SACO—On 299 previous occasions, legendary coach John Wolfgram celebrated a gridiron victory.
It’s safe to say that number 300 will never be forgotten.
In a game that will live in legend as long as Maine schoolboys strap on pads and helmets, Cheverus, a team believed by many to be past its prime, went to seemingly unbeatable Thornton Academy Saturday afternoon and in protracted and impressive fashion, made a powerful and entertaining statement.
That these Stags are in this for the long haul and if they’ve been formidable as a favorite in recent seasons, they’re downright magical as an underdog.
Cheverus, two weeks removed from a stunningly decisive four-touchdown home loss to Windham, paid a visit to a squad which hadn’t won by less than six touchdowns in its five emphatic victories.
When the Golden Trojans jumped to a quick 14-0 lead, the expectations by many of a blowout appeared to be validated, but the Stags had Thornton Academy right where they wanted it.
A long touchdown run from senior standout Joe Fitzpatrick gave Cheverus life. After the Golden Trojans again went up by two scores, emerging star junior back Justin Johnston had a long scoring run of his own and after forcing a turnover, the Stags drew even when senior behemoth Zordan Holman rode a jawdropping individual move to a touchdown reception.
Thornton Academy went back on top, 27-20, on a long touchdown pass which brought one of the most amazing first quarters you’ll ever see to a close, but early in the second period, Fitzpatrick broke free for another long TD run and the game was tied anew.
The offensive fireworks would cease in the second quarter, but the Golden Trojans did score once more for a 34-27 advantage.
After a scoreless third period, which lulled the over 4,000 fans in attendance into thinking the game would have an orderly and calm ending, Cheverus capped an impressive drive with a Johnston scoring run to tie the score again, 34-34.
After neither team was able to win it in regulation, it was on to overtime, where the squads’ lack of separation continued.
Thornton Academy scored a TD on its opportunity, but in a microcosm of the game, the Stags would rise to the challenge and answer on their chance, as Johnston scored from the 1 to force a second overtime.
There, Cheverus went first and on the first play, Fitzpatrick scored on a 10-yard run.
The Golden Trojans then had a chance to answer and tie, or even win, but the Stags stiffened defensively and when McCrum’s fourth down pass sailed long, Cheverus could at last celebrate one of the finest regular season triumphs in its history, 48-41.
The Stags improved to 5-1, dropped Thornton Academy to 5-1 in the process and in conjunction with Portland’s upset of Windham Saturday, completely threw everything we thought we knew about Class A football into disarray.
“It was just a great football game,” said Wolfgram, who clung to his wife of over four decades, Adin, amid the postgame bedlam, in perhaps less of a demonstration of love than the need for someone to hold him up, considering he was so emotionally spent. “That’s what high school football is all about. Two good teams playing hard and clean, responding in difficult times. I’ve never been prouder of a group of kids than this group. It’s a scrappy group. I’m really, really pleased.”
Cheverus and Thornton Academy spent most of the first decade of the new millennium not squaring off, but that changed in 2009, when the Stags went to Saco and pulled off a stunning (in its decisiveness) 36-7 upset victory in the semifinals. Two years later, the Golden Trojans looked to return the favor in the Western A Final in Portland, but a second half surge gave Cheverus a 21-10 triumph and the Stags went on to their second straight Class A state championship.
On Oct. 13, 2012, the Stags went to Saco and prevailed, 28-14, but it was more than just any old victory. The win tied the state record for consecutive victories (31). Cheverus would extend that streak to 34 before a rematch with the Golden Trojans in Portland in the regional final and this time, Thornton Academy had the last laugh, 20-13, as it went on to take the championship.
Last fall, the undermanned Golden Trojans were no match for the host Stags and Cheverus romped, 56-7.
This season began with both teams on the short list of title hopefuls and while the Stags have only stumbled once, Thornton Academy has been a juggernaut.
Cheverus had no trouble with visiting rival Portland in its opener, winning going away, 41-3. The Stags then romped at Lewiston (50-0) and at Oxford Hills (38-0) before falling from the unbeaten ranks with a 35-7 home loss to Windham. Last week, Cheverus got back on track with a 41-7 victory at Edward Little.
