhim.
Cheverus sophomore Griffin Watson handles the ball.
Cheverus junior Kieran Conley pressures Oxford Hills junior quarterback Connor Truman.
Cheverus junior Rylan Benedict scores a second half touchdown.
OH- 7 7 0 0- 14
C- 21 7 7 7- 42
C- Baker 18 run (Casale kick)
OH- Spinhim 71 run (Stevens kick)
C- Johnston 88 kickoff return (Casale kick)
C- Baker 25 run (Casale kick)
C- Baker 72 run (Casale kick)
OH- Spinhim 4 run (Stevens kick)
C- Benedict 15 run (Casale run)
C- Dunn 6 run (Casale kick)