Believe it: It's Cheverus, in a rout; Stags advance to Western A Final with stunning, decisive 36-7 win at TA
SACO —The Cheverus football team is on the radar now.
Expected to be a bit player in host Thornton Academy's anticipated march to the championship, the Stags stole the show Saturday afternoon at Hill Stadium, dominating for 48 minutes behind a stellar, opportunistic defense and a potent rushing attack as they cruised to a 36-7 victory in a Western Class A semifinal round contest, setting up a regional final date at Windham this weekend.
Cheverus improved to 8-2 and might finally be turning heads for good.
"We talked about blowing up the radar and we did," said Stags coach John Wolfgram. "We don't care about being under the radar. We have some really competitive kids who play hard and compete."
Not just happy to be there
The Stags made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons last fall and went 5-4, then improved again this season. A Week 2 upset win over preseason favorite Windham set the tone and Cheverus wound up going 6-2 to earn the No. 4 seed for the playoffs. After blanking No. 4 Biddeford 21-0 in the quarterfinals, the Stags made the trip to undefeated, top-ranked Thornton Academy, which had no trouble with No. 8 Massabesic in its quarterfinal.
Cheverus split its two previous playoff meetings with the Golden Trojans (winning 28-19 in the 1996 quarterfinals and falling 36-6 in the 1991 quarterfinal round).
This time around, the Stags dazzled.
After Cheverus won the opening coin toss and deferred possession to the second half, Thornton Academy gained a first down on a 15-yard scamper from senior quarterback Steve Trask, but a sack by Stags senior Jon White forced a punt and Cheverus got its first chance with the ball.
After junior quarterback Peter Gwilym ran for 28 yards on first down, Cheverus faced third-and-seven at the Golden Trojans' 45. On the pivotal play of the game, Gwilym ran right and barreled into Trask, gaining three yards. Thornton Academy's defense had held and forced a punt, but Trask was knocked out of the game with a concussion and wouldn't return. The Stags took advantage of his absence and seized control.
With junior Josh Woodward in at quarterback for the Golden Trojans, the hosts went three-and-out and had to punt, but a bad snap led to the ball being recovered by the punter in the end zone for a safety, which put Cheverus on top to stay, 2-0, with 5:51 to play in the first period.
The Stags immediately took over at their 45 and drove for their first touchdown. It took 10 plays to march 55 yards. Cheverus used all five spokes in its rushing attack as seniors Matt Ball and Matt Place, Gwilym, junior Evan Jendrasko and sophomore Spencer Cooke matriculated the ball down the field. Ball capped the drive with a 1-yard TD burst with 57.8 seconds to play in the first. Sophomore Cameron Olsen added the point-after and it was 9-0 Stags.
On Thornton Academy's second play of its next series, Woodward was intercepted by junior Liam Hobbins and Cheverus had great field position as the first quarter gave way to the second.
The Stags first drive of the second period stalled at the Thornton Academy 24. The Golden Trojans went three-and-out and tried a fake punt, but the punter was brought down by Cooke short of the first down, giving Cheverus the ball at the Golden Trojans' 25.
On first down, Jendrasko raced up the middle untouched for a 25-yard score. Olsen added the extra point and with 8:59 left in the first half, the Stags had a 16-0 advantage.
Two series later, Cheverus marched 84 yards on nine plays for a backbreaking score. A 22-yard run by Gwilym got it started. Gwilym and Olsen then hooked up for a 21-yard pass. After a 16-yard run from Cooke got them close, Gwilym threw a pretty 8-yard TD pass to Cooke with 19.9 seconds remaining in a better-than-dreamed-of first half. Olsen's extra point was no good, but Cheverus had a commanding 22-0 lead at the break.
The Stags outgained the Golden Trojans 207-42 in the first half and dominated on both sides of the ball.
Any comeback hopes Thornton Academy might have entertained were quickly dashed in the second half.
Cheverus had the ball first and appeared en route to another score as Cooke ran for 15 and 13 yards and Jendrasko picked up 19. But the drive stalled and the Stags had to punt from the Golden Trojans' 40.
Special teams disaster struck again for the hosts as Olsen's punt was muffed by Thornton Academy senior Tim Grose. The ball rolled into the end zone and Jendrasko fell on it for a touchdown.
"Cam kicked a great punt, he tried to fair catch it, but it went off his fingertips and I went to try and pin it on the one, but it went in, so I fell on it," said Jendrasko.
Olsen's extra point made it 29-0 with 9:08 left in the third and effectively ended the competitive phase of the game.
After the teams traded punts, the Golden Trojans moved into Cheverus territory, but an interception by junior Zach Dulac ended the threat. The Stags punted the ball away again, but Cheverus' defense rose up and forced the hosts to turn the ball over on downs. After the Stags gave the ball back on downs, their defense accounted for their final touchdown as Gwilym intercepted Woodward at the Thornton Academy 24 and returned it for a score.
"I saw a crease and I took it to the house," Gwilym said.
Olsen's extra point made it 36-0 with 5:26 to play.
The hosts drove 37 yards in four plays to finally get on the board (Woodward threw a 10-yard TD to junior Dimitri Skinsacos on a shovel pass) with 4:20 left, but after an on-sides kick, an interception by senior James Rutter got the ball back and Cheverus ran out the clock on its shocking 36-7 victory.
"It's kind of been a recurring theme all year, but we had confidence in ourselves coming in," Gwilym said. "That's all you really need. We came out with a bang and finished strong. We had great play by the offensive line. We had great play calling by coach Wolfgram. He really knows how to do that. We have great chemistry and work hard in practice."
"We want to control the line of scrimmage and control the pace of the game," Wolfgram added. "We hope to have sound special teams and defense and we did. No question losing Trask changed the game. I thought our defense was very stout anyways. I thought we were opportunistic also. We made some nice plays in the kick game too."
Cheverus finished with a 310-213 edge in offense. The Stags rushed for 299 yards. Cooke led the way with 113 yards on 15 carries (he also had the 8-yard TD reception). Jendrasko gained 87 yards (with a TD) on 11 attempts. Gwilym rushed for 69 yards on 11 carries and was 2-for-3 passing for 29 yards (with a score).
"Jendrasko was all over the field today," Wolfgram said. "He's a good player. Gwilym too. He's a pretty good player, too."
Place had 23 yards on seven tries and Ball gained 7 yards (with a TD) on five carries. Olsen had one catch for 19 yards and kicked four extra points.
The Stags forced five turnovers and had a pair of sacks.
The last time Cheverus reached the regional final was 1990, when the Stags lost 21-0 to Biddeford. Friday night or Saturday afternoon, Cheverus will go to No. 2 Windham (9-1). The Eagles' lone loss came Sept. 12, 27-13 at the Stags. The teams have never met in the postseason.
Cheverus will likely enter the game as the underdog, but anyone writing off this time at this point in the year will likely be surprised yet again.
"We have another step to take," Wolfgram said.
"The next test is the most important one," Jendrasko added. "We play each game like it's the Super Bowl, it doesn't matter who we play. We'll go out and give it our all."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org