Cheverus pulls away from SP in battle of unbeatens, 45-21
SOUTH PORTLAND—A big-game environment returned to Martin Memorial Field Friday evening when the host 2-0 Red Riots welcomed 2-0 Cheverus in a battle of two of the premier football teams in Western Class A so far this season.
The Stags, who hadn't been tested in their first two outings, tasted a dose of adversity after letting an early 14-point lead slip away, but Cheverus had all the answers in the second half, rattling off 21 straight points to pull away for a 45-21 victory.
The Stags' three-headed offensive juggernaut of seniors Evan Jendrasko and Peter Gwilym and junior Spencer Cooke combined to rush for 291 yards and four scores. If that wasn't enough, Cooke returned a kickoff 88-yards for the go-ahead TD and Cheverus' hard-hitting defense and special teams forced four turnovers as the Stags staked their claim as the team to beat in the region as we near the halfway point of the regular season.
"We're a really good football team," said Cooke. "We play hard all the time, practice and prepare well and show it on the field."
South Portland is one of the most storied programs in the state and was at its apex in the 1990s when coach John Wolfgram led the Red Riots to four Class A state championships. South Portland has struggled this century, but returned to contender's status a year ago before just missing the playoffs with a 4-4 mark.
The Red Riots began 2010 with an inspirational 13-6 home victory over Windham, then held off host Westbrook, 34-22, to start 2-0 for the first time since 2001.
The Stags kept the good times rolling Friday, but got a gutcheck along the way.
After Gwilym ran for 15 yards on the game's first play and Jendrasko gained 13 on the next, South Portland's defense stiffened and forced a punt, but on the hosts' third play from scrimmage, senior quarterback Tommy Ellis' pass was intercepted by Cheverus sophomore Liam Fitzpatrick, giving the visitors the ball at the Red Riots' 28.
Five plays later, the Stags had the lead as Cooke ran in from 2-yards out over the left side of the line with 6:38 to play in the opening quarter. Junior Louie DiStasio drilled the extra point and it was 7-0 Cheverus.
After South Portland gained no yardage on its next series and had to punt, the Stags moved 61 yards on nine plays, chewing up 4 minutes, 26 seconds, to score again.
A 13-yard Jendrasko run on third-and-11 put Cheverus in Red Riots' territory. A 24-yard Cooke scamper got the Stags close and with 24.8 seconds to go in the first, Jendrasko run in up the gut from a yard out. DiStasio followed with the point after and the visitors brought the curtain down on a dominant first quarter with a seemingly safe 14-0 lead.
In the first 12 minutes, Cheverus outgained South Portland, 120 yards to negative-3.
The Red Riots came to life in the second period.
After the teams traded punts, the hosts began at their 31. A personal foul penalty on the Stags finally got South Portland heading in the right direction. On the next play, Ellis raced 39-yards to the Cheverus 12 and four plays later, on fourth-and-1 from the 3, junior Joey DiBiase found paydirt on the left side to break the ice. Junior Brenden Horton's point-after cut the deficit to 14-7.
On the ensuing kickoff, after some confusion, Cooke picked up a loose ball and returned it 13 yards, but when he was hit, he fumbled and South Portland senior Harrison Keithly recovered at the Stags' 30.
On the next play, Ellis ran up the middle, then made a move to his left before outrunning the pursuit to the end zone for a 30-yard score. Horton's extra point capped a surge of 14 points in 17 seconds and just like that, the game was deadlocked, 14-14.
Then, Cheverus took control right back.
On the next kickoff, Cooke fielded the ball cleanly at his 12, ran untouched through the middle of the field and shook off Horton's tackle attempt before running down the left sideline to the end zone, capping an 88-yard scoring return.
"After the fumble, I was just trying to shake it off and redeem myself and I just broke it through a big hole," Cooke said. "I went through the seam, flew through it and went for the goal."
On the second play of South Portland's next series, junior Jacob Stanley fumbled and the Stags recovered at the Red Riots' 47. Cheverus' drive was halted when Cooke was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the 27, but with 2:44 to go in the half, Stags senior Liam Hobbins intercepted an Ellis pass at the South Portland 33.
A 12-yard Gwilym-to-Fitzpatrck pass set up a 27-yard DiStasio field goal with 6.6 seconds remaining and Cheverus had restored order as it took a 24-14 lead to the break.
"(South Portland's) a big-play team," said Wolfgram. "They had some big plays on us and they're quick. It was a good gutcheck for us. It was a swing in momentum. I thought we handled it well. We scored and got the field goal, which was really big, giving us a two-score lead. (Louie) has a nice leg for a kicker."
