PORTLAND—The Cheverus football team has won games by any means necessary, be it offense, defense or special teams, this fall.
Saturday afternoon, the undefeated and top-ranked Stags had to dig deeper than ever in their first playoff test, against defending Class A state champion Windham, ranked eighth.
Cheverus found itself down 7-0 a little more than two minutes into the game and trailed 27-14 in the third period, but the Stags were at their best when it mattered most, scoring the game’s final 20 points to advance by virtue of a 34-27 victory.
With time winding down in the third quarter, Cheverus finally took the lead for the first time and for good when senior quarterback Peter Gwilym found classmate Jack Bushey for a 19-yard scoring strike. The Stags surrendered just 65 second half yards and set up a semifinal round date with No. 5 Scarborough.
“The kids hung tough,” said Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. “It wasn’t a work of art, but we hung tough and made plays. I have a lot of character kids. They refused to lose. It was just grit.”
Closer than expected
Cheverus excelled all regular season. Last week, in the finale, the Stags routed visiting Deering, 44-14, to finish 8-0 and earn the top seed in Western A.
Windham, meanwhile, struggled in its post-championship season, losing its first two games, three of its first four and four of six before closing with victories over Portland and Westbrook to earn the final seed.
A year ago, in a veritable monsoon, Windham edged Cheverus, 7-6, in the regional final in the team’s lone prior playoff meeting. The Stags got a measure of revenge on Sept. 10 with a 28-0 victory at the Eagles.
Saturday proved to be a fight to the finish, a game full of twists, turns and high drama.
Cheverus couldn’t have asked for a worse start when it fumbled the opening kickoff and Windham sophomore Damien Sheppard recovered at the Stags’ 25.
Cheverus’ defense rose to the occasion and forced a fourth-and-13 from the 28, but Eagles’ senior quarterback Cody Laberge, who sparkled all day, dropped back and found senior Nicholas Burton in the end zone for the lead. Sophomore Shawn Francoeur added the point-after and just 2 minutes, 10 seconds in, Windham had a 7-0 lead.
The hosts were able to move the ball on their first drive, advancing from the 28 into Eagles’ territory, but on fourth-and-3 from the 31, Gwilym was sacked by Burton and the ball went back to the visitors on downs.
Windham’s next series was short-circuited by an offensive interference penalty and the Stags took over at their 27 midway through the first. Three minutes, 36 seconds later, Cheverus drew even.
On third-and-14 from the 23, Gwilym hit junior Louie DiStasio (who has served as the team’s kicker and emerged as a receiving star Saturday) on a 43-yard slant pass (Burton saved the touchdown). After Gwilym gained 14 yards on a run two plays later, Cooke ran for eight yards, then lost one, setting up third-and-3 from the 10. There, Gwilym floated a pass just over a defender into the arms of senior Liam Hobbins for a TD. DiStasio added the extra point and with 2:24 left in the quarter, it was a brand-new ballgame, 7-7.
Defense then took over as each team had three possessions and had to punt each time. With 3:06 to go before halftime, Windham took advantage of a poor kick and began at the Cheverus 40. Three plays later, the Eagles were back on top as Laberge found senior Drew Gagnon for 27 yards before the quarterback fought his way through traffic for a 14-yard score and a 14-7 lead with 1:56 left in the half.
The Stags had a chance to answer, but despite runs of 21- and 11-yards by Gwilym and a 29-yard Gwilym-to-DiStasio pass play, the drive ended when bruising senior fullback Evan Jendrasko was stopped on second-and-goal from the 1, fumbling in the process. Sheppard recovered and Windham took a 14-7 lead to the break.
The Stags had a 214-123 edge in offense in the first 24 minutes, but were hindered by turnovers.
No one on hand had any idea just how wild the third quarter would be as six touchdowns would be scored.
After Windham went three-and-out and punted, Cheverus took over the Eagles’ 24 after a 14-yard punt. On the first play, Gwilym hit Jendrasko with a short pass and the senior broke a tackle en route to paydirt. DiStasio kicked the extra point and the game was deadlocked, 14-14.
For all of 14 seconds.
Sheppard corralled the ensuing kickoff at his 7 and raced 93-yards for a touchdown and just like that, Windham was back ahead, 21-14.
If that wasn’t enough, the Stags found themselves pinned at their 7 to start their next drive. A play after Gwilym was thrown for a six-yard loss (barely avoiding a two-point safety), Jendrasko fumbled and senior Dylan Taylor recovered for the Eagles at Cheverus’ 4. Two plays later, Laberge scored on a 2-yard run and despite a missed extra point, Windham held a shocking 27-14 advantage with 8:20 still to play in the quarter.
That would be plenty of time for the Stags to rally and by period’s end, they’d be on top for good.
The Eagles tried to catch Cheverus off-guard by attempting an on-sides kick. While the Stags were taken by surprise, the ball went out of bounds and the hosts took over at the Windham 49. Gwilym immediately hit DiStasio for 20 yards, but after driving to the 12, the Stags appeared doomed after a false start penalty and a pass play to Bushey that went backwards four yards. Then, on fourth-and-19 from the 21, Gwilym found DiStasio on a fade pattern in the end zone and DiStasio managed to make the difficult catch. He missed the ensuing extra point, but suddenly Cheverus was right back in it, down 27-20.
