PORTLAND—Cheverus is still the team to beat, but Portland is closing the gap.
That’s a summary of what we learned at the high school football regular season opener Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
While the Bulldogs moved the ball up and down the field, they left some points on the board in the first half and the Stags, who committed some costly, early mistakes, turned to some unheralded players to make the difference with the game on the line.
Cheverus, which never trailed, only led by two after a muffed kickoff and a Portland touchdown in the first minute of the second half, but junior running back Joe Fitzpatrick began to take over, rushing for 117 yards in the third and fourth quarters (he had 155 for the game). Fizpatrick, combined with the bruising running of senior fullback Cody O’Brien, superb play off the bench from sophomore quarterback Isaac Dunn and three huge receptions from senior Noah Stebbins, managed to produce enough offense to prevail.
Mix in a dominating performance from junior defender Zordan Holman and the Stags managed to hold on, 35-25, to make it 35 victories in their last 36 outings and five in a row over the Bulldogs.
There’s a good chance the teams will meet again in November, but for now, Cheverus is clearly, once again, the team that knows how to answer the bell, regardless of who is on the field.
“That’s probably the strength of our team, the character of our kids,” said legendary Stags coach John Wolfgram. “We’re going to play hard and we’ll play with discipline for 48 minutes. We have a lot of young kids who haven’t played varsity football before who stepped up. That’s what it’s all about. You lose a guy and someone else has to step up and play.”
A lot has changed since the Bulldogs and Stags last played a meaningful game.
Most notably, both schools (along with Deering and Windham) were reclassified from Western A to Eastern A as Maine high school football went from three classes to four.
On the field, while Portland returns most of its firepower (and added speedy senior running back Ronald Hargrove), Cheverus lost its big name skill players, but both were viewed as the teams to beat in their region this fall.
The Bulldogs were hoping to build on their deepest playoff run in seven seasons (they went 6-4 in 2012), while the Stags were starting from a very unfamiliar spot, coming off a loss (to Thornton Academy in last year’s Western A Final), something which hadn’t happened since the opening game of the 2010 season.
Considering its overwhelming success in recent seasons, it’s no secret that Cheverus has dominated Portland in that span (please see sidebar, below).
Entering Friday, the Bulldogs had a 45-30-5 all-time advantage in the series which dates to 1924, but the Stags had won six of the past seven meetings and each of the past four (by a composite 120-33 margin).
The Bulldogs’ last win over the Stags came Sept. 25, 2009 (28-0, at Fitzpatrick Stadium).
Friday, with a lot on the line, Cheverus continued its recent domination of its rival, but this time, had to go the full 48 minutes to secure the victory.
Portland got the ball first and senior Justin Zukowski immediately gave his squad a spark with a 36 yard burst, punctuated by a Stags’ personal foul penalty, giving the Bulldogs a first down at Cheverus’ 29. The next three plays lost a yard, however, and on fourth-and-11 from the 30, junior quarterback Jordan Talbot ran left, had some room on the sideline, but just before he cut back to gain apparent first down yardage, stepped out of bounds, giving the ball to the visitors on downs.
The Stags wasted no time marching down the field to take the lead for good.
Senior quarterback Ethan Jordan, the heir to the triumphant triumvirate of Peter Gwilym, Cam Olson and Liam Fitzpatrick, connected with Stebbins for 17 yards on a third-and-9 to get things going. A facemask penalty on the Bulldogs moved the ball into Portland territory and after Fitzpatrick ran for a yard, Jordan found an open Stebbins on the right side and Stebbins raced in for a 34-yard score. Junior Patrick Mourmouras added the extra point and Cheverus was up, 7-0, with 7:45 to play in the first period.
“We went out for 18 days doing double sessions (practice) for today and we came out with energy,” Stebbins said. “We played really well. We had good protection up front. Ethan has a good arm. My job was just to catch (the ball).”
The touchdown capped a 75-yard, six-play drive, which ate up 2 minutes, 44 seconds.
The Bulldogs bounced right back.
Starting from its 22, Portland took 15 plays and over five minutes to score its first touchdown of the season.