The Red Riots had a chance to get right back in the contest when the visitors were given a 15-yard penalty to be assessed on the second half kickoff after they were late returning to the field after halftime, but Stanley coughed up the pigskin again and Cheverus took over at the South Portland 46.
By quarter's end, the Stags had the game in hand.
Hard running from Jendrasko and Cooke set the stage for Gwilym to roll out to his left and score untouched from 2-yards out on fourth-and-goal with 7:10 to play in the third. That capped a 10-play, 4:45 march. DiStasio's extra point made it a 31-14 game.
The Red Riots had to punt after going three-and-out and Cheverus moved 53 yards in seven plays, in just under three minutes, to really get some breathing room. Runs of 11-yards by Jendrasko and 17 by Cooke got the visitors close and with 2:39 left in the period, Gwilym again capped the march with a 1-yard run. DiStasio's kick gave the Stags a 38-14 lead after three.
Cheverus' final scoring drive came early in the fourth, a nine-play, 49-yard march, which ate up nearly four minutes. This time, Hobbins got to do the scoring honors, finding paydirt from a yard out with 6:52 remaining. DiStasio's final extra point pushed the lead to 31.
The hosts had one final drive in them, moving from their 26 all the way downfield in 13 plays and 5:25. With just 1:20 to play, Stanley scored on a 20-yard burst. Horton added the point after, but that's as close as the Red Riots would get and Cheverus put the finishing touches on yet another impressive victory, 45-21.
"I thought overall we played pretty good football," said Wolfgram. "I liked our physicality in the second half and how we set the tone on the second half kickoff. We ran the ball well. We're happy to be 3-0. There's a long way to go. It's tough to go on the road in this league and beat a good team. (South Portland's) a good team with good athletes. I think they're the most improved team in the league. (Red Riots' coach Steve Stinson's) done a nice job building the program has a lot of people excited. It was a nice atmosphere."
Cooke finished with 120 yards and a TD on 22 carries. Jendrasko had 109 yards and a score on 19 attempts and Gwilym wound up gaining 62 yards (with two TDs) on 10 tries.
"We just work really well together," said Cooke. "Evan just pounds it through there. We mix it up a little bit with Peter, who gets a bunch of yards. We try not to let up. We try to keep it up on offense, defense and play well and score points."
Gwilym was 2-for-6 for 18 yards through the air. Fitzpatrick had one reception for 12 yards, Jendrasko the other for 6. Hobbins rushed for 24 yards and a TD on three carries.
The Stags finished with 318 yards of offense, turned the ball over just once and were penalized five times for 55 yards.
South Portland was done in by its four turnovers and by its inability to stop the run.
"We made way too many mistakes against a fundamentally sound team like Cheverus to win," said Stinson. "I think talent and physicality-wise, it was even at certain parts of the field, but obviously mistakes and field position were the deciding factors. We were a little tight early, which was a little surprising. We got out of sorts. We played like we had the pressure on our shoulders. We gave them the first quarter with a lot of unforced errors, then settled in and played football a little bit. There were just too many errors after that to win.
"Coach Wolfgram is very intelligent in his attack. He has very good football players and they believe in the scheme. Gwilym has great poise out there. They put you in a bind with what they do. They are very sound off the edges and force you to take things you don't want to take. We got blown off the ball up front. At the end of the day, it was a very hyped game which two good teams."
Ellie led the hosts with 102 yards and a score on 13 rushes. he completed just 4-of-14 passes for 33 yards with two interceptions. Stanley had 40 yards and a TD on 12 carries. DiBiase rushed for 20 yards and a score on four tries. Senior Stephen Hodge had three receptions for 19 yards and senior Billy Darling caught one ball for 14 yards (and was injured on the play by a resounding Gwilym hit).
South Portland gained just 179 yards. It took three penalties for 33 yards.
The Red Riots need to turn things around quickly as they go to 3-0 Bonny Eagle Friday night. Last year, South Portland pulled the upset of the season when it beat the then-two time defending state champion Scots, 48-45, at home.
"We'll learn from this game and clean things up," Stinson said. "It's all very teachable stuff and we'll teach it. You don't have time to pat yourself on the back or cry a river in this conference. You have to get ready for a really good opponent. (Bonny Eagle) will be fired up for us."
Cheverus tries to make it four in a row next Saturday when it hosts city rival Portland (1-2). A year ago, the Bulldogs handed the Stags one of their two regular season losses, 28-0.
"Portland's a good team," Cooke warned. "They run well. We'll have to prepare well all week and be ready."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com