Twenty-five years in the making, Cheverus wins Class A football title!
PORTLAND—The team that refused to lose secured its destiny with relative ease Saturday afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The Cheverus Stags, one week removed from an epic regional final nailbiter against Deering that wasn't decided until the final seconds, won their first state championship since 1985 going away.
Leading Bangor just 9-8 at halftime, Cheverus put together a ball control offense clinic, saw junior Spencer Cooke explode for four touchdowns and rode yet another superb defensive effort to a 46-8 victory over the Rams in front of an inspiring purple-and-gold-clad vocal throng.
Cooke had just 27 yards on seven carries at halftime, but wound up with 239 on 28 attempts as the Stags reached the Promised Land, capping a 12-0 season.
"We play hard every play and have a lot of heart," said Cooke. "We practice hard, prepare well and it shows on the field. I love these guys."
Long journey back
Cheverus holds the record for the most lopsided victory in a state championship game, a 65-13 romp over Lewiston in 1985. That team was coached by Dick White and featured such names as Sean Ashley, John Bolduc, Scott Dutton, Scott Fitzgerald and Scott Perez.
Unfortunately for the Stags, that was their lone state final appearance prior to this fall.
After some lean years in the middle part of this decade, Cheverus hired legendray coach John Wolfgram in 2006 and returned to contender's status in his third season, 2008, when it went 5-4 and reached the Western A quarterfinals before losing at Bonny Eagle.
Last year, the Stags turned the corner for good and got to the regional final before dropping a 7-6 heartbreaker at Windham in miserable weather conditions.
Cheverus managed to channel the disappointment from that loss into the best season in program history this fall.
The fun began with a 40-6 home romp over Gorham. Next, the Stags avenged their playoff setback with a 28-0 win at Windham. Cheverus rolled to a 3-0 start after pulling away to beat South Portland, 45-21. The first test arrived in Week 4, a 22-19 come-from-behind home victory over Portland. In that one, the Stags were down 19-7 in the fourth period, but in what would become a theme, found a way to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
After a pair of easy road wins, 40-0 at Kennebunk and 35-0 at Westbrook, Cheverus hosted perennial Bonny Eagle in a highly-anticipated showdown of unbeatens Oct. 16. The Stags again rallied from a second half deficit and eked out a 23-20 triumph. Cheverus finished the regular season 8-0 after beating Deering in surprisingly easy fashion, 44-14.
The scares returned in the Western A playoffs, but the top-ranked Stags rose to the occasion every time. First, against No. 8 Windham, they were down 27-14 in the third period, but scored the game's final 20 points to advance, 34-27. The next week, hosting upstart No. 5 Scarbrough, the game was on the line throughout the second half, but Cheverus' offense and defense produced when they needed to, resulting in a 21-14 victory.
Nothing compared to the regional final, which will go down in history as one of the most exciting high school football games in Maine history. The Stags appeared primed to blow out No. 3 Deering again, but the Rams erased a 23-point deficit and took a fourth quarter lead before Cheverus scored with 30 seconds to go and survived a last-second field goal attempt that went just wide to win, 35-34.
Bangor, meanwhile, has been a state final regular. Way back in 1967, in the first Class A Final, the Rams lost, 20-0, to Biddeford. Overall, they've appeared 11 times, winning the title in 1973, 1975, 1979, 1981 and 2001. Last year, Bangor made it to Fitzpatrick Stadium, but couldn't hold an early lead en route to a 35-21 loss to Windham.
The teams had no playoff history.
Saturday, on a pleasant, but windy afternoon, a game evolved that proved to be a tale of two halves, as defense dominated in the first 24 minutes before the Stags ran wild in the second.
Both teams went three-and-out on their initial offensive series.
The second time the Rams had the ball, Cheverus senior Evan Jendrasko and junior Michael Dedian combined to sack Bangor senior quarterback Joey Seccareccia, forcing another punt.
With 6:59 to go in the opening period, the Stags began at their 42. They would march 48 yards in 5 minutes, 35 seconds to get on the board first.
After a facemask penalty on the Rams put the ball in Bangor territory, Gwilym found junior Louie DiStasio on a 10-yard pass play. Facing fourth-and-inches from the 27, Jendrasko bulled ahead for a yard to move the chains. After picking up two more first downs, Cheverus stalled after Gwilym was sacked by Bangor sophomore Cody Chapman at the 10. DiStasio came on and drilled a 27-yard field goal through the uprights for a 3-0 lead with 1:24 to play in the first quarter.
At the end of the first, the Stags had 55 yards of offense (interestingly, Cooke had three carries for negative-2 yards) to just 3 for the Rams, but Bangor would drive for its lone score early in the second stanza.