Runs of 9- and 7-yards from Hargrove got things moving in the right direction. A couple Cheverus penalties helped matters and runs of 14-yards from Zukowski and 13-yards from senior Jayvon Pitts-Young put the ball on the doorstep. With 2:19 remaining in the stanza, Zukowski bulled in from the one. Talbot’s extra point was no good, however, and the Stags retained the lead, 7-6.
As the first quarter gave way to the second, Portland’s defense came up big as Pitts-Young sacked Jordan, forcing a punt. The quarterback was hurt on the play and wouldn’t return.
The Bulldogs then marched looking to take the lead, moving from their 40 deep into Cheverus territory as Pitts-Young rambled for 26 yards (almost fumbling the pitch from Talbot, then breaking tackles as he raced down to the Stags’ 10). Hargrove picked up 5 and Zukowski carried to the 4, but Holman then came up huge, sacking Talbot for a loss of 9 (getting help on the tackle from seniors Sam Cross and Will Hilton).
“Zordan was the really the difference,” lamented Portland coach Jim Hartman. “We couldn’t handle him. He shut us down on that side.”
A delay of game penalty backed the hosts up further and Talbot’s 35-yard field goal attempt was no good and to the left.
Cheverus took over at its 20 with Dunn in at quarterback and after gaining one first down, had to punt.
Portland’s second opportunity to go ahead ended with a three-and-out and on the punt, disaster struck, as Talbot, apparently looking to fake, didn’t catch the ball cleanly and after he recovered, he was downed at his 12, giving the Stags great field position.
It took all of two plays for Cheverus to take advantage, as with 1:16 to go before halftime, Dunn threw his first varsity touchdown, hitting Cross from 9 yards out. Mourmouras’ extra point gave the Stags a 14-6 advantage at the break.
Statistics were relatively even over the first 24 minutes, but the normally poised Stags had shot themselves in the foot with an uncharacteristic five penalties for 51 yards.
Cheverus would give Portland a gift to start the second half, but ultimately settled down.
On the kickoff to start the third quarter, the ball bounced and a pair of Stags’ return men weren’t sure what to do. By the time they went for the ball, the speedy Hargrove raced in and fell on it at the Cheverus 12.
Zukowski took the ensuing handoff, barrelled up the middle and into the end zone and just 15 seconds into the third period, the Bulldogs had a gift touchdown.
The hosts had a chance to draw even with a two-point conversion, but Talbot’s pass was incomplete, allowing the Stags to cling to a 14-12 lead.
The first crossroads of the 2013 campaign had arrived, but as it has so many times before in recent years, Cheverus embraced the challenge and showed its character.
Starting from their 14, the Stags drove 86 yards in nine plays, chewing up 4:03 to retake control.
Dunn hit O’Brien for 11 yards to spark the drive. O’Brien then had three rushes that gained 19 yards. After a holding penalty, Dunn ran for 13 and a first down. After O’Brien was thrown for a yard loss, Fitzpatrick got free for 12, setting the stage for Dunn to drop back and find a wide open Stebbins cutting over the middle. Stebbins caught the pass and beat the pursuit into the end zone to complete a 38-yard scoring play. With 7:33 to go in the third period, Mourmouras added an extra point for a 21-12 lead.
“We told (Isaac) to be calm and he stepped up for us,” Stebbins said. “I was confident. He has a good arm and he’s done well in practice.”
“We were concerned, but we knew Isaac does the same stuff at practice we all do,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was ready. Everything was fine.”
Cheverus’ defense held Portland to a three-and-out, but after Fitzpatrick got free for 20 yards, a sack by Bulldogs senior Jake Fogel kept the Stags from adding to their lead.
Late in the third, Portland appeared doomed to another three-and-out, but Jordan again went for the fake punt and this time gained 15 yards to move the chains. As the fourth quarter began, the Bulldogs were at midfield, but a sweep by Hargrove was stuffed by senior Will Hilton and the hosts had to punt.
With 11:06 remaining, Cheverus took over at its 22.
Enter Joe Fitzpatrick.
After gaining a respectable 51 yards on 12 carries prior to that juncture, Fitzpatrick began to have his way.
