Cheverus edges Deering in epic regional final
PORTLAND—This one will be talked about for a while.
Cheverus, after squandering a 23-point first-half lead, scored the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds left and captured its first Western Maine football championship in 25 years Saturday with a 35-34 win over Deering, as the Rams’ potential game-winning field goal attempt sailed just wide in the final seconds.
The top-seeded Stags (11-0) move on to face Bangor (10-1) for the Class A state title next Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium. The teams have no playoff history.
Cheverus won its one and only state championship in 1985, trouncing Lewiston, 65-13. A year ago, the Stags fell in the Western Maine championship to Windham, 7-6, the eventual state champion.
No. 3 Deering wraps up the year at 8-3.
It was a wild and hard-fought game that featured turnovers galore, numerous big plays, and a bit of controversy.
And it wasn’t over until Deering senior standout Jamie Ross’ 36-yard field goal attempt went just wide to the left, leaving less than a second on the clock, which the Stags ran out by taking a knee.
“That was a great football game,” said Deering coach Greg Stilphen. “I can’t say enough about my players, the way Cheverus played, the way we played. You can’t ask more than that. I’m proud of my players and what they did handling adversity. Earlier on, we would have just crumbled.”
To set up the field goal try, Ross connected with junior Renaldo Lowry for a 43-yard completion on third down, bringing the Rams down to the Cheverus 19 with 6.9 seconds left. Deering had taken over at its own 38 with 25 seconds remaining in the game. The play before Lowry’s catch, Ross barely overshot senior John Hardy — who had the defense beat — on a deep pass as the estimated 4,000-plus fans gathered on the Boulos Stadium hillside held their collective breath.
Deering scored two touchdowns in 68 seconds to take a 34-29 lead with 7:38 left in the game, but Cheverus answered with a season-saving 80-yard scoring drive that lasted over seven minutes and required 16 plays.
Senior quarterback Peter Gwilym got the bulk of the carries on the drive, but also sprinkled in some timely throws, hitting junior Louis DiStasio for a 19-yard gain and finding senior Jack Bushey for seven, which set up Evan Jendrasko’s 1-yard touchdown plow to put Cheverus back on top for good with 30 seconds left. The two-point try failed.
“The last drive felt incredible,” said Jendrasko. “It was probably the most nerve-wracking and tense moment I’ve ever been a part of in my life. I’m just grateful we were able to pull it out and go all the way, which has been our goal since August.”
It was Jendrasko’s second TD of the game. He finished with 52 yards on 18 carries, but also had a pair of fumbles that the Rams recovered.
“I had to redeem myself,” he said. “I had two fumbles. I thought I played a horrible game. I got the ball and had to help my team anyway I could.”
Earlier in the series, Gwilym appeared to score on a Michael Vick-esque run, but had the touchdown negated by a holding penalty near the end of the play. From the Deering 38, Gwilym rolled out to the right. Under pressure from the Deering defense and with the sideline fast approaching, Gwilym looked to have two choices: get sacked or throw the ball away. He chose neither, instead finding a slim seam along the sideline to escape the chasing defenders, then cutting back completely across the field, spinning and shedding would-be tacklers until he reached the goal line. The penalty brought the ball back to the Deering 23.
“Peter — all game, every game he plays in — does a phenomenal job,” Jendrasko said. “He’s a workhorse. He’s an animal. He’ll look like he’s got nothing left, but he still has so much to give to this team. He’s a real leader.”
Deering, which lost to Cheverus 44-14, when the teams met in the regular season finale, trailed 29-12 at halftime, but struck first in the second half. The Rams forced the Stags to punt on their first two possessions of the third quarter and took over at the Cheverus 41 after the second one. Six plays later, Ross ran in from 5 yards out, then hit Hardy for a two-point conversion to make it 29-20 with 3:06 left in the third.
Ross finished with 93 yards on 18 carries, including two touchdowns. He also was 26-for-50 passing for 372 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Cheverus fumbled on its next play, with Deering senior John Miranda recovering at the Cheverus 27. Two runs by Ross got the Rams to the 15, but Stags senior linebacker Zach Dulac came up with an interception on the next play to stall the Rams, at least temporarily.
“I’m a linebacker,” Dulac said. “I don’t usually drop back into coverage too much, but I managed to work my way back there. I just saw the ball and was lucky enough to catch it.”
Jendrasko ran the ball three straight times to pick up a first down, but fumbled on the next play, with Miranda again recovering at the Cheverus 29 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Seven plays later — all rushes — Ross ran in from two yards out and added the PAT, making it 29-27 with 8:46 left.
The Stags took over at their own 30. After an incompletion and short rushing gain, Hardy picked off Gwilym and returned it to the Cheverus 9, setting up first-and-goal. Ross found junior Nick DiBiase for a 9-yard scoring pass, added the kick and gave Deering a 34-29 lead with 7:38 left.
