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WINDHAM—This one’s going to sting for awhile.
The Cheverus football team, enjoying its finest season in two decades, was close enough to taste a Western Class A championship Saturday afternoon, but when all was said and done, sampled a wet dose of heartache instead.
The Stags allowed just one score all day, but Windham managed to grab a 7-6 lead on its first drive of the second half. Then, despite ample chances in the rain and the wind and the slop, Cheverus’ offense couldn’t respond and its scintillating season ended at 8-3 with the one-point setback.
“Windham made key plays and we didn’t,” said Stags coach John Wolfgram.
The Eagles will face Bangor in Saturday’s Class A title game.
Season to remember
Cheverus’ season got off to a great start with a 30-6 win at perennial contender Gorham, turned after its 27-13 home victory over Windham Sept. 12 and the Stags went on to win six of their eight regular season contests to grab the No. 4 seed in Western A.
“We played well right from the start,” Wolfgram said. “Winning at Gorham was important. The offense and defense jump-started the season.”
After blanking No. 5 Biddeford 21-0 in the quarterfinals, Cheverus demolished unbeaten top seed Thornton Academy 36-7 in the semis.
Windham reached the semifinals a year ago and its loss to the Stags was its only in eight regular season games. The second-ranked Eagles had no trouble eliminating No. 7 Sanford in the quarterfinals, then eked out a dramatic and thrilling overtime decision over two-time defending state champ Bonny Eagle in the semifinals.
Saturday’s game was tight throughout and both teams were hampered by the bad weather. Ultimately, Windham made the plays it had to make to fulfill its destiny.
Cheverus’ defense stood tall in the early going, forcing a three-and-out on the Eagles’ first series and forcing a punt on the hosts’ second time with the ball. The Stags’ special teams then sparkled as senior James Rutter blocked a punt to set the stage for his team’s lone score.
Cheverus began at the Windham 10 after the blocked kick and four plays had the lead when junior quarterback Peter Gwilym did what he does best, rolling out to beat the defense to the end zone for a 6-0 lead. The extra point was no good, however, and the Stags led remained at six points.
Cheverus’ defense sparkled in the first half. The hosts had negative-1 yard in the first period and only managed 16 in the second. The visitors also blocked a second punt late in the second period giving the Stags a chance to extend their lead and put a stranglehold on the game.
Driving from its 45, Cheverus moved deep into Windham territory by virtue of strong running from Gwilym, seniors Matt Ball and Matt Place. A 16-yard Gwilym-to-junior Jack Bushey screen pass play put the Stags at the 10 and an 8-yard Gwilym-to-sophomore Spencer Cooke pass placed the ball at the 2 with 5.4 seconds left. Eagles junior Matt Morse then came up huge, sacking Gwilym for an 8-yard loss as time expired in the half, keeping it a 6-0 game at the break.
“We had our chance at the end of the half,” Wolfgram said. “We couldn’t do it after a nice drive.”
To go into the locker room down 12-0 or 13-0 would have been trouble,” said Windham coach Matt Perkins.
The hosts then took the lead in the third.
Cheverus had first crack at possession in the second half, but Wolfgram decided to let his defense take care of business and allowed the Eagles to take the kickoff.
“I made the decision when I saw the field after halftime,” Wolfgram said.
Windham then drove 80 yards in 12 plays to jump on top.
Senior bruiser Jack Mallis was the difference, rushing 11 times for 71 yards.
Five times, Mallis rushed for first downs to keep the chains moving. Then, on third-and-goal at the 1, Mallis’ second effort sent him over the goal line to put the Eagles on the board. Senior Matt Coffee’s extra point put Windham ahead, 7-6, with 6:19 left in the third quarter.
“They had a big drive to start the second half and executed very well,” Wolfgram said. “They moved the ball, which they couldn’t do in the first half.”
“Football’s great in any conditions,” Mallis said. “As long as we win, I’m happy. We just kept running the ball. We had great blocking up front. Everyone came together as a team. It’s team football. It’s how we win games and that’s what we did today. The line blocked perfect and opened holes enough for me to score.”
“Jack was unbelievable,” Perkins added. “We cleaned up some things on that drive. It was a battle. We said at halftime to keep plugging. The kids have a lot of heart.”
After Cheverus went three-and-out, Windham had a chance to extend its lead, but after picking up a first down, an illegal block penalty set the Eagles back and forced a punt. The Stags took over at their 17 late in the quarter and picked up a first down on a Gwilym second effort on fourth-and-1, but with 8:59 to go, at their 38, they were stopped cold when Place was held for no yardage on fourth-and-1.
The hosts then had a chance to put the game away, but picked up just 2 yards on three plays. Then, on fourth-and-8 at the Cheverus 36, Perkins called for a fake punt. Junior Max McDonald took the snap and handed to junior Nick Burton, who ran for 26 yards and a first down. Burton then picked up 15 on third-and-19, but with a chance to ice it, senior quarterback Jackson Taylor’s fourth down pass fell incomplete, giving the ball back to the Stags with 5:07 remaining.
Cheverus got a first down when Place ran for 3 yards on fourth-and-2, then gained another when Gwilym found junior Liam Hobbins for 15 yards on fourth-and-9. Gwilym’s next pass fell incomplete, but a pass interference penalty moved the ball to the 48. After a pass went incomplete, Gwilym found Bushey for 4 yards, but Bushey was stripped of the ball by senior T.J. Robbins and senior Matt Gledhill recovered at the Windham 48 with just 1:23 left.
The Eagles gave the Stags one more chance when they went three-and-out. Cheverus took over at the 45 with 24.2 seconds left. Windham junior Nick Ramsdell sacked Gwilym for a 12-yard loss, then, after a spike to stop the clock, Gwilym’s pass was caught by an ineligible receiver and time ran out.
Eagles 7 Stags 6.
Windham was thrilled to survive.
“Everybody came out and played football and that’s how we won the game,” Mallis said. “We’ve played together since we were real young and we’ve come together as family. I’m ready to play anybody (next week). I’m ready to play some football, that’s all.”
“Last year was a huge step,” Perkins added. “This year, we went a little further. We’ll see what happens next Saturday. Can’t wait. Hopefully the weather holds off.”
The Eagles only mustered 137 yards on offense and had two punts blocked, but survived thanks to 141 yards and a TD on 35 carries from Mallis.
Cheverus, which had 141 yards of offense (Gwilym led the way with 41 yards rushing and 43 passing) will try again in 2010.
“I think the kids really came together well this year,” Wolfgram said. “We had some good leadership. It was a competitive group of guys. The seniors helped elevate the program. We’ll have some kids back next year.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org