He rushed for 23 yards and a first down, then on first-and-10 from the Bulldogs’ 43, Fitzpatrick ran for 13 more and a personal foul penalty was tacked on, putting the ball at the 15. Fitzpatrick got the call on the next down and broke free into the end zone for some serious breathing room. Mourmouras’ extra point made it 28-12 Stags with 7:59 to play.
Fitzpatrick epitomizes the program’s “next man up” philosophy.
“When I first came here, I knew I wouldn’t be starting,” Fitzpatrick said. “I took my freshman and sophomore years to learn as much as I could from (former stars) Donald Goodrich and Spencer Cooke. Coach puts people in when he knows they’re ready. We have pride. Everyone is ready to go. We lose people every year, but we have kids ready to step up.”
“They ran (Fitzpatrick) to the weak side and we just couldn’t put anyone on him,” said Hartman.
To its credit, Portland didn’t wilt.
The Bulldogs answered with a four-play, 53-yard drive, as Zukowski got it started with a 12-yard scamper (a 15-yard facemask penalty was tacked on) and after Talbot hit junior Domenic Fagone for 14 yards, Zukowski broke free for a 23-yard TD run. Zukowski was stopped on the two-point conversion, however, and with 6:08 to go, Cheverus was still up 10, 28-18.
The Stags got the ball back on their 22 with 6:06 remaining. If Portland had been able to hold, it would have had a chance to rally, but Cheverus, showing signs of the champion it wants to become, had other ideas.
It took seven plays and 2:21 to traverse 78 yards of Fitzpatrick Stadium real estate to end all doubt.
Again, it was O’Brien and Fitzpatrick doing the damage.
First, the fullback broke free for a dozen yards.
Then, Fitzpatrick roamed for 33, setting up a first down at the Bulldogs’ 32.
A facemask penalty on the hosts kept the drive alive and with 3:45 remaining, O’Brien’s hard work was rewarded with a 10-yard TD run and Mourmouras’ kick made the score 35-18.
Again, Portland responded, moving 70 yards in just six plays (runs of 25-yards by Pitts-Young and 32 from Zukowski chewed up most of it), cutting the deficit to 35-25 when Talbot scored on a 3-yard run with 1:23 left.
Fitzpatrick fell on the ensuing on-sides kick, however, and that was that.
The Stags ran out the clock and improved to 1-0 with a 35-25 triumph, dropping the Bulldogs into an 0-1 hole.
“We’re still good,” Stebbins said. “We step up when it counts. We’re just moving forward. Portland’s one of the best teams in the state. They gave us a good test for the opener.”
“Cheverus and Portland is obviously a huge rivalry,” Fitzpatrick said. “It came down to our line. We struggled at the beginning, but after halftime, we readjusted and knew what we had to do. We clicked and got our momentum. Our line got together and the backfield worked. “
“Portland’s a very good football team,” Wolfgram added. “Our kids played with discipline, bent and didn’t break. They held the course for 48 minutes. I’m really pleased with our effort.”
Portland outrushed Cheverus, 281-247, but the Stags had a 393-331 edge in total yardage.
Individually, Fitzpatrick was the game’s leading ground gainer, going for 155 yards on 20 carries with the one touchdown. He was named the Robert Duffy Award winner as the Stags’ Most Valuable Player in the game.
O’Brien ended up with 73 yards on 15 attempts, also scoring one TD. Dunn gained 19 yards on five rushes.
The Stags (never to be confused with a high-powered aerial attack) were surprisingly effective when they did throw, as Jordan completed all three of his attempts for 66 yards and a TD and Dunn went 3-of-4 for 58 yards and two scores. Stebbins was the biggest beneficiary, catching three balls for 89 yards and two TDs. Holman had one catch for 15 yards, O’Brien one for 11 and Cross one for 9 and a touchdown.
“We had a number of kids play well,” Wolfgram said. “Isaac was obviously first. He stepped in and played well. (Sophomore) Frankie Curran did a nice job at guard when we lost Riley Archer. I thought Cody O’Brien had an enormous game on both sides of the ball. He ran the ball well, he blocked well and played well on defense. Joe really took over. He ran well. He’s learning how to run. He had some nice runs. He and Cody were a nice 1-2 punch for us.”
Cheverus did commit eight penalties for 68 yards and had one turnover.
