Portland's title dream denied
SACO—Something had to give when Portland and Marshwood met Tuesday evening in the Western Class A field hockey title game at Thornton Academy.
Both the fifth-ranked Hawks and No. 7 Bulldogs were in uncharted territory as neither had ever played in a regional final.
Ultimately, Portland's fairy tale run and the best season in program history came to a close courtesy an incredibly skilled and opportunistic Marshwood team.
The Hawks came out the more poised and aggressive team and seized control midway through the first half when they scored on successive penalty corners in a 63-second span. Marshwood added one more goal before halftime to seemingly put the Bulldogs away, but this group never quits and sure enough, with 26:10 to play, senior standout Raechel Allen scored to give Portland life.
This time, however, there would be no happy ending as the Hawks got another goal five minutes later and they went on to a 4-1 victory, improving to 14-3, setting up a date with defending state champion Skowhegan in Saturday's state final, while ending the Bulldogs' unbeaten run at 11 games and their season at 12-5-1 as midnight finally struck for the Cinderella Destiny's Darlings of Portland High.
"Just the fact we went this far as a family is amazing," said Allen. "We still want to practice and have team dinners. We're happy to come this far. No Portland team ever did this. It's been crazy. People have come up to us and said, 'You're doing great. Keep it up.' Even though we lost today, we've taken something from it. I'll always look back at this and how far we came."
Portland's rise has been well chronicled. A program that only had eight winning seasons in the past 35, the Bulldogs' ascension actually began in 2010 when they improved from one win in 2009 to six and just missed the postseason.
This fall, thanks to a strong senior core and the critical addition of senior transfer Kylie Dalbec (who won two Class C state titles at North Yarmouth Academy), junior transfer Gabi Cardona (a member of Cheverus' 2010 Western A championship team) and senior goalie Rachel Waterhouse (who came to the sport from soccer, Portland took centerstage.
After a 2-4 start, the Bulldogs wouldn't lose again for over five weeks. A 7-0-1 closing stretch left Portland 9-4-1 and seventh in Western A.
The Bulldogs almost lost in the preliminary round and had they bowed out there, most observers would have praised them for making the playoffs and having a nice season, but bigger things were in store. After letting a two-goal lead slip away against visiting No. 10 seed Thornton Academy, Portland staved off elimination late in regulation, through two overtimes and several rounds of penalty corners before Dalbec finally won it, 3-2.
In the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs shocked host No. 2 Sanford, 3-1, and Saturday, at No. 6 Westbrook, Portland did it again, rallying from an early 1-0 deficit to prevail, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from junior Carissa Porcaro.
Marshwood, meanwhile, went 11-3 in the regular season and wound up fifth in the region. The Hawks upset No. 4 Massabesic, 3-0, then eliminated No. 8 Windham, 3-0, to advance.
Marshwood had the better of the Bulldogs way back on Sept. 6, 3-1. The schools had no postseason history.
Tuesday, the Hawks were simply too much.
A little over a minute in, Marshwood almost got the jump when sophomore Karissa Boesch had a good look at the goal, but her shot was kicked aside by Waterhouse.
In the fifth minute, a cross from junior Samantha Crosman was broken up by a defender. A minute later, Boesch again bid for the lead, but again, Waterhouse made the save.
Portland's first chance came with 20:49 to play in the 30-minute first half when Allen dribbled around a pair of defenders and fired, but Hawks' junior goalie Jacquelyn Tworkowski made the stop.
With 17:25 to go before halftime, Marshwood got its first penalty corner opportunity, but senior fullback Ellen Jewett made a tremendous defensive save.
The Hawks earned a second corner in the 15th minute and this time, before they executed it, coach Lisa Truesdale called timeout. Whatever she said worked like a charm as freshman Lindsey Poirier passed to sophomore Natalia Bachelder, who launched a long shot that Waterhouse couldn't stop and Marshwood had the lead for good, 1-0.
"We came out flat against Windham (in the semifinals)," Truesdale said. "Today, we didn't want to come out flat. We didn't want to leave here with regrets. I told them exactly what I wanted to do and they executed perfectly. It was a coach's dream."
If that wasn't disheartening enough for the Bulldogs, they found themselves down 2-0 with 14:20 to go in the half when, Bachelder played the hero again. Off another corner, Crosman passed to Bachelder, who didn't get as much on the shot, but it was enough to rattle the cage and Portland was on the ropes as coach Beth Arsenault was forced to call timeout.
"Rachel Waterhouse did an amazing job and we couldn't have asked for anything more," Dalbec said. "Their corners are very good. They capitalized a lot on them."
"You have to give Marshwood credit," Allen said. "They did great. I think the two goals scored back-to-back hurt us."
The Bulldogs pressured coming out of the timeout, but couldn't cut into the deficit.
Then, with 6:03 remaining in the half, the Hawks struck again as Crosman scored on a rebound off another corner for a 3-0 lead.
