Portland boys' lacrosse reaches the pinnacle; Bulldogs down Brunswick, 9-3, to win first-ever Class A championship
PORTLAND— At 11:35 Saturday morning, the Portland boys' lacrosse team finally reached the mountaintop and became a team for the ages.
The Bulldogs led throughout the Class A Final, avenged a painful loss in the same game to the same team from two years prior and became state champs for the very first time with a 9-3 victory over the Brunswick Dragons at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
After a frustrating first half, Portland finally opened it up with a four-goal third period and demonstrated yet again its nonpareil offensive balance, getting goals from six different sources, led by senior All-American standout K.R. Jurgelevich's three, to make history.
"I'm speechless," Jurgelevich said. "I've never felt this emotion before. We came here my sophomore year and I thought we were going to win. It didn't happen and I was crushed. I'm so proud of these guys. Our whole team atmosphere. Our team cheer today was, 'Together!' We just came out together and put it away. There was no way we were going to lose this game."
"It's been seven years in the making," added Portland coach Eric Begonia, who built the program into a champion. "Everything that has happened along the way, the losses especially, catapulted us to this point. We took the bad with the good. It's the pinnacle. I'm really happy for the senior class. Individually and as a team, they hold every record in the program's history. This was the only missing piece. I'm thrilled to see them get it."
From the ashes they rose
The Bulldogs program has been among the top contenders for five years now. An undefeated regular season and a first-ever trip to a regional final in 2005 was the first step. Two years ago, Portland upset Scarborough in the regional final, but was shocked in turn by Brunswick in the Class A Final, 12-9. Last spring, the Bulldogs appeared early-on to be the favorite, but stumbled down the stretch and were upset by Cheverus in overtime of the quarterfinals.
In retrospect, this year's championship stemmed from that heartache.
"That was a huge motivating factor," Begonia said. "We had juniors who were leaders on that team and that wasn't how they wanted to go out."
Those juniors formed an unstoppable senior core this season that won handily virtually everytime out.
Portland went 11-1 this season, drubbing 10 of their foes by an average 16-2 score. The Bulldogs were only tested in an exhilarating 11-9 loss at defending and eventual Class B champion Yarmouth May 18 and an 8-7 come-from-behind home victory over Falmouth four days later.
Portland easily garnered the top seed for the Western A playoffs and demolished No. 9 Massabesic (21-2), No. 5 South Portland (20-2) and No. 2 Scarborough, the defending state champion, 14-1, to advance to the state game.
Brunswick, meanwhile, was rarely tested in its 12-0 regular season. The top-ranked Dragons then got past No. 4 Lewiston (8-6) and second-ranked Messalonskee (13-8) to punch their ticket to a third-straight title tilt.
The teams' second state final showdown quickly saw the Bulldogs emerge as the better squad, but Portland wasn't able to turn an overwhelming edge in possession and opportunities into goals in the first half.
Just 50 seconds into the game, Portland senior Sam Guimond hit the post on his team's initial shot of the contest.
It wouldn't be the last bid to draw iron.
With 8:34 left in the opening quarter, the Bulldogs broke the ice and took the lead for good when Guimond (from senior Andrew Holt) scored on the man-advantage.
After a Dragons' turnover, Portland made it 2-0 as senior goalie Nick Sterling fired a long pass to junior Gordon Parker, who set up Holt for the score.
Despite a 13-4 edge in shots, the Bulldogs couldn't add to their lead, however, thanks in part to Brunswick goalie Jeremy Diaz, who made five saves in the first 12 minutes.
Portland's frustration continued in the second period.
With 9:30 to go before halftime, Jurgelevich got free in front and beat Diaz, but the Bulldogs wouldn't score again, despite 11 total shots. Midway through the quarter, Guimond was stymied point blank. With 2:47 to go, Jurgelevich hit the post.
Portland had a big edge statistically at halftime (30-17 on ground balls, 24-9 on shots), but remained far from home-free, leading just 3-0.
"The guys were concerned because they were hitting the post and were frustrated," Begonia said. "I told them things were going right and to keep doing the same thing. We had to adjust our offense. (Brunswick's) talented and smart with their defensive packages. That made it difficult."
Just 51 seconds into the second half, the Bulldogs got it going again offensively as senior Tyler Sandler set up sophomore Caleb Kenney for a goal.
With 9:51 left in the third period, just seconds after senior Erik Casparius hit the post on a shot, the Dragons finally got on the board as Tom Gibson scored unassisted, beating Sterling with a high shot.
Portland quickly responded, making it 5-1 with 8:15 left in the quarter when Sandler set up senior Kyle Roberts for a goal right in front.
Fifty-eight seconds later, Jurgelevich stole the ball and broke in one-and-one against a helpless Diaz before scoring to push the lead to five.
With 5:36 remaining in the third, Sandler (from senior Jason Smith) scored and it was a 7-1 game after three periods.
"I wasn't too worried because I knew our defense had it," Jurgelevich said. "We just had to get the ball in the net. That was our problem in the second quarter."
"In the second half, we settled in on offense," added Kenney. "We got the jitters out. That was definitely a factor."
With victory seemingly a formality, Portland turned its game up yet another notch.
