Cheverus stays unbeaten, rallies for stirring 22-19 win over Portland
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PORTLAND — Anyone uncertain about the length of a high school football game got frequent reminders from Cheverus senior tackle and linebacker Zach Dulac Saturday afternoon under amid sizzling conditions at Boulos Stadium.
"Forty-eight minutes! We play 48 minutes!" Dulac shouted frequently during the second half of his team's home showdown with city rival Portland and, as it turned out, the rest of the Stags listened.
Finding itself in a tight game in the fourth quarter and facing a deficit for the first time all season, Cheverus indeed saved its best for last and remained unbeaten.
Down 19-7 to the inspired Bulldogs with under 10 minutes to play, the Stags made things interesting on a TD run from senior Peter Gwilym, then, after a defensive stop, capped their comeback with 2:03 to play when senior Liam Hobbins twisted and turned, finding paydirt from 2-yards out.
After one last defensive stand, Cheverus survived and celebrated a 4-0 start by virtue of a palpitating 22-19 victory over Portland, which is now 1-3 and fighting for its playoff life.
"I think we showed good resolve," said Stags coach John Wolfgram. "I don't think we were phased by being behind. We have a mature group. The kids played hard. Portland played really tough. They got ahead of us and made some big plays, but we hung tough and played well in the second half."
Cheverus, a regional finalist in 2009, has emerged as the Western A favorite this fall, dominating its first three foes.
Meanwhile Portland, a quarterfinalist last season, entered 2010 as a favorite to make the playoffs, but the Bulldogs entered play Saturday at 1-2.
Cheverus and Portland have dueled on the gridiron for decades (a year ago, the Bulldogs had their way with the Stags at Fitzpatrick Stadium, 28-0) and Wolfgram and longtime Bulldogs coach Mike Bailey have engaged in their share of thrillers.
Saturday's showdown joined the pantheon.
Neither squad could move the ball early on, combining for just 43 yards in the first quarter.
Portland got the game's first break in the second period when, on a punt, Gwilym fumbled and Bulldogs junior Jason Webster recovered at the Cheverus 25.
Then, suddenly, the points came fast and furious.
It took five plays, but Portland handed the hosts their first deficit of the season on an 11-yard TD scamper from senior standout Imadhi Zagon. Zagon took a pitch from senior quarterback Matt McInnis, ran to his right, then bulled over a tackler en route to paydirt with 3:59 to go in the first half. After a bad snap, senior Feliks Cobanovic's extra point was wide left, but Portland was up, 6-0.
The Stags answered immediately as senior Evan Jendrasko roared up the gut for a 64-yard TD on the first play of the next series, just 17 seconds after Zagon's score. Junior Louie DiStasio added the extra point and Cheverus had a 7-6 lead.
The Bulldogs then upped the ante when on the first play of their next series, McInnis dropped back and launched a bomb down the left sideline into the hands of junior Michael Herrick, who made a nice catch with the sun in his eyes, before racing in to complete the 70-yard score, the third TD in 33 seconds of action. Portland went for two points, but McInnis threw incomplete. However, the Bulldogs were back on top, 12-7, a lead they'd take to halftime.
The third period would be similar to the first as neither team scored. Late in the quarter, the Bulldogs took over at their 16. After senior Caleb Kenney gained a yard on first down on a shovel pass from McInnis, Kenney ran from his 17 all the way to the Cheverus 11 (a 72-yard pickup) as time expired, breaking several tackles along the way. On the play, Gwilym was shaken up and forced to the sidelines.
"I got cleaned out from the side," Gwilym said. "My jaw had been hurting all game, but I wasn't going to stay on the sideline."
Building on the momentum from Kenney's jaunt, three plays into the final stanza, Zagon added to the lead with an 11-yard TD run to the left pylon. Cobanovic added the point-after and the Stags were on the ropes, down 19-7.
Enter Dulac and his "48-minutes!" mantra.
"Coach says every day at every practice to play 48 minutes of hard football," said Jendrasko.
"We try to play 48 minutes," Wolfgram added. "Everybody talks about that. We think good football teams win in 48 minutes."
With its undefeated mark in jeopardy, Cheverus embarked on a four play, 65-yard drive to get back in the game.
After junior Spencer Cooke (who was bottled up much of the day) ran for eight yards on first down, Gwilym, who didn't miss an offensive snap, found Cooke wide open down the middle of the field for 42 yards to the Bulldogs' 15.
"You need a big play to get momentum going," Gwilym said. "We ran the seam pass to Spencer and we gained on that momentum."
"We had to keep on doing what we came here to do, try to make a play," said Dulac. "We did that on the pass to Spencer down the middle. That gave us momentum and gave us a chance to get back in the game."
"We just made a couple mistakes," Bailey lamented. "We didn't handle those passing plays. It was the little things we didn't get done."
