Special teams give Stags a special win; Cheverus edges Bonny Eagle, 23-20
PORTLAND—Championship teams make the key plays, be it on offense, defense or special teams.
Saturday afternoon, the Cheverus Stags received their share of huge plays from all three units, most notably the special teams, in their biggest regular season victory in years.
In a highly-anticipated affair played in front of a large and vocal crowd at Boulos Stadium, the Stags opened the game by forcing a fumble on a kickoff, later intercepted two passes, blocked a pair of punts and got just enough offense to move the chains and run out the clock as they improved to 7-0 with a 23-20 victory over the perennial powerhouse Bonny Eagle Scots, who are now 6-1.
Cheverus senior Zach Dulac blocked two punts in the second half, the second of which was recovered by sophomore Ryan Casale in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 9:28 to play as the Stags earned the inside track for homefield advantage for the upcoming postseason.
"It's unbelievable, it feels terrific," said the always-emotional Dulac, who dominated despite playing with a bloody chin down the stretch. "It was an evenly-matched game there. We'll probably be seeing them in the future. To finally beat the best team of the past decade feels great. That's the level we want to be at. We had to beat them and we played just well enough to do it."
Cheverus won its lone Class A state championship in 1985, but hadn't had much to cheer about since until legendary coach John Wolfgram arrived for the 2006 season. Wolgram had the Stags in the playoffs by 2008 (they lost at eventual champion Bonny Eagle in the quarterfinals) and last year in the regional final (a one-point loss to eventual champion Windham).
In 2010, Cheverus has lived up to billing and has passed every test, most of which were easy. The Stags opened with a 40-6 home win over Gorham, romped, 28-0, at Windham, pulled away from host South Portland, 45-21, then rallied for a palpitating 22-19 home win over Portland. Road shutout victories over Kennebunk (40-0) and Westbrook (35-0) followed.
Bonny Eagle has been the premier program in the state this decade, winning the 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 Class A championships. A year ago, only a Windham two-point conversion in overtime in the semifinals prevented the Scots from making another title run.
Last year, the Scots edged the Stags in an overtime thriller, 24-21.
The 2010 meeting proved to be everything local football aficionados hoped it would.
Cheverus won the coin toss, but elected to defer to the second half and kicked off. The decision paid immediate dividends when Bonny Eagle senior Ethan Thorne fumbled after being hit by Stags senior Liam Hobbins and fumbled. Casale recovered at the Scots' 10 and the hosts were in business.
After senior quarterback Peter Gwilym rushed for three yards and junior Spencer Cooke twice ran for three, Cheverus faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1. Gwilym kept it on his favorite play, a sweep left, and bulled into the end zone to break the ice. Junior Louie DiStasio's extra point gave the Stags a 7-0 lead just 2 minutes, 12 seconds in.
After the teams traded punts, the visitors picked up their initial first down when Cheverus had too many on the field in a punting situation. The Stags' defense eventually held, but the offense had to punt again and late in the first period, Bonny Eagle finally put together a scoring drive.
Starting at their 12, the Scots moved 88 yards on five plays. A 15-yard scamper from junior Nick Adkins picked up a first down. Three plays later, on third-and-6, senior quarterback Matt Rollins dropped back and hit junior Cam Cooper on a quick slant. Cooper found himself with plenty of running room and took off down the right sideline with Gwilym in pursuit, but he had enough speed to go all the way and score the 60-yard touchdown. The extra point failed, but Bonny Eagle was right back in it, down 7-6, with 38.2 seconds left.
Cheverus immediately counterpunched when senior Evan Jendrasko broke free for a 65-yard TD run. Jendrasko found a huge hole on the right side and outran the pursuit. DiStasio's point-after made it 14-6 after one quarter.
"You have to have a short memory in this game," said Dulac. "We knew (Bonny Eagle would) have good plays on us."
Midway through the second period, the Stags drove for what they hoped would be another score, but one play after Gwilym completed an improbable pass to senior Jack Bushey while falling to his knees, the quarterback was sacked by Scots' seniors Jeff Arnell and Garrett Hubner, giving the ball to Bonny Eagle on downs at its 37.
After Adkins had runs of 11- and six-yards, Rollins and Cooper hooked up again, this time on a 46-yard TD bomb. Rollins floated a pass to Cooper, who had gotten far behind the Cheverus secondary, and Cooper did the rest, finding paydirt. Adkins then took a pitch (barely catching it with his fingertips) and ran it in for the two-point conversion to tie the score at 14-14 at halftime.
The Scots had a big edge in yardage in the first 24 minutes (210-112), but the one long Jendrasko run and the early turnover had the Stags even.
Early in the third, after forcing a Cheverus punt, Bonny Eagle drove to take its first lead.
Starting at their 24, the Stags got a run of four yards by Thorne, then gains of seven, 12 and seven from Rollins. Thorne then took a handoff at the Cheverus 46 and broke free, running in for the go-ahead touchdown. Rollins' two-point conversion pass failed, so with 9:14 remaining in the third quarter, Bonny Eagle was up 20-14.