Facing second-and-19 from the 30 to start the new quarter, Seccareccia found senior Josiah Hartley for a 33-yard pass to the Cheverus 37. Three plays later, facing third-and-9 from the 36, Seccareccia eluded a rusher, threw up a prayer toward the end zone and watched as junior Nick Sherwood got behind the secondary, caught the ball, then broke a tackle before breaking the plane for the touchdown. The Rams lined up to kick the extra point, but the snap went directly to sophomore kicker Carl Farnham (who also plays quarterback), who threw to junior Wyatt Frost for the two-point conversion and an 8-3 lead with 10;31 to play in the first half.
Undaunted, the Stags got their ball control offense in motion and answered.
They would chew up 3:39 and march 71 yards in nine pays to take the lead.
The drive actually started with a 13-yard pass play to Jendrasko. Cooke ran three times on the march for 23 yards, while Jendrasko carried three times for eight and Gwilym hooked up with DiStasio once for five. On second-and-7 from the 22 with 6:46 to play before halftime, Gwilym dropped back, rolled to his right, then floated a pass to senior Jack Bushey breaking free behind the secondary. Bushey hauled it in and scored. Gwilym looked for Bushey again on a two-point conversion pass, but it fell incomplete and Cheverus had to settle for a 9-8 lead.
Bangor drove again the next time it had the ball and threatened to go back on top before the Stags' defense came up huge.
After Hartley returned the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to the Cheverus 25, Hartley ran on seven consecutive plays, moving the ball to the 1. On third-and-goal, however, the Rams went to the well once too often and Hartley was nailed for a three-yard loss by Gwilym and senior defensive standout Zach Dulac.
"That was huge," Gwilym said. "(Me and Zach) shot the gap and took him down."
"Me and Peter got in there, picked him up and dropped him," said Dulac. "That was a turning point in the game, I believe."
On fourth down, Cooke broke up a pass intended for Sherwood and the Stags had held.
"That changed the rhythm of the game," Wolfgram said. "The kids rose up. That's the spirit they have. We have playmakers. We made plays all year long, especially with the money on the line."
With 3:19 left before halftime, Cheverus could have been forced to give the ball right back to Bangor, which would have had time to score, but an 11-yard scamper from Gwilym gave the Stags some breathing room. They'd pick up two more first downs to move the ball into Bangor territory, but Gwilym was intercepted by Hartley with 23.4 seconds to go. Hartley returned the ball 45 yards, but any momentum the Rams might have had disappeared when the return (but not possession) was overturned by a personal foul call.
Bangor, now starting at its 8, moved to the 26 before time expired in the half.
Cheverus, thanks in part to a 173-82 edge in offense, clung to a one-point advantage.
The start of the second half would see the Stags give their followers reason to go from nervous and hopeful to absolutely exuberant, in a matter of less than 12 minutes.
Starting at its 31 to begin the third quarter, Cheverus moved 69 yards on 12 plays, eating up almost five minutes, to gain some breathing room.
The three-headed rushing attack of Cooke, Gwilym and Jendrasko did the job as the Stags ran on every play. Jendrasko carried twice for five yards, Gwilym had four rushes for 24 yards and Cooke did the rest, gaining 35 yards on six attempts, with a facemask penalty thrown in for five more yards. Cooke's 2-yard TD run with 7:08 to play in the quarter capped the impressive march. Eschewing the two-point conversion, Wolfgram had Gwilym keep the ball and score for a 17-8 lead.
Bangor looked to answer and drove into Cheverus territory, but as was the case late in the first half, the Rams couldn't complete the drive.
Passes of 11-yards to junior Nicholas Cota, 23-yards to Hartley and eight-yards to Sherwood got Bangor close, but the Stags stiffened when they had to and facing a fourth-and-3 from the 15, Rams coach Mark Hackett chose to have Farnham try a 32-yard field goal. It never had a chance, barely getting over the line before falling way short.
The Stags then put Bangor away.
Starting at its 20, Cheverus moved 80 yards in five plays.
A 12-yard pass from Gwilym to unheralded senior Liam Hobbins picked up a first down. After Jendrasko rushed for 20 to the Rams' 42, Cooke took a handoff, broke a tackle, stumbled, but stayed on his feet, then raced down the left sideline to paydirt. Cooke rushed home the two-point conversion and with 1:59 to play in the third, the Stags had extended their lead to 25-8.
"They're a big team, but they got tired easily," Gwilym said, of the Rams. "We wore them down at the end of the first half and came out with some momentum and took it to them. That enabled us to keep the momentum."
"We just executed better," Wolfgram added. "Spencer had a huge second half. That was huge. We made some big plays."
After Bangor went three-and-out, Cooke delivered the coup-de-grace.
With time winding down in a third period Cheverus will long remember and the ball at the Stags' 13, Cooke went left again, bounced off a tackler and was gone. The Rams chased him 87 yards to no avail and the ballgame was essentially over.
"We just started playing our game," said Cooke. "The first half was a feeling out process. Bangor's a great team, but we went into a second gear and just drove it down the field. My line blocked unbelievably today. They opened up holes for me. I followed the blockers through the hole and broke free a couple times."