The Rams had scored 28 unanswered points before Jendrasko’s final TD.
“They’re a dynamic team,” Wolfgram said, of Deering. “They move the ball so fast. Ross is a really good quarterback, and they have three receivers. They just have a dynamic offense. We tried to keep the ball away from them, but we couldn’t move the ball well enough.”
Deering piled up 346 yards of offense in the first half (and outgained Cheverus 501-317 for the game), but had four turnovers in the opening 24 minutes, three of which led to Cheverus touchdowns.
The Rams had the ball to start and went to the air right away. Ross hit Hardy for 38 yards and Lowry for 27 to set up first-and-goal at the 9. Three plays later, Ross found Lowry on the goal line over the middle for an 8-yard touchdown. The kick failed and Deering led 6-0 with 9:29 left in the first quarter.
Cheverus answered quickly as junior Spencer Cooke busted through a hole in the middle of the line and outran the defense for a 71-yard touchdown with 7:52 left. DiStasio added the kick to give the Stags a 7-6 lead.
An interception by sophomore Ryan Casale set the Stags up at the Deering 17, and Jendrasko ran it in for the score from 7 yards out on third down. With the kick, Cheverus led 14-6 midway through the first quarter.
Ross led the Rams downfield on their next series, but Gwilym picked off a pass in the end zone on third-and-8 from the Stags 22. Gwilym returned it 105 yards, zagging and breaking tackles on his lengthy touchdown journey.
“That was big,” Wolfgram said. “It was a game of emotion swings. It was a game of momentum swings. That was big, but there were other big ones, too. Peter just made some great plays.”
After the game, Stilphen contended that Gwilym stepped out of bounds well before he reached the end zone.
“Football should never come down to excuses, but you know what, on that touchdown run, (Gwilym) stepped out of bounds twice and the official flat-out blew it,” Stilphen said. “That’s inexcusable in a Western Maine final. You’re here because you’re good at what you do. Everybody makes mistakes — the first one I could see, but the second time he was out by a foot. It wasn’t even close.”
After the return, Jendrasko ran in for two as a Deering penalty halved the distance to the goal, and the Stags led 22-6 with 1:41 left in the first quarter.
Cheverus went up 29-6 with 10:41 left in the half as Gwilym hit DiStasio on a crossing pattern for a 37-yard touchdown, coming one play after a Deering fumble that Dulac pounced on.
The rout appeared to be on, especially after a punt by Gwilym was downed by Jendrasko inside the Deering 1. But Ross threw to Lowry for eight yards from his own end zone, then hit Lowry again seven plays later down the left sideline for a 61-yard scoring strike with 2:07 left. The score was 29-12, which it stayed until halftime.
The Rams, who advanced to the regional finals with impressive wins over No. 6 Thornton Academy (56-18) and No. 2 Bonny Eagle (28-6), regrouped at halftime and turned in a spirited effort that made last season’s 2-6 campaign seem eons ago.
“We just told them at halftime, ‘No regrets. Go out there and play,’” Stilphen said. “And they did. We put ourselves in a situation where we had a chance, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
Dulac, who admitted to being “terrified” as he watched Ross’ final kick, praised the effort of Deering — an opponent Cheverus manhandled just a few weeks before.
“I just want to say how well those kids played,” Dulac said. “I grew up with those kids from Portland. Obviously I’m glad to win, but that one could have gone either way. We didn’t come out hard enough in the second half. They stalled us on drives.”
Despite their undefeated record, the Stags are no strangers to nail-biters. They had to rally to defeat No. 8 Windham in the quarterfinals, 34-27, and edged No. 5 Scarborough in the semifinals, 21-14. There were also close calls in the regular season against Portland and Bonny Eagle.
“We’re a mature team,” Dulac said. “We know not to get too down on ourselves. There’s always time to play. We keep repeating 48 minutes because there’s 48 minutes in a ballgame. I think that’s a perfect example of it right there.”
While this Cheverus team may not be the most dominant team Wolfgram has coached during his illustrious career that has included state championships at numerous schools, he said they simply never quit.
“They play hard for 48 minutes,” Wolfgram said. “They compete and they’re resilient, and they’re just really good kids.”
Gwilym carried 18 times for 95 yards. He was 5-for-10 passing for 78 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Cooke rushed for 92 yards on eight carries.
“Congratulations to Cheverus,” Stilphen said. “They did a great job. I wish Coach Wolfgram and his team the best of luck. I think the most of him. He’s a mentor to me, a friend to me.”
While Deering’s season has to be considered a success by any measure, the sting of what could have been will likely linger for the Rams, who will graduate some talented seniors, including Ross, a Fitzpatrick Trophy contender, who has put up staggering numbers this season both on the ground and in the air.
“My seniors — I love them,” Stilphen said. “They’ve made me be a better person.”