After a short kickoff gave it great field position, Cheverus started its next drive with Jendrasko running for nine-, then 10-yards, but a fumbled exchange and two incomplete passes forced a punt. From the Scots' 37, Gwilym's kick appeared ticketed for the end zone, but sophomore Mike Flaherty tracked it down and batted it back into the field of play (although it appeared he was in the end zone and it should have been a touchback). The Stags downed the ball at the 1 and promptly took advantage when Adkins was tackled in the end zone for a safety.
The two-point play pulled Cheverus back within four, 20-16, with 7:12 to go in the third.
The Stags then got the ball on a free kick and moved from the Bonny Eagle 48 to the 20 before Gwilym was sacked by senior Nate Martel on fourth down, giving the Scots the ball on downs.
Bonny Eagle could do nothing with the pigskin and had to punt and Cheverus' special teams sparkled again as Dulac broke through to block the kick. Casale grabbed the ball and returned it to the Scots' 6.
As the third period gave way to the fourth, the hosts couldn't take the lead as a holding penalty pushed them back, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 14. Gwilym threw to Cooke at the 10 and Cooke raced for the left pylon before being tackled just short.
The Scots again had to start from their 1 and gained just three yards, setting up another punting situation.
Enter Dulac and Casale again.
This time, Rollins couldn't even get any air under his kick before Dulac blocked it. The ball fell into the end zone when Rollins appeared to have a chance to field it before bobbling it into the arms of Casale, who tumbled to the ground with an early Christmas present and the lead.
"We work on special teams every day in practice and it showed today," Jendrasko said. "We were able to get on the ball and we played for 48 minutes, which we do every week."
"We played tough," Wolfgram added. "We think we have a solid kicking game. A lot of games are won in the kicking game. Louie kicked well. Our kickoffs were good. We blocked a couple punts. I think our kicking game might have been what won us the game."
DiStasio's extra point made it 23-20 Stags with 9:28 showing.
Undaunted, Bonny Eagle drove deep into Cheverus territory and threatened to go back on top.
Four runs for 30 yards from Adkins and an 18-yard burst from Rollins got the Scots close. After Adkins lost a yard on first-and-goal from the 4, Rollins went back to throw and fired toward the end zone, but Fitzpatrick got a hand on the ball and batted it up in the air where Hobbins snared it on the goal line. He returned the ball 15 yards and disaster was avoided.
"Liam Fitzpatrick tipped it up and Liam Hobbins came down with it," Dulac said. "It was unreal."
Cheverus still had 5:49 to drain and the Stags managed to run off over five minutes.
Hobbins, who hadn't carried the ball all day, ran for five-yards, then seven for a first down. After Jendrasko gained five, Cooke gained a pair. On third-and-3, Bonny Eagle jumped offsides and the Stags had another first down. Hobbins picked up six yards on third-and-2 for another first down with 1:35 to play.
"We were just trying to pick up positive yards and get first downs," Hobbins said.
The Scots finally forced a punt with 52.8 seconds left, but Gwilym pinned them deep once more, at the 6.
Rollins was able to find senior Cameron McKague for receptions of 14- and 12-yards, but with 16.4 seconds remaining, Fitzpatrick intercepted a last-ditch pass and that was all she wrote.
Gwilym took a knee and the Stags celebrated their 23-20 triumph.
"It means a lot," Jendrasko said. "I've never beaten these guys and they've probably been the best team in the state of Maine for the last 10 years. It was a great game, a close game, something special."
"Ever since I was a little kid, (Bonny Eagle's) been the best team in the state," Hobbins said. "It's huge for our program. It's fun to play in front of a big crowd like this. When you get down a little bit, they pick us up."
"It was terrific to play a team so evenly matched and come out with a win," Dulac said. "We came back hard."
"It's a big win for us, no question," added Wolfgram. "The kids hung tough for 48 minutes. We made some plays at the end. Bonny Eagle's a good football team. They're the measuring stick. To beat them is a big step in the right direction. They throw the ball very well. We weren't quite used to their speed. We hung tough and we made them earn the field at the end."
Jendrasko finished with 132 yards and a TD on 18 carries. Cooke gained 40 yards on nine tries, Gwilym had 25 (with a score) on 10 attempts and Hobbins 23 on five. Gwilym completed 5-of-11 passes for 15 yards.
Cheverus gained 202 yards. The Stags had an uncharacteristic six penalties for 55 yards, but won this one on the backs of their special teams and defense (which forced three turnovers).
Bonny Eagle was paced by Rollins' 82 rushing yards on 14 attempts and 6-of-19 passing, good for 144 yards and two TDs. Adkins had 72 yards on 13 tries. Thorne finished with 67 rushing yards on eight attempts, with a score. Cooper had two catches, both for TDs, good for 106 yards.
The Scots put up an impressive 382 yards of offense and were only penalized four times for 20 yards, but the safety, blocked punts and three turnovers were too much to overcome.
Bonny Eagle finishes its season at home against winless Gorham next weekend and will certainly be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
Cheverus, meanwhile, could earn the No. 1 seed and homefield advantage throughout the regional playoffs if it wins its finale, but that won't be an easy task. Next Saturday, red-hot 6-1 Deering will come calling, looking to avenge last year's 30-21 Stags' road win.
"It would be great to play here," Jendrasko said. "It's a good atmosphere."
"Deering's a great team," Hobbins said. "Homefield is always important."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com