Portland had a couple good looks late in the half. First, a shot from Dalbec was saved at the last moment by a defender. After an ensuing penalty corner, a defender blocked a shot. In the final minute, Dalbec had a look, but shot wide.
In the first 30 minutes, Marshwood had an 8-1 advantage in shots on goal and scored on three of its five corners (while the Bulldogs went 0-for-2).
To the surprise of no one, Portland kept fighting in the second half.
With 26:50 left in regulation, Allen had a shot saved, but the Bulldogs kept the pressure on and Allen got another look and fired a shot that deflected off Tworkowski (four saves on the night) and into the goal to make it 3-1 with 26:10 remaining, plenty of time to complete a comeback.
It wasn't to be.
With 21:13 to go, Crosman's shot was saved by Waterhouse (who made 11 stops on the night), but the rebound came to senior Melinda Sutton, who converted the rebound to give the Hawks a commanding 4-1 lead.
Down the stretch, Allen had a couple good looks at the goal, but her first rush was broken up by a defender and an ensuing shot was kicked aside.
That would be it as Portland's season ended with the 4-1 setback.
"We're a team no matter what," said Dalbec, who hopes to play field hockey in college. "We love each other and we'll keep going and leave it for next year. We're happy with how far we made it. We made history. Congratulations to Marshwood. They played a great game. We were a little nervous and it just happened to go their way. We knew we had to keep pushing. As long as we felt successful as a team, that's all that mattered for us."
"Obviously, we'd have loved to have another four days together, but Marshwood deserves everything they're getting," Arsenault said. "They're such a good team. They're the ones who should be representing our league. They're so fundamentally strong. They were really good (the first time we played) too. They seem to play faster. The turf probably sped them up a little bit. When you have that many players who can execute, it's hard to defend. We're the first team to score on them in the playoffs so I'm happy with that. We played the whole 60 minutes. I'm proud of my team. We did come out and tried to mount a comeback. We gave ourselves some chances, but they wouldn't be broken and that's why they're playing at states. I don't look at it as a failure on our part. I look at it as they deserve to go to states. I don't know who could have beaten them today.
"I think it's awesome both of us ended up in this game. When you look at our league the past seven or eight years, it's been dominated by a handful of teams. It's not fun when that happens. Maybe now, other programs will have hope that anyone can do this."
Marshwood (which finished with a 15-5 advantage in shots and a 14-4 edge in corners) was thrilled with its win and paid tribute to its foe.
"Even though we beat them regular season, I knew we couldn't take them lightly," Truesdale said. "I love playing Portland. It's a classy team. (Beth's) a classy coach. (My) girls had so much poise for not ever being in this situation. I'm so thankful they got to experience this. They've worked hard and deserve it."
After the game and the awards ceremony, you'd be hard pressed to know who won and who lost if you didn't see the scoreboard. Even though they were disappointed with the outcome, the Bulldogs were all smiles and hugs postgame. A couple players even playfully wrestled on the field.
It was a fitting coda to a sensational run.
"It was so much fun," Dalbec said. "We bonded really well. We've had a great year. We came into the season with no high hopes, but we knew we could go far as a team. We used our push, drive and heart. It was an amazing experience to play with these guys. They were so welcoming. I'm so proud to call them my teammates.
"We came together once we started to get to know each other. We knew we could do it. We started to click. A lot of girls stepped up. Chelsea DePalma, Sam Dobson, Ellen Jewett in the defensive zone. We had sophomores step up huge, (Kaitlyn Rutherford and Alison Briggs). Gabi did a great job in the midfield. Carissa's two goals really helped us. Every person on this team was important. We played for each other."
"It's been a blast," Arsenault said. "We've always been kind of the forgotten sport at Portland High. We haven't been this year. I'd like to see more girls come out and give it a shot. We hope to put more fans in the stands. We had a running joke in the playoffs that there were people there who weren't related to us. We got some love from the school and hopefully we made them proud."
The Bulldogs will have a dramatically different look in 2012 after saying goodbye to 15 seniors who turned this program into a one strong enough to legitimately compete for a championship.
"The seniors have been a determined group," Arsenault said. "They always had a bit of an edge to them. I'm happy for them. They instituted summer practices. We don't have that many kids who are playing (Premier). Not the amount other teams have."
Portland will return juniors Cardona, Porcaro, Megan Hudson and underrated Leanne Reichert, along with sophomores Briggs and Rutherford. There figure to be some new faces as well.
"I think we'll still be a good team next year," said Allen, who is tentatively planning to attend and play ice hockey at the University of Southern Maine next year. "We'll still have Gabi, Leanne, Katie Rutherford. We'll have some good JV players. They could be as good as us if they work hard enough."
"Portland High is a very transient school in that we get kids in and out of the school all the time," added Arsenault. "I don't think I've ever had a season without transfers. This year, I had two high profile transfers and an inside job with the goalie. I won't write off next season. You just never know. I never thought in a million years I'd have the goalie I had this year. I'll cross my fingers."