PORTLAND — The Cheverus football team secured its first home playoff game in 13 years, fighting off the resilient Deering Rams to earn a 30-21 victory Friday night at Memorial Field in the last week of the regular season for both teams.
The last time Cheverus had a chance to defend “the Hill” in postseason play was in 1996, when they beat Thornton Academy 28-19 in the quarterfinals before losing 21-0 the next round to South Portland, the eventual state champion.
Ironically enough, that was the third of four state championships that the Stags’ current coach, John Wolfgram, captured during his tenure with the Red Riots. Wolfgram led South Portland to the 1992, ’95, ’96 and ’99 Class A state championships.
With the win, the Stags improved to 6-2 and reserved the No. 4-seed in the Western Class A playoffs that begin next weekend, where they will host the No. 5 Biddeford Tigers (6-2) on Saturday afternoon. Biddeford plays a York County schedule and the two teams did not meet this year. The Tigers won the previous four postseason meetings (1984 semifinals, 1990 regional final, 1997 quarterfinals, 1999 quarterfinals).
The Stags shook off an early 7-0 deficit to take a 14-13 lead at the half, then appeared to be in firm control with a 22-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But Deering junior quarterback Jamie Ross had the deep ball going in this one, connecting with senior J.J. Hardy for an 80-yard score in the first quarter and then hitting Hardy on the same play for a 41-yard touchdown strike to pull the Rams within one point at 22-21 with nine minutes remaining in the contest. The two-play drive took all of 15 seconds off the clock.
In a wild and intense final stanza, Deering forced the Stags to go three-and-out on their next possession, but Cheverus senior Pat Chadbourne angled a masterful punt that skipped low off the turf and hopped out of bounds at the Deering 3-yard line.
On first down, Ross tossed a short pass to the right sideline that was tipped by Deering senior Travis Wade and hung up long enough for Cheverus senior Joe Falconieri to make a diving interception at the Deering 16.
The Rams’ defense, which came alive in the second half and was dealing out plenty of big hits, held their ground for three plays, but on fourth down, Cheverus junior quarterback Peter Gwilym faked inside to senior running back Matt Ball and snuck around right end to the pylon on a perfectly executed naked bootleg for the score.
Gwilym hit senior tight end Jack Bushey scraping 5 yards deep across the end zone for a huge two-point conversion that pushed the Stags ahead by two scores, 30-21, with 4:27 left in the fourth quarter.
“This is a big rivalry game for both teams,” said Gwilym. “We knew they would be ready and would play aggressive. They made some big plays, but luckily we were able to answer. We like to pound it inside with the run but coach Wolfgram has a great feel for this offense and knows when to switch it up. We have a lot of talented players, so in our own way we’re capable of making big plays.”
Deering took over first-and-10 at its own 31, and promptly drove 41 yards on nine plays to the Cheverus 38-yard line. But on fourth-and-10 with only 2:23 remaining, Ross was intercepted for the fourth time in the game and Cheverus had finally prevailed in a rivalry game between two schools separated by just a few blocks on Stevens Avenue.
“We hung tough like we have done all year,” said Wolfgram. “Deering is a fast team with a lot of athletes. They got ahead but we came back and made some plays. We’re really proud of how this team has played all season.”
Cheverus took advantage of five Deering turnovers, two that led directly to touchdowns, in a game that matched a pair of teams with remarkably contrasting styles on offense. Gwilym took 71 snaps from scrimmage on offense, rushing six times on his own and handing off 45 other times to a trio of running backs.
The Stags piled up 314 yards of total offense, with Ball, senior Matt Place, sophomore Spencer Cooke and Gwilym combining for 241 yards rushing, including all four scores.
Place, considered the Stags’ top runner, has struggled to stay on the field this fall, missing nearly half the season with several injuries. After gaining 53 yards on 15 carries in the first half, Place didn’t return for the second half and boarded the bus on crutches with an undisclosed injury. Place left the Windham game in Week Two at halftime with a back contusion and missed the rest of that game and the next two.
Luckily for Cheverus, Ball is more than capable of stepping in, rushing for 66 yards on 16 carries, including three touchdowns runs of 1 yard each in the first, second and fourth quarter, with his final score finishing off a 15-play, 84-yard march that chewed up 7:45 of the game clock. The Stags took over with 4:44 left in the third, successfully converted three times on fourth down, and finally punched it in with 9:32 remaining in the fourth.
For his efforts, Ball earned co-MVP honors with Gwilym and took home the annual Charles White Award as the Stags most outstanding player in the Deering game.
With Place missing large chunks of the regular season, Cooke has emerged as an outstanding tailback that serves as a nice change of pace to Ball’s more smashmouth, inside the tackles style.
Cooke has decent speed and great instincts to the outside, often stretching plays that appear stuffed into big gains on the edge. Cooke rushed four times in the first half, but took a bigger role after intermission with 10 carries to finish with 71 yards for the game.
Gwilym put together another excellent game for the Stags, completing 8-of-16 pass attempts for a modest 73 yards, while rushing for 51 yards, including his touchdown and a tough two-point conversion after the Stags second score.
As the quarterback of the defense from his safety position, Gwilym picked off three Ross passes and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for Cheverus.
Deering, a football program that’s been able to maintain excellence for several seasons in a row based largely on its ability to control the game with its running attack, went to the ground only 13 times in this game. The Rams amassed 271 yards of total offense from scrimmage, but only 48 of them in the running game. Ross rushed for 32 of the Rams yards, and finished 14-for-31 for 223 yards and three touchdowns through the air. In fact, only 16 of the Rams total yards were not directly supplied by Ross. The news was not all good for Ross, who was picked four times and fumbled with time running out on the Rams (who finished 2-6) and just over a minute to play.
Hardy was impressive at wide receiver, grabbing eight catches for 171 yards and a pair of touchdowns, both scores coming on the streak play down the sideline.
Deering coach Greg Stilphen had very little to offer about the game or a senior class that graduates after making strong contributions to the Rams success the last four seasons, including last year’s undefeated regular season. Stilphen said the Rams’ “didn’t execute” and that he needs to “coach better,” before asking the media present “are we done?”
The Rams are indeed done this year, but next year they should improve and climb back in the mix with Ross returning at quarterback for his senior season.