PORTLAND—After reaching the state game for the first time a year ago only to fall short, the Cheverus boys’ lacrosse team isn’t about to tripped up by anyone in its pursuit of a championship.
Wednesday evening in an Eastern Class A quarterfinal at Deering’s Memorial Field, the Stags began their playoff run against an upset-minded Portland squad which made a spirited late season run to simply qualify for the postseason.
While the seventh-ranked Bulldogs came in with momentum, No. 2 Cheverus has depth, talent and hunger and the Stags never trailed.
Senior Warren Murray put the defending regional champs ahead for good in the second minute and Cheverus raced to a 6-1 lead. By halftime, the Stags had a commanding 10-4 advantage and they never looked back, cruising, 15-7.
Sophomore Nick Schleh led the offense with six goals, junior Jack Sutton and sophomore Thomas Lawson both added three and Cheverus improved to 11-2, ended Portland’s season at 3-10 and advanced to meet No. 6 Deering (7-6) in Saturday’s semifinals, at a time to be announced.
“Overall, we played really well,” said Stags coach Bill Bodwell. “Portland played with a lot of heart and never gave up. I take every playoff game seriously. I don’t ever relax. I wish I could. I’m nervous for every game, but I was pleased with how we distributed the ball. We made good decisions.”
Portland and Cheverus (and for that matter, Deering) have done the city of Portland proud in the sport of boys’ lacrosse over the past 15 years, combining for four state final appearances since 2007 and a Bulldogs Class A championship in 2009.
The Stags got the final last year, but lost to Scarborough, 9-4. After the only coach in program history, Deke Andrew, stepped down, Bodwell, the former Lewiston coach, took over and Cheverus produced another solid campaign in 2013.
The Stags opened with a 12-6 win at Deering, then handled visiting Thornton Academy, 7-3. After a 13-10 home loss to South Portland, Cheverus rattled off four straight victories: 11-4 at Noble, 19-12 over visiting Waynflete, 13-3 over visiting Massabesic and 11-3 at Westbrook. The run ended with a 6-2 home loss to Cape Elizabeth, but the Stags bounced right back to close with easy wins over visiting Portland (17-4), host Gorham (10-2) and host Windham (13-8) and a palpitating 9-8 home triumph over Marshwood to go 10-2 and earn the No. 2 seed in Eastern A.
The Bulldogs, who lost in overtime to rival Deering in last year’s quarterfinal round, entered the season with a vastly different look, as several key players (including All-American goalie Ryan Jurgelevich) graduated, others were unavailable due to injury and coach Eric Begonia (who won over 100 games and a state title) had stepped down and was replaced by former Cape Elizabeth and North Yarmouth Academy standout Mike DiFusco, previously a Portland assistant.
The Bulldogs took their lumps much of the season, but put it all together at the optimal time.
Portland opened with losses at Thornton Academy (9-4) and Massabesic (6-3), then fell at home to Deering, 10-3. The struggles continued at home against Gorham (a 10-8 loss), at two-time defending Class B state champion Falmouth (an 18-1 setback), at home versus Kennebunk (an 8-1 loss) and at three-time defending Class A champion Scarborough (a 15-2 defeat), but the Bulldogs finally got over the hump May 7 with a 13-3 win over visiting Noble. Losses at home to powerhouse Yarmouth (17-5) and at Cheverus (17-4) followed, leaving Portland 1-9 and its playoff hopes on life support, but the Bulldogs saved their best for last, edging visiting Windham (5-3) and host Bonny Eagle (6-3), to wind up 3-9 and grab the seventh and final playoff spot in Eastern A.
Between 2002 and 2008, the Bulldogs and Stags met five times in the postseason (please see sidebar), with Cheverus taking four of them, including the most recent, a 7-6 overtime decision in the 2008 quarterfinals, when both teams still played in Western A.
Wednesday, the Stags quickly seized control.
It took only 97 seconds for Murray to score (from junior Hilmar Smith) and to put Cheverus on top for good.
Murray assisted on the second goal, scored by Sutton, and it was 2-0 with 8:54 to play in the first quarter.
When Lawson scored for the first time (assisted by Smith) with 6:53 left, DiFusco called timeout to settle his young team.
It worked as after Cheverus took a penalty, Bulldogs senior Max Pierter scored a man-up goal, beating junior goalie James Biegel, to get his team on the board.
The Stags bounced right back, as Schleh scored his first goal (assisted by Lawson) and Smith and Lawson scored unassisted to make it 6-1 with 2:32 to play in the opening stanza.
Senior Joe Nielson (from junior Mike Fuller) countered at the 1:13 mark and with a second to go, Pierter gave Portland some hope, when he finished a feed from Nielson.
Despite the slow start, the Bulldogs were only down 6-3.
Portland’s momentum didn’t last, as Schleh scored unassisted 2:14 into the second quarter.