DiStasio added the point-after and with just 11.7 seconds to go in quarter number three, Cheverus was up, 32-8.
In the third period, the Stags gained 244 yards (Cooke had 172 by himself), while Bangor managed just 57.
The fourth quarter was a mere formality, but Cheverus would score twice more.
The offense drove 61 yards on 14 plays in 6:10 for its final points of the season. Again, Jendrasko (four carries, 14 yards), Gwilym (one carry, six yards) and Cooke (nine rushes, 41 yards) did it all. The junior scored his fourth TD of the game with 5:35 remaining, a 6-yard scamper and DiStasio's extra point made it 39-8.
After Hobbins intercepted Seccareccia on the next Rams' possession and returned the ball to the Bangor 6, the Stags eased up and didn't score, giving the ball back at the 4 with just over two minutes to play.
Then, the defense, fittingly, got one final moment in the spotlight as with 20 seconds to go, junior Cam Olsen, who missed almost the whole season with injury, intercepted Seccareccia and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. DiStasio's extra point made it official and at 4:45 p.m., Cheverus was the state of Maine Class A champion of football for the first time since 1985 by virtue of its emphatic 46-8 triumph.
"This is the best feeling in the world," said Jendrasko. "I won't forget this as long as I live. Coach Wolfgram's leadership, a great core of seniors and determination got us here. The key was maturity. That's been our theme all year and we showed it."
"I thought we could do it," said Dulac. "We knew we were going to be good. We wouldn't give up. We wanted it so bad. We came in in August knowing we were fighting for a Gold Ball. We did it."
"It's a perfect ending," added Gwilym. "To go out like this as a senior, can you ask for anything more? I don't think so. The seniors play with a tough, 48-minute, next play mentality. The close games made us better. We got pushed and it gave us stamina. It wasn't hard to bounce back for the state finals. We just wanted it so bad."
The championship was the ninth for Wolfgram and his first since 1999. He won four at South Portland, three at Gardiner and one at Madison and paid tribute to his players after the win.
"(State championships are) all spectacular," Wolfgram said. "It's a great moment for Cheverus football. It's exciting with this group of kids. We set a goal and did it. It takes time to build a program. It doesn't happen overnight. There's a lot of good coaches and good programs. It takes a lot of hard work in the offseason. A lot of preparation and commitment. These kids are very, very competitive. You could set up a Parcheesi board out here, the kids would compete."
"We wanted to win this as a team," Gwilym said. "I'm sure (coach) wanted it bad, but we wanted to get one for all of us."
The final stats reflected Cheverus' dominance. The Stags mustered 479 yards.
Cooke led the way with his game-for-the ages, which led to plenty of praise from his teammates.
"The kid loves to get outside and he was finally able to do it," Dulac said. "It was absolutely terrific. He was phenomenal today, an animal."
"Spencer is a great, young player," said Jendrasko. "He doesn't get tired and runs hard. He's matured as a player. I'm proud of him."
"We weren't planning on (running Spencer so much), but we ran a 'rip' to him on the left side and it worked, so we kept going back to him and he broke a couple for long runs," Gwilym said. "He's got a lot of speed. When he gets into the secondary, it's hard to catch the kid. You have to pick your poison with us."
In addition to Cooke's epic performance, Jendrasko gained 83 yards on 20 carries. Gwilym completed 7-of-9 passes for 80 yards and a score and rushed for 62 yards on 11 carries. DiStasio caught three passes for 20 yards, Bushey had one reception for a 22-yard score and Cooke and Jendrasko each caught a ball for 13 yards. Hobbins had one catch for 12 yards.
Cheverus had just one turnover and in perhaps the most amazing stat of the day, was only penalized once for five yards.
For Bangor, which had 218 yards of offense, Seccareccia completed 11-of-22 passes for 185 yards and a TD and two interceptions. Hartley gained 68 yards on 20 carries and had three receptions for 64 yards. Sherwood caught six passes for 98 yards and a TD. Cota had two catches for 23 yards.
The Rams had two turnovers and were penalized seven times for 87 yards.
"(Bangor) came to play, but we swarm tackled and started pounding them," said Dulac. "I give them credit for getting here, but we did a great job today. We came off the line of scrimmage as hard as we could. It was great. They have some big boys who pack a punch. We held a great offense to eight points."
While the core of this championship team will be lost to graduation and school lore, don't write off the chances of the 2011 Stags. If Wolfgram returns as coach (and he gave no indication that he wouldn't), he'll be able to ride Cooke a long way. Players such as juniors Dedian, Christian Deschenes, DiStasio and Olsen and sophomores Ryan Casale, Liam Fitzpatrick and Mike Flaherty will look to play bigger roles.
"It would be awesome if we could do it again," Cooke said. "That would be great. We'll play a tremendous season next year."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org