“In a first game of the season, you’ll have that stuff,” Wolfgram said. “I don’t care what level. There’s going to be hiccups and mistakes. We’ll iron them out and get better. Our character is there and we’ll build on it.”
For Portland, Zukowski impressed with 139 yards and three TDs on 21 carries. He was given the Jack Duffy Award, as his team’s MVP.
Pitts-Young gained 65 yards on five rushes, Hargrove had 46 on 11 and Talbot ran for 31 (with a TD) on 10 attempts.
Talbot completed two of his four passes for 21 yards. Fagone had one reception for 14 yards, while Zukowski caught the other for 7.
The Bulldogs committed nine penalties for 85 yards.
Hartman felt his team was good enough to win Friday.
“It was a really bitter loss for the kids,” Hartman said. “I think they know they can play with (Cheverus). Now, the big task is for them to learn to play with emotion. It’s been a long time since we’ve played at that high emotional level. The seniors never have played at that level. It’s a different thought process. We have to have a certain mental toughness.”
Hartman did find several positives in the aftermath.
“I think we drove the ball pretty much every time we wanted to,” Hartman said. “I don’t think anybody’s done that to John Wolfgram in a long, long time. I’m happy about that. I’m happy with the effort and I’m happy that they care. We have their attention, I hope. We have to have young men step up as leaders. Now we have to channel and funnel it.”
The Bulldogs don’t have long to lick their wounds. They face their biggest rival, Deering (which lost at Windham, 28-6, in its opener), Thursday (kickoff has been moved up to 5 p.m. due to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur) and can’t afford to start 0-2.
“We need to teach the kids we can’t take anybody lightly,” Hartman said. “Deering’s beaten us almost every time the last 10 years. It’s a big matchup. I know nothing about them. We’ll watch their film.”
The Stags, meanwhile, hope to extend their new win streak to two when they host Lewiston (0-1 after a 34-28 loss to Oxford Hills in its opener) Saturday, Sept. 14.
“I don’t know anything about (Lewiston),” Stebbins said. “We’ll watch some film during the week and prepare for them.”
“There was a lot of tension (tonight) and it was a first game,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ll get our heads straight. We’ll look at what we did in the second half and focus on improving that.”
Portland senior Ronald Hargrove finds running room.
Cheverus senior Ethan Jordan can’t quite come up with this interception as Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young looks on.
Cheverus junior running back Joe Fitzpatrick attempts to elude Portland junior Domenic Fagone. Fitzpatrick rushed for 155 yards (117 in the second half).
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young stretches for the goal line, but is denied by Cheverus senior Jack Sutton (standing) and junior Zordan Holman.
Portland senior Justin Zukowski trips up Cheverus senior Cody O’Brien.
Cheverus junior Patrick Mourmouras boots one of his five extra points.
Cheverus 26 @ Portland 7
@ Cheverus 35 Portland 0
@ Portland 27 Cheverus 14
Portland 40 @ Cheverus 7
Portland 42 @ Cheverus 7
Cheverus seniors Sam Cross (left) and Cody O’Brien celebrate Cross’ second quarter touchdown reception during the Stags’ 35-25 win at Portland in the season opener Friday night.
More photos below.
C- 7 7 7 14- 35
P- 6 0 6 13- 25
C- Stebbins 34 pass from Jordan (Mourmouras kick)
P- Zukowski 1 run (kick failed)
C- Cross 9 pass from Dunn (Mourmouras kick)
P- Zukowski 12 run (pass failed)
C- Stebbins 38 pass from Dunn (Mourmouras kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 15 run (Mourmouras kick)
P- Zukowski 23 run (run failed)
C- O’Brien 10 run (Mourmouras kick)
P- J. Talbot 3 run (J. Talbot kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 20-155-1, O’Brien 15-73-1, Dunn 5-19
P- Zukowski 21-139-3, Pitts-Young 5-65, Hargrove 11-46, J. Talbot 10-31-1
C- Jordan 3-3-66-1, 3-4-58-2
P- J. Talbot 2-4-21
C- Stebbins 3-89-2, Holman 1-15, O’Brien 1-11, Cross 1-9-1
P- Fagone 1-14, Zukowski 1-7
TA- Fogel, Pitts-Young 1
C- Holman, Johnston 1