First, Kenney scored unassisted with 10:56 to play to make it 8-1. Brunswick got a goal back when Zach McMillan took a pass from Derek Beaulieu and scored at the 9:33 mark, but the Bulldogs then turned to their awesome, but all-too-frequently overlooked defense to slam the door.
The Dragons wouldn't get any closer, while Portland was able to keep the pressure on offensively.
With 7:41 left, Roberts hit (you guessed it) the post and the game remained 8-2.
Finally, with 2:40 to go, Jurgelevich recorded his final high school goal, taking a pass from Kenney and scoring to make it 9-2. Win Gillis (from Mac Caputi) scored with 2:05 left, but that goal proved to be nothing but cosmetic as Portland soon ran out the clock and celebrated its 9-3 win.
"We knew Brunswick was good and who their weapons were," Jurgelevich said. "We talked about it. We didn't want to lose this game. Our senior leadership this year was amazing. I knew we could pull it off.
"It means everything. It means a lot for our school. The first lacrosse championship is great. All the younger guys can keep going. The seniors can take it to college with them."
"We were motivated, tough and hungry," Begonia added. "No one wanted the ball more than our guys did. It was a team victory all season, from the seniors to the coaching staff."
The final statistics were heavily weighed in favor of Portland.
The Bulldogs had a commanding edge in ground balls (59-37) and shots (43-25). They forced 37 turnovers. Faceoffs were even (8-8).
Portland (15-1) got three goals and a game-high 14 ground balls from Jurgelevich. Kenney finished with two goals and an assist. Guimond, Holt (one assist), Roberts and Sandler (two assists) also scored. Parker and Smith added assists. Sterling stopped eight shots.
"We have a lot of depth at midfield," Begonia said. "We can go to anybody. If it's not one it's the other."
"Pretty much anyone who gets a look can put it away," Sandler added. "We have eight or nine scorers every game. Other teams might not get that many in a year."
What wasn't effectively factored into the stats was the dominance of the Bulldogs' defense, keyed by seniors Casparius (five ground balls), Dylan Kenney (11 GBs), Igor Radosavljevic (two) and Jason Smith (six).
"Eric, Dylan, Jason and Igor are the best defensemen I've seen," Jurgelevich said. "I've gotten so much better playing against them in practice. They're amazing. I think they're the best part of our team. They ate up all the ground balls and got us the ball."
"We had matchups we liked all over the field," Begonia said. "Dylan, Eric and Igor matched up well. Igor's a fabulous defender who people don't even know about. He plays angles well and he's smart."
"It's great," said Dylan Kenney. "Sophomore year, we came in here and lost it when we thought we'd stomp all over them. This year, we were prepared and came out with a victory.
"We thought we were in good shape last year and looked past Cheverus. We thought we'd automatically be in the championship game and it wasn't so. This year, we took them one at a time and it showed.
"Our defense was solid. We were pretty much controlling the game. We focused on being mentally prepared and not having letdowns.
"Having Nick back there in goal is a key improvement. Igor stepped up. The offense has been immaculate. It's nice to go out with this senior year."
Brunswick (14-1) got 17 saves from Diaz and a goal apiece from Gibson, Gillis and McMillan. Beaulieu and Caputi each had an assist.
"We tried to run them down a little bit and change up some on defense," said Dragons coach Don Glover, who gave Begonia a big congratulatory hug after the contest. "We got caught up in some transition situations. They capitalized on those. We adjusted, but they're a good, disciplined team. They're a balanced group. They have depth at both ends of the field. They were able to capitalize. We played too much defense in the game. We were timid for awhile. We started a little sluggish and couldn't get into a rhythm. Credit to Portland. When we get into a rhythm, we can be productive.
"We're proud of the boys. My goal was to be playing on the last day. This is icing on the cake. We keep sending the message to the kids that the goal is to play on the last day and play to their potential. This group gave all they had."
Brunswick figures to be the favorite in Eastern A again next year and could easily find itself back in the state game.
The 2009 Bulldogs will forever be hailed as the team that brought a first championship to Portland High. It was the school's first state title of any kind since the 2005 outdoor track team won a Class A crown.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," said Caleb Kenney. "We have a strong group of seniors who led us. The underclassmen stepped up. It was nice. This puts us with the Capes and Yarmouths."
"We realized how much potential we had and took it to the next level," added Sandler. "This is the best way to go out. The only way to make it better would be to play Yarmouth one more time."
Portland's graduation losses will be enormous, but the cupboard will not be bare in 2010. Players like Caleb Kenney, Kevin Nielsen and Bronson Guimond saw a lot of playing time this spring and freshman Ryan Jurgelevich is Sterling's heir apparent in goal. He saw critical minutes in the Falmouth win.
"We've still got a core of guys who are pretty talented," Begonia said. "Jurgelevich is already a proven goalie. He'll step in between the pipes. Bronson, Kevin and Caleb will be offensive anchors. Patrick Curran, people don't know about him yet, on defense. We have guys to build around and we'll be competitive next year."
"We have a strong group of freshmen coming in," added Caleb Kenney. "This year's freshmen got their sticks under them. I think we'll definitely still contend next year."
For now, the Bulldogs are your new state champions!
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com.