The Stags stepped up on defense, forcing a three-and-out and after taking over at the Eagles’ 38, the offense drove for the tie. An 11-yard Cooke run and a 13-yard scamper from Jendrasko got the ball close. Two plays later, Jendrasko scored from a yard out and with 2:14 to play in the third, DiStasio added the extra point and the game was deadlocked, 27-27.
Laberge gave the hosts a gift on the third play of the next series when he threw a pass that Gwilym intercepted and returned to the Windham 16. Two plays later, Cheverus had the lead when Gwilym found Bushey wide open in the middle for a 19-yard score. DiStasio’s extra point gave the Stags a 34-27 lead with just 4 seconds to go in the wild and crazy third.
“We didn’t make plays today or execute as we have in the past, but we don’t panic,” Wolfgram said. “Our kids are mature. We’ve played nine games. We’ve hardened as a team.”
A whole quarter remained for the Eagles to rally, but it wasn’t to be.
First, Laberge was intercepted by Gwilym again, with 8:53 to play. Cheverus embarked on a 10-play drive that ate up 5:34 before ending with a punt as Gwilym pinned Windham at its 3 after a 37-yard gem.
Laberge threw incomplete three straight times, forcing a punt, but sophomore Colby Waterhouse shocked the hosts by throwing a 17-yard pass to Burton on a fake, allowing the Eagles to keep possession. They’d gain two more first downs before the Stags stiffened again, forcing Laberge to throw incomplete on fourth-and-9.
Cheverus took over at the Windham 43 with just 40.5 seconds to play, seemingly primed to end it, but Gwilym fumbled and the Eagles had one final opportunity.
The Stags, after rallying back and coming so far, weren’t about to allow Windham another yard as Laberge threw incomplete on four straight downs. After a change of possession, with 20.1 seconds showing, Gwilym this time took a knee and Cheverus was finally able to celebrate its 34-27 victory.
“Even if we don’t come out with our best game, it’s the playoffs, so you have to give everything you’ve got,” Gwilym said. “I think we did that. We’ve played these guys so many times the past two years that there’s no surprises. I thought they executed their game plan really well, but we were able to overcome it. I thought there was a little sense of panic, but we knew we could come back. We just had to play with grit. We knew we’d get their ‘A’ game. We found a way.
“Give Windham credit,” added Wolfgram. “They’re a tad young, but they have very good people. They have speed and talent. Once we settled in, we played well. I was just very impressed with the grit our team showed today. The defense stepped up when they had to. Giving up the kickoff return really hurt us. We turned the ball over, but we survived. In the final analysis, we hung tough and made plays.”
Gwilym wound up 11-of-18 for 176 yards with four TDs. He also ran for 68 yards on 15 carries.
“Peter made plays when he had to,” said Wolfgram.
Jendrasko managed 110 yards and a score on 20 rushes. He also caught one pass for a 24-yard TD. Cooke gained 37 yards on 12 carries. DiStasio was the top receiver, grabbing four balls for 113 yards and a score. Bushey (3 for 20 with a TD), Hobbins (2-13-1) and sophomore Liam Fitzpatrick (1-6) also got into the receiving act.
Cheverus finished with 377 yards of offense. It turned the ball over four times and was penalized four times for 39 yards.
For Windham, Laberge bowed out with 64 rushing yards (and two TDs) on 23 carries. He was 13-of-29 through the air for 104 yards and a score, but was intercepted twice. Sheppard had seven catches for 26 yards, Burton three for 49 and Gagnon three for 41. Waterhouse only gained five yards on five carries, but completed his one pass attempt for 17 yards.
The Eagles finished with 188 yards of offense, but were hindered by six untimely penalties, which cost them 75 yards.
Windham (4-5), after its stellar late-season performance, figures to be right back in the title hunt in 2011.
Cheverus (9-0) will host an 8-1 Scarborough team next Saturday at 12:30 p.m., which has become the feel-good story of Western A in coach Lance Johnson’s initial season. The Red Storm won their first playoff game in eight years of Class A play Saturday (48-14 at No. 4 Biddeford). They can move the ball through the air or on the ground and have an opportunistic defense.
Cheverus and Scarborough didn’t face off in the regular season and have no playoff history. The last time the teams played was on Sept. 24, 2004 (a 34-13 Red Storm win). The Stags took the other encounter, 28-0, the year before.
Cheverus certainly won’t take upstart Scarborough for granted as it looks to advance to the regional final for the second year in a row.
“We don’t know Scarborough at all,” Gwilym said. “We’ll watch film and be ready for them. It’s just going to get tougher and tougher. I feel like we have something special going.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
W- 7 7 13 0- 27
C- 7 0 27 0- 34
W- Burton 28 pass from Laberge (Francoeur kick)
C- Hobbins 10 pass from Gwilym (DiStasio kick)
W- Laberge 14 run (Francoeur kick)
C- Jendrasko 14 pass from Gwilym (DiStasio kick)
W- Sheppard 93 kickoff return (Francoeur kick)
W- Laberge 2 run (kick failed)
C- DiStasio 21 pass from Gwilym (kick failed)
C- Jendrasko 1 run (DiStasio kick)
C- Bushey 19 pass from Gwilym (DiStasio kick)