The Golden Trojans, meanwhile, hadn’t won a game by less than 41 points. After dominating visiting South Portland in the opener (47-6), Thornton Academy blanked visiting Noble (73-0) and host Scarborough (54-0) before winning at Sanford (48-7) and at home over Massabesic (62-0).
Saturday, the Golden Trojans started out as if they were en route to another romp, but Cheverus answered and the game went on and on and on.
The Stags couldn’t do anything on their first drive and Thornton Academy quickly took the lead.
McCrum got the Golden Trojans close with a couple completions to senior Kevin Barrett and with 8:21 to go in the opening stanza, out of the “Wildcat” formation, sophomore Michael Laverriere bulled in from the 6. Sophomore Cameron Cadorette added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Things then went from bad to worse for Cheverus, when junior quarterback Isaac Dunn was intercepted by Thornton Academy junior Ben Lambert.
That set up the Golden Trojans at the Stags’ 36 and on first down, McCrum hit junior Corey Hart for 34 yards to the 2 and on the next snap, junior Owen Elliott bulled in for the touchdown. Cadorette added the PAT and it looked like Thornton Academy was on its way to another blowout, leading, 14-0, with 5:46 to play in the quarter.
Then, quickly and dramatically, Cheverus punched back.
After being held in check to that point, Fitzpatrick took a handoff at the Stags’ 46, found a hole and outran the pursuit to the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown to give his team life. Junior placekicker Patrick Mourmouras had his extra point blocked, but the deficit had been cut to 14-6.
The Golden Trojans immediately restored their two-touchdown bulge when McCrum found a wide open Hart down the middle for a 53-yard pass and run. Cadorette missed the extra point and the score was 20-6.
The first period scoring wasn’t close to finished.
On the first play of Cheverus’ next drive, Johnston first made his mark as he broke through the Thornton Academy line and secondary and didn’t stop until he reached paydirt for a 54-yard score. Mourmouras added the PAT and with 2:45 to go in the first, the Stags trailed, 20-13.
Then, Cheverus’ defense stepped up for the first time, forcing Elliott to fumble and pouncing on the loose football at the Golden Trojans’ 23.
After three plays only gained three yards, Wolfgram went for it on fourth down and it paid off, as Dunn’s short pass to Holman was turned into a touchdown after Holman eluded one defender, picked up the first down and continued on until he crossed the goal line.
“I like to catch the ball,” Holman said. “I like to block. I’ll do whatever Coach asks me to do. It was just a quick pass, the quarterback got me the ball. The offensive line did a great job picking up the blitz. We just executed a great football play.”
“Zordan’s a big boy,” Johnston said. “He can go up and get it.”
With 23 seconds left, Mourmouras’ extra point tied the game, 20-20.
That had to be it for first period scoring, right?
Well, as it turned out, 23 seconds was an eternity.
From the Thornton Academy 40, McCrum dropped back and hit Lambert, who broke free down the left side and wasn’t stopped. His 60-yard score, followed by a Cadorette PAT, gave the Golden Trojans a 27-20 advantage with 4.1 seconds still to play in the wildest first quarter in memory.
There would be no more scoring in the first, but a mere 54 seconds into the second period, the Stags answered again, as Fitzpatrick got loose and scored from 67 yards out. Mourmouras’ kick tied the game at 27-27.
This time, Thornton Academy didn’t go back on top, as a bad snap short-circuited its next drive and for the first time, the Golden Trojans punted.
Cheverus took over at the Thornton Academy 47, but its bid to take the lead for the first time was stymied, when three runs gained only seven yards and Wolfgram elected to punt. Fitzpatrick’s punt pinned the Golden Trojans at their 10, but they would rediscover their firepower and march for the go-ahead touchdown.
It took 11 plays and 4 minutes, 31 seconds to traverse 90 yards, but Thornton Academy managed to do so.
An 11-yard run by Elliott, a 17-yard pass from McCrum to Lambert, a clutch 14-yard McCrum to Hart hookup on third-and-10 and a 30-yard McCrum to Hart completion on the next play set the stage for Laverriere to score on a 4-yard run with 1:52 left in the half. Cadorette added the PAT for a 34-27 lead.
