Bulldogs fight to the finish, but fall to TA, 14-12
PORTLAND — The youthful and undermanned Portland football team gave visiting Thornton Academy all it could handle before ultimately coming up a conversion short.
The Bulldogs set the tone with a 76-yard touchdown drive the start the game and had their chances late, but a failed two-point conversion that was initially signaled good proved the difference as Portland fell 14-12 to the Golden Trojans Thursday night at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Thornton Academy clinched a playoff spot, improving to 5-1. The Bulldogs dropped to 2-4.
Afterward, it felt like a moral victory for Portland, while the mood of the Golden Trojans was far from joyous. Attribute this to underdog Portland’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Thornton Academy for 48 minutes. The Bulldogs, despite being without injured freshman quarterback Ryan Ruhlin (concussion) — whose passing abilities provide a change of pace to dual-threat sophomore QB Jayvon Pitts-Young — were able to drive 76 yards for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, and used a gritty defensive effort to keep Thornton Academy from getting much going.
“I’m very, very pleased,” said Portland coach Mike Bailey, who has just seven seniors on his roster. “Even though we did lose, I thought we took some big steps tonight offensively. We hadn’t been scoring points or driving the field, and we finally did that. We controlled the clock somewhat, and I was pleased with that.
“But we made some mistakes at critical times. We had a penalty on third-and-short, then we had the fumble on the nice long play. But that’s youth. It will come.”
Thornton Academy, playing its third road game in a row, saw plenty to improve upon.
“We were kind of flat coming out, for whatever reason,” said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal. “I don’t know. It’s frustrating. It almost feels like a loss for some of our guys. But we’re certainly happy we got the win. Give Portland credit. They played well. In another year, they’re going to be a team to be reckoned with. They have a lot of young talent over there.”
That talent was on display on the opening drive. Pitts-Young led a 13-play drive that lasted nearly seven minutes. His runs of 11 and 18 yards, along with strong runs from junior Nick Volger and sophomore Justin Zukowski, set up a 28-yard touchdown pass to senior Seamus Kilbride on fourth-and-16. Pitts-Young made a nice throw to hit Kilbride in stride over the middle. Kilbride then dragged a defender the final few yards before diving in for the score. Portland led 6-0 with 5:21 left in the first quarter.
A penalty pushed the extra-point kick back, and the bid by junior Kyle Reichert bounced off the upright and was no good.
Thornton Academy answered quickly, with junior tight end Dakota Tarbox reeling in a pass from junior Eric Christensen and taking it 69 yards for the score on the Golden Trojans’ second play from scrimmage. The kick by junior Brandon Briggs made it 7-6 with 4:26 left in the opening quarter.
The Bulldogs were on the move again on their second possession, driving to the Thornton Academy 33 with the help of a pair of 15-yard facemask penalties against the Golden Trojans. But a holding call on third-and-2 pushed Portland back and the Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs.
The rest of the first half was scoreless, but Thornton Academy increased its lead on the opening drive of the second half.
On third-and-16, Christensen and Tarbox hooked up again, this time on a 48-yard gain down to the Portland 11.
“He’s a very good receiver,” Bailey said of Tarbox. “He splits out sometimes from the tight end spot. That’s what hurt us — a couple big plays.”
After a 9-yard pickup by junior Nick Kenney, Christensen scored on a 2-yard keeper with 8:09 left in the third. Briggs made it 14-6 with the kick.
The teams traded punts, with Portland taking over at its own 44. On second down, Volger broke through the middle and turned down the right sideline for a 54-yard run, setting up first-and-goal at the 1. Two plays later, Pitts-Young scored on a keeper, making it 14-12 with 2:26 to go in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs went for two and Pitts-Young found Kilbride all alone in the back of the end zone. After an initial signal that the conversion was good, the official waved it off because Kilbride stepped out of the end zone before coming back in to make the catch. This led to protests from the Portland sideline.
“I thought the rule in high school was that a player can go out of bounds and come back in if he reestablishes himself,” Bailey said. “The official told me that is true on the sideline, but not in the end zone.”
Portland’s defense forced Thornton Academy into a quick three-and-out, with the Bulldogs taking over at their own 34 to start the fourth quarter. On first down, Pitts-Young passed to freshman Jordan Floridino, who picked up 31 yards, but fumbled while fighting for more. Thornton Academy recovered, but fumbled the ball right back two plays later. Portland recovered at the Thornton Academy 30, but gained no ground and turned the ball over on downs.
The Bulldogs didn’t enter Thornton Academy territory again. The Golden Trojans were able to pick up a first down by a nose on fourth-and-1 on their final possession, then take a knee to run out the clock.
Pitts-Young ran for 58 yards and threw for 75. “He’s young, but he’s good. He’s a dynamite quarterback,” Kezal said.
Volger added 78 yards on the ground. The teams were evenly matched in total offense, with Thornton Academy finishing with a very slight edge, 222-214.
In past seasons, Thornton Academy has played a predominantly York County schedule, often piling up blowout wins in the regular season without being tested. With this year’s scheduling change, the Golden Trojans play a majority of their games against Cumberland County foes. They are 4-1 against them so far, with all five games decided by two touchdowns or less.
“It’s the schedule we wanted,” Kezal said. “It’s been tough because we’ve had three road games in a row. We’re happy that we’re going to be home the next few weeks. I like the teams we’re playing. It’s certainly getting us ready for the type of play we’ll have come playoff time.”
The playoffs may not be in the cards for Portland this season, but the future appears bright with talented underclassmen gaining valuable experience. Bailey said there are 25 freshmen and 20 sophomores in the program.
The Bulldogs close the season with two rivalry games at home — Friday at 7 p.m. against Cheverus, then the Battle of the Bridge with South Portland the following week.
Thornton Academy hosts Scarborough on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. before finishing up at home against Biddeford.