After Nielson hit the crossbar, Sutton scored an unassisted goal, Schleh scored unassisted and with 5:04 to play before halftime, Lawson scored unassisted after causing a turnover to push the lead to seven.
With 2:10 left, Pierter scored unassisted to pull the Bulldogs back to 10-4 at the break.
In the first 24 minutes, Cheverus won 11 of 15 faceoffs and had an advantage in ground balls and shots. The Bulldogs were hindered by 14 turnovers, but were still within hailing distance, thanks to 12 saves from Allen.
When Nielson (from Fuller) scored 1:29 into the third, Portland was within 10-5 and had some hope, but the Stags quickly put it away.
With 8:04 left, Schleh took a pass from Smith and beat Allen to make it 11-5.
With 7:23 to go, Schleh finished after a pretty spin move and 23 seconds later, Sutton fought through the defense before finishing to make it 13-5.
Three goals in 64 seconds ended all doubt.
Schleh got his sixth and final goal with 3:32 remaining in the third, as he finished a pass from sophomore James Kane. Sophomore Joe Emerson batted home a loose ball two minutes later to pull Portland within 14-6 heading for the final quarter.
There, Pierter scored his final goal (unassisted), but Smith answered unassisted to account for the 15-7 final score.
“We came out played our hardest,” Schleh said. “We know Portland’s a good team and that they’d come out hard. It’s playoffs. We’re a pretty deep team. We have a lot of chemistry on the field.”
Schleh led the potent Cheverus offense with six goals.
“I’m no hero,” Schleh said. “It was a team effort. We just moved the ball and cleared through. The looks were happening.”
“Nick’s shown great improvement this season,” Bodwell said. “I’ve been really pleased with him.”
Lawson and Sutton added three goals each, Smith had two and Murray one. Smith also had three assists, while Kane, Lawson and Murray all added one. Biegel stopped seven shots.
The Stags won 16 of 25 faceoffs, as freshman Alex Nason went 14 of 21 and Sutton won two of his four chances.
Cheverus also won the ground ball battle, 39-32, as Schleh and junior Cody O’Brien each collected five. The Stags forced 24 turnovers (while committing 20) and had a 36-25 shots advantage (29-14 on cage).
Pierter led Portland with four goals. Nielson had two and Emerson added one. Fuller finished with a pair of assists, while Nielson had one. Pierter had a game-high six ground balls, while Allen made 14 saves.
“We came out fighting from the get-go,” DiFusco said. “Cheverus got a couple early ones and kept playing well. We struggled throughout the game. We were outplayed. We kept telling the guys to keep their heads up and fight and they did. We weren’t expected to make the playoffs. It was a goal for us and we continued to grind. I’m proud of what we accomplished. It’s a tough way to end it.”
The 2013 campaign was a struggle for the Bulldogs, but they’ll be better for it. Next year and in seasons to come.
“We have young guys who got a lot of experience,” DiFusco said. “We only have three seniors. We have the majority of guys back. The important thing for them is remembering this feeling. They know what it will take for us to move forward.”
Cheverus will “host” Saturday when it “welcomes” Deering, which upset No. 3 Mt. Ararat in its quarterfinal. The Stags downed the Rams in the regular season. Cheverus also took the previous two playoff meetings, 14-13, in the 2002 divisional semifinals and 4-2, in last year’s regional final.
The Stags aren’t satisfied with Wednesday’s win and hope their season lasts another 10 days and culminates with a state title.
“We’re practicing hard every day and seeing what happens,” Schleh said. “We won’t take Deering for granted. They’re a strong team. Every team comes out strong for the playoffs.”
“It’s been a really good year,” Bodwell said. “We’re excited to be in the playoffs. It’s going to be a challenge. They have a smart coach (Jon Dubois). I’ve played Deering the last three years in the playoffs. I expect they’ll play well. It should be a good game.”
Portland senior Joe Nielson keeps a close eye on Cheverus junior Jack Sutton.
Portland senior Max Pierter, who scored four goals, is defended by Cheverus senior Andrew MacGillivray.
Portland sophomore Brady Green fights off a hit from Cheverus senior Warren Murray.
Cheverus junior goalie James Biegel stymies Portland senior Joe Nielson.
2008 Western A quarterfinals
Cheverus 7 @ Portland 6 (OT)
2005 West Division quarterfinals
@ Portland 10 Cheverus 9
2004 West Division quarterfinals
Cheverus 12 @ Portland 5
2003 West Division quarterfinals
@ Cheverus 13 Portland 2
2002 Northwest Division quarterfinals
@ Cheverus 13 Portland 6
Cheverus sophomore Tom Lawson beats Portland junior goalie Ben Allen for a goal during the Stags’ 15-7 win over the Bulldogs in an Eastern Class A quarterfinal Wednesday night.
More photos below.