The Stags hoped to answer before the half, but after a highlight reel 36-yard run by Fitzpatrick put the ball at the Golden Trojans’ 34, Dunn was sacked and called for intentional grounding as well. After an incomplete pass, Fitzpatrick ran for 21 yards on the final play of the half, but he was stopped 26 yards shy of the goal line and Cheverus trailed at the break, 34-27.
In the first 24 minutes, Thornton Academy produced 317 yards of offense (252 coming on McCrum’s 10 completions) to 273 for the Stags (who were paced by 175 rushing yards from Fitzpatrick).
Not surprisingly, neither team was able to keep the onslaught going on offense in the second half and it soon became clear that the game was going to go down to the wire.
And then some.
The Golden Trojans got the ball to start the second half and moved into Cheverus territory on McCrum completions to Barrett (for 10 yards) and Lambert (for 15 on a screen), but on second-and-9 from the 39, McCrum tasted adversity for the first time, as he was intercepted by Stags junior Kenny Drelich, who returned it 22 yards to the Stags’ 38.
That sparked the Cheverus offense, which would march for the tying score.
On the final play of the third period, Johnston ran for seven yards. He got it again to start the fourth quarter and gained two. Fitzpatrick then picked up the first down with a two-yard push. After Johnston was thrown for a one-yard loss, Dunn hit Holman for eight into Thornton Academy territory and Fitzpatrick ran for five more to move the chains. After a five-yard run by senior Liam LaFountain, a six-yard Johnston run picked up another first down. Johnston moved the chains again with an 11-yard pickup, but after Johnston ran for five, two Fitzpatrick rushes lost two yards and that set up fourth-and-7 from the 14.
Again, Wolfgram rolled the dice and went for it and again, he called the number of his most formidable receiver, Holman.
Dunn hit Holman a few yards short of the marker, but Holman lowered his head and wouldn’t be denied, picking up eight yards for a first-and-goal from the 6.
“It’s a go-to play,” Holman said. “I caught the ball and I knew what the distance was. I had to get to the sticks and I knew we’d punch it in from there.”
That set the stage for Johnston, who scored up the middle for a 6-yard TD run and with 5:25 to play, Mourmouras tied the score, 34-34, with an extra point.
“We had to keep our legs trucking,” Johnston said. “We ended up getting in the end zone.”
Both teams would have a chance to win it in regulation, but after so many offensive fireworks, weren’t able to do so.
Lambert almost took the ensuing kickoff to the house, but Holman (the kicker) saved a touchdown with a clutch tackle. Still, the Golden Trojans had the ball at their 42 and a 10-yard run by Laverriere moved the ball into Stags’ territory. Three rushes gained nine yards, setting up fourth-and-1 from the 33 and instead of turning to Elliott or Laverriere to move the chains, Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal elected to keep the ball in the hands of McCrum, but his deep throw to Barrett was broken up by Drelich and Cheverus got the ball back with 2:18 to go.
The Stags couldn’t generate a threat, however, as Johnston was thrown for a four-yard loss by Golden Trojans senior Jimmy Remmes and after LaFountain ran for six, Fitzpatrick was taken down by senior C.J. Michaud for a three-yard loss, forcing a punt.
With 45.9 seconds left, Thornton Academy got the ball at its 36, but after two incompletions, the Golden Trojans ran the ball into the line and decided to take their chances in overtime.
In Maine high school football overtime, each team gets an opportunity to run a series from the opponent’s 10-yard line. If the game remains tied, another overtime is played until a winner is decided.
This one was so good that one OT wouldn’t produce resolution.
The hosts got the ball first and on first down, snapped the ball to Laverriere, who ran for three and had his facemask yanked in the process, moving the ball half the distance to the goal. On the next snap, from the 3, junior Greg Ruff got the ball and beat the defense to the left pylon for the touchdown. Cadorette added the extra point and the Golden Trojans not only had their first points since the second quarter, they also had a 41-34 lead.
Cheverus had to answer or its valiant effort would have been for naught and these Stags weren’t about to come this far with nothing to show for it.