After a false start and a 3-yard run from Hobbins (more on him in a moment), Gwilym kept the ball, rolled left and turned it up a gear to blow past Zagon (one of the premier sprinters in the state) to find the end zone from 17-yards out.
"Peter's a tough kid," Wolfgram said. "He's a competitor. He made some plays. He's a leader for sure."
When DiStasio added the extra point with 8:45 to play, Cheverus was right back in the contest, trailing just 19-14.
Portland had the chance to either extend the lead or run down the clock, but three Zagon runs only gained eight yards and the Bulldogs had to punt.
The Stags then began their winning drive at the Portland 49 with 6:37 remaining.
In no hurry, Cheverus used 10 plays and 4:34 to take the lead.
On third-and-5 from the 44, Gwilym showed his elusiveness, avoiding a couple tacklers on a scramble to pick up 15. Two plays later, on third-and-3, Cooke ran for six yards and a first down at the 16. After Gwilym ran for two, Jendrasko barreled for eight and a first-and-goal at the 6 with 3:06 left. Jendrasko gained four yards on first down to just outside the 2, then, the Stags gave Hobbins the ball for just the third time all day and the senior contorted his body just enough to break the plane for a touchdown.
Gwilym hooked up with senior Jack Bushey through the air for the two-point conversion, and with 2:03 showing, Cheverus was back on top, 22-19.
After a touchback, the Bulldogs began at their 20 with 2:01 remaining, plenty of time to at least drive for a tying field goal attempt, but after McInnis found sophomore Tate Gale for 16 yards on first down, Portland was pushed back five yards after a false start. Kenney was thrown for a yard loss on the next play, setting up second-and-16. McInnis found Zagon for 11 yards to the 41, but senior A.J. Bennett and Jendrasko combined to sack the quarterback on the next play for a seven-yard loss. On fourth-and-12, McInnis threw incomplete, giving the ball back to Cheverus.
Gwilym took a knee and the Stags had survived, 22-19.
"We really showed our guts today," said Gwilym. "We knew to keep our heads in this and we came through. It's great to have a close game like this. You don't want your first close game to come in playoffs when you don't know how to handle the situation. Now we do. We fought through adversity."
"We had a couple big wins, so I think some guys thought we were invincible," Jendrasko said. "We needed a wake-up call saying we're not. Portland's a good team. They played hard as well."
"We never give up," Dulac added. "Even if the going gets rough, we feel in the second half we can make plays. We did that today."
Jendrasko led the way statistically for the Stags, gaining 143 yards with a TD on 11 carries. He was named the winner of the Robert Duffy Award, given to the Cheverus most valuable player in the Portland game.
"(Winning the award) feels good," Jendrasko said. "A lot of my family went to Portland. It's always a big game. My line threw great blocks all game. We have a lot of weapons in our backfield and we use them all."
Gwilym threw for 74 yards on 4-of-7 passing. He ran nine times for 53 yards with a TD. Bushey caught three balls for 32 yards. Cooke was held to 28 rushing yards on 12 attempts, but he did have the one huge reception for 42 yards. Hobbins gained 14 yards with the go-ahead TD on his three carries.
Cheverus gained 294 yards, had one turnover and was penalized seven times for 48 yards.
For Portland, Kenney had 100 rushing yards on seven attempts and caught two passes for 24 yards. He was also a stalwart on defense and was given the Jack Duffy Award as the Bulldogs' player of the game.
McInnis completed 8-of-18 passes, good for 140 yards and a score. He ran once for 4 yards. Herrick had one reception for the 70-yard touchdown. Gale caught one pass for 16 yards. Zagon was held to 49 rushing yards (and two TDs) on 17 carries. He also caught four passes for 30 yards.
Portland had 277 yards of offense, didn't give the ball away and was penalized six times for 40 yards.
"It was a great effort," said Bailey. "We had some good offensive drives. We're getting better. We matched up toe-to-toe with them pretty well. It was a great high school football game, we just came up a little short. We'll keep plugging."
Big games ahead
Portland (10th in the latest Crabtree Points standings) probably needs to win out to make it back to the postseason, not an easy task. The Bulldogs host Biddeford Friday night for their crossover, then go to Gorham, welcome Windham and close at South Portland.
"There's no dynamos this year," Bailey said. "On any given week, any team can win. We have to get in the playoffs and then it's anyone's ballgame."
Cheverus (tied with Bonny Eagle for third in the Crabtrees) will be at Kennebunk Friday night. The Stags also have games remaining at Westbrook and at home versus Bonny Eagle and Deering.
Cheverus knows it has an opportunity to be a special team, but that plenty of work has yet to be done.
"We have much bigger goals (than 4-0)," said Gwilym. "We'll keep fine tuning the offense. We won't take anyone lightly."
"We need to stay mistake-free and develop and utilize our second level plays more," Jendrasko said. "We have to play 48 minutes. There's a lot of parity in the league. Anybody can beat anyone. We have to stop waiting for someone to give us an excuse to play hard and just play hard."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org