Johnston ran for three yards on first down and Fitzpatrick gained five on second. On the next play, Fitzpatrick only gained one, but a facemask penalty allowed the visitors to repeat third down and this time, Johnston managed to fight his way across the goal line. Mourmouras’ critical PAT split the uprights and the first overtime ended with the teams still tied, 41-41.
Cheverus then went on offense first in the second OT and it took just one play to find paydirt.
Not surprisingly, Fitzpatrick got the job done, breaking through and scoring from 10 yards out to give the Stags their first lead of the game. Mourmouras drilled the extra point and all the pressure shifted to the home sideline.
The state’s most prolific offense needed 10 yards to keep an undefeated season alive, but Cheverus’ defense stood tall.
Laverriere ran for two-yards, then for one. On third down, McCrum tried to pass to Hart, but Stags junior Dan Baker broke it up.
The game came down to one final play.
McCrum dropped back and under pressure from a blitzing Fitzpatrick, threw to the left corner of the end zone. Barrett was there, but he was blanketed and McCrum’s throw sailed high and out of harm’s way.
“We got to play some bonus football today,” Holman said. “How great was that? A nice fall day. Being backed up at our 10, that’s a gut check, that’s a pride check. You find your manhood there. We executed when it mattered.”
At 6:11 p.m. after 2 hours and 41 minutes of unforgettable football, Cheverus had one of the most inspirational wins in its storied history, 48-41, in double overtime.
The Stags’ student section rushed the field and for a split second, before security broke up the party, Cheverus celebrated as if it had won a championship.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Johnston said. “I’ve never played in a game like this before. I’m just so glad we won. We knew what everyone was saying about us and we weren’t going to let it keep us down. We knew how tough (Thornton Academy) was. We didn’t worry about being behind. We kept bouncing back and stayed with them and eventually we wore them down. We were very confident going into overtime. It was just the best game.”
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere,” Holman said. “It was great. It was unbelievable. It was amazing. Words can’t describe a win like that. It was just great to be a part of. We had to play with Stags character. We play with heart and we play with grit. Our mantra is 48 minutes of football. We knew they’d come out and throw hay-makers and they caught us on the chin with a few of them. We picked ourselves up and one play at a time, came up with the win. We had to keep answering the bell. I didn’t expect the student section to come out there. I was trying to get us out to the 50 to line up and congratulate Thornton on playing a great game.”
“It was back and forth,” Wolfgram added. “No give in either team. Both teams hung tough. They would score and we would score. We’ll play hard against everybody. Even when we had the tough loss, we hung tough. It wasn’t from a lack of effort, but that’s gone.
“They have a very good goal line offense and I knew it would be very difficult on the goal line (in overtime), but we hung tough. We’re very fortunate to win.”
After gaining 273 yards in the first half, the Stags managed just 94 in the second half and overtime, but it was enough.
Fitzpatrick wound up with 195 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries. Johnston had his most impactful game to date, rushing for 114 yards and scoring three times on 19 attempts.
“Me and Joe and Liam have to hand it to our line,” Johnston said. “Unfortunately, we lost (senior captain) Matt O’Leary (out until the playoffs with a torn labrum, only to step into the lead cheerleader role Saturday), but (senior) Zach Handley stepped in. I think they did a great job.”
Johnston’s effort turned heads.
“Justin’s a very good player, offensively and defensively,” Holman said. “He’s played great football for us.”
“Justin played really well,” Wolfgram said. “He’s a very good player. It’s hard hold blocks on them for a long time because they’re so good, so we had to go to quick hitting types of things. He’s only four yards from the line of scrimmage and he’s quicker than Joe. He ran really well. He’s a heck of a competitor. He gets beaten up. He’s only 175 (pounds).”
Dunn completed 4-of-5 passes for 41 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Holman had three key receptions for 36 yards and a score.
“Joe did what he does, Isaac made some plays and the line played really well,” Wolfgram said. “We just played our game.”
For Thornton Academy, which had 430 yards of offense, McCrum ended up 15-of-22 for 303 yards (although only 51 came after halftime), two touchdowns and a game-changing interception.
The Golden Trojans certainly had the respect of the Stags.
“McCrum’s a very good player,” Holman said. “Every guy on their roster is very good.”
“(McCrum’s) a great quarterback,” Johnston said. “They’re a great team. One of the best in the state and we loved giving them a challenge.”
Hart caught five balls for 142 yards and a TD, Lambert had five receptions for 96 yards and a score and Barrett had five catches for 65 yards.
Wolfgram has won games in the September sun, in the October slop and with snowflakes flying in November. He won when his postgame entourage included just a handful of trusty assistants and his wife and more recently he’s won when the postgame festivities included his boisterous grandchildren running around the field in celebration.
Wolfgram won long forgotten laughers and 10 games which produced Gold Ball celebrations. He won games leading the Tigers of Gardiner, the Bulldogs of Madison, the Red Riots of South Portland and since 2006, the Stags of Cheverus.
There was no advance notice that Wolfgram was on the brink of a milestone. Long recognized as the state’s gold standard, the coach is loathe to talk about himself and about records and that rang true again Saturday.
“I didn’t even know (about the milestone),” said Wolfgram. “I didn’t want to know.”
He may not have wanted to discuss it, but his players were happy to do so.
“He’s an amazing coach,” Johnston said. “It’s an honor playing for him.”
“Words are hard to describe it,” Holman said. “You see the victories and the success he’s had everywhere he’s gone, but unless you play for him, you don’t know how great a coach and teacher he is and how much he loves the game of football. We all look at him as a friend. He’s got our best interests at heart. Even outside of football, academics, everything. He’s a high character man. I’m proud to play for him.”
The teams could play again Nov. 22 in the Class A Final, but that is far from a certainty, as if we learned anything from Saturday’s result, it’s that we know absolutely nothing about what the next several weeks will bring.
The Golden Trojans (now second to Bonny Eagle in the Western Class A Crabtree Points standings) will have a showdown at the defending state champion Scots (5-1) Friday night before closing the regular season at Biddeford.
The Stags (now tied for first with Windham in Eastern A) will be pushed Saturday when 5-1 Bangor pays a visit. Cheverus then welcomes Deering in the finale Oct. 25.
“We have to keep getting better,” Johnston said. “We’ll prepare for Bangor, then Deering. We know we don’t have to be undefeated to win a championship.”
“We’re not done yet,” Holman said. “We’ll try to go get another win against Bangor. There are a lot of teams and a lot of good coaches out there. It’s going to come down to who’s playing the best football in November.”
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” Wolfgram added. “The kids believe in what we’re doing.”
Cheverus junior Dan Baker breaks up a pass intended for Thornton Academy senior Kevin Barrett.
Cheverus senior Joe Fitzpatrick finds some running room.
Cheverus senior Patrick Mourmouras drills an extra point out of the hold of senior Liam LaFountain.
Western A Final
@ Cheverus 21 Thornton Academy 10
Western A semifinals
Cheverus 36 @ Thornton Academy 7
Framed against the setting sun, the scoreboard tells the story of a glorious game that won’t soon be forgotten.
Photo courtesy Nicole Clark.
Cheverus senior Joe Fitzpatrick is congratulated by junior Frank Curran after a touchdown run during the Stags’ come-from-behind, 48-41 double overtime win at Thornton Academy Saturday.
Derek Carpine photos.
More photos below.
C- 20 7 0 7 7 7- 48
TA- 27 7 0 0 7 0- 41
TA- Laverriere 6 run (Cadorette kick)
TA- Elliott 2 run (Cadorette kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 54 run (kick blocked)
TA- Hart 53 pass from McCrum (kick failed)
C- Johnston 54 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- Holman 20 pass from Dunn (Mourmouras kick)
TA- Lambert 60 pass from McCrum (Cadorette kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 67 run (Mourmouras kick)
TA- Laverriere 4 run (Cadorette kick)
C- Johnston 6 run (Mourmouras kick)
TA- Ruff 3 run (Cadorette kick)
C- Johnston 1 run (Mourmouras kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 10 run (Mourmouras kick)