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Portland rallies to win epic "Bridge" game, 36-33 over SP

Sports

Portland rallies to win epic "Bridge" game, 36-33 over SP

PORTLAND—The 94th "Battle of the Bridge" proved to be one of the most memorable of them all.

The annual regular season-ending rivalry game between Portland and
South Portland had extra meaning this year, as both the Bulldogs and
Red Riots were playing for high stakes.

South Portland's quest for a first playoff trip since 2002 appeared
on track when it shot to a 27-7 lead in the first half, but Portland
rallied and won the game in dramatic fashion when junior standout
Imadhi Zagon bulled in from a yard out with just 5 seconds to play,
giving the 5-3 Bulldogs a stirring 36-33 victory, which makes them the
No. 6 seed for the Western Class A playoffs, while sending the 4-4 Red
Riots home.

"I'm so proud of the whole team," said Zagon. "We had faith in ourselves and pushed hard. I'm just happy. It means everything to
us. We get to go to the playoffs and show who Portland is."

"It was a classic Bridge game," added longtime Portland coach Mike
Bailey. "We were going to keep going until the clock ran out."

One for the ages

Portland and South Portland first met in 1907. The Red Riots held a 51-39-3 edge entering Friday night's game.

Both teams had been among the most exciting and entertaining this fall, a theme which continued at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

The Bulldogs opened the year with a 14-0 loss at Deering and a 27-14
home setback at the hands of two-time defending Class A champion Bonny
Eagle. Portland then put it together and won four straight: 36-30 at
Westbrook, 28-0 at home over then-unbeaten Cheverus, 35-14 at Biddeford
and 54-12 at home over Gorham. The Bulldogs came back to earth a bit
last week, however, with a 38-6 loss at Windham.

South Portland fell 40-13 at Windham in its first game, eked out a
7-0 home victory at home over Westbrook, then struggled mightily in a
21-0 loss at Cheverus. The next week, however, the Red Riots shocked
the local football world with a last-second 48-45 home win over Bonny
Eagle. South Portland then won 36-0 at Noble and rallied past visiting
Deering, 36-34, to get within a whisker of securing a postseason bid.
Last week, the Red Riots weren't able to complete the job, losing 36-34
at home to Gorham.

Friday, South Portland need a win to get in, while Portland (which
fell short of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008) looked to strengthen its
position.

The road team had won the last three games in the series (the
Bulldogs were 20-14 overtime victors at South Portland a year ago) and
that trend looked as if it would continue when the Red Riots dominated
the early going.

After the visitors went three-and-out on their first series (a sack
from Portland junior Eddie Walsh was the highlight), the Bulldogs got
the ball, but on their first play, a bad snap led to a fumble, which
was recovered by Red Riots junior Billy Darling.

South Portland took possession at the Portland 35 and five plays
later had the lead, when senior standout Ryan Curit burst up the gut
for a 15-yard score. Junior Tommy Ellis booted the point-after and the
Red Riots had a 7-0 advantage just 4 minutes in.

The Bulldogs moved the ball on their next series, driving from their
31 into South Portland territory on the strength of runs of 22-, 11-
and 7 yards from Zagon (operating out of the "Wildcat" offense). When
Zagon raced 21 yards down the sideline to the Red Riots 4 , it appeared
as if the hosts' first score was imminent, but on the next play, a
fumbled snap led to another Darling recovery and South Portland had
dodged a bullet and took over on its 6. 

After Curit picked up four yards on first down, he broke through the
line and outraced the pursuit all the way to the end zone for a 90-yard
TD. Ellis' extra point made it 14-0 with 4:23 to play in the first
period.

The Portland offense finally finished the job on its next
possession, driving 61 yards on five plays. A 32-yard burst from senior
Jake Alexander set the tone. After senior Kevin Nielsen raced 16 yards
to the Red Riots 6, Zagon finished the march with a 6-yard scoring run.
Junior kicker Feliks Cobanovic added the extra point to cut the deficit
in half.

As quickly as the Bulldogs seized the momentum, however, it was
wrested away as South Portland sophomore Dan Medici grabbed the ensuing
kickoff at his 30 and roared back the other way for a 70-yard score to
make it 21-7 after one frenetic quarter.

In the first 12 minutes, Curit rushed for 129 yards on seven carries with two scores.

The second period began inauspiciously as well for Portland when a
fumbled snap on the first play was snagged once again by Darling at the
Red Riots 39. Three plays later, Curit broke free again and scored on a
56-yard scamper. Ellis' extra point was blocked by Bulldogs senior
Jason Strauss, but South Portland was on the verge of running away with
it, leading 27-7.

Portland calmed down and embarked on a 13-play, 68 yard drive, which
ate up nearly seven minutes to seize a bit of momentum. Zagon carried
six times for 27 yards and completed a couple of passes. With 3:43 to
play in the first half, Nielsen scored on a 6-yard run and the hosts
were back within 13, 27-14.

The Red Riots promptly went three-and-out and the Bulldogs looked to
pull even closer before the break, but couldn't drive any further than
South Portland's 25 and the game went to the break.

"The big thing was that in the first half, we beat ourselves," Bailey said. "We
turned the ball over. I told the kids at halftime that the only ones
beating us were ourselves.

The Bulldogs had a 249-182 edge in yardage, but their three
turnovers were the difference. Portland would take much better care of
the ball in the second half and slowly work its way toward completing a
dramatic rally.

The hosts got the ball first and made things interesting with an
11-play, 84 yard drive, which was highlighted by a 19-yard run from
Zagon, an 11-yard burst from Alexander and a key pass interference
penalty on the Red Riots, which set up a first down at the South
Portland 19. After Alexander gained 10 yards on a rush, senior Gordon
Parker found senior Jon Brown for a 9-yard scoring pass. Cobanovic
added the extra point and with 7:19 to play in the third period,
Portland was within six, 27-21.

South Portland answered with an eight-play, 69 yard drive. Senior
quarterback Jon DiBiase found senior Spencer Bowring for 17 yards and a
first down in Bulldogs territory. Four plays later, on
fourth-and-inches at the 37, Curit broke through a hole and again
outraced the defense to the end zone for his fourth TD. Strauss broke
through to block the extra point again and the Red Riots' lead was 12,
33-21, with 3:39 left in the quarter.

Thirteen seconds later, Portland had all the momentum back when
Alexander returned the kickoff 87 yards to paydirt. Just as soon as
South Portland earned some breathing room, it was gone and the Bulldogs
were within five, 33-28.

"We needed a score at that point," said Alexander. "I wasn't going
to stop. I kept running as hard as I could and eventually broke free."

"That return was momentous for momentum," added Bailey.

Even better for the hosts, they recovered the ensuing kickoff when
the ball deflected off a Red Riots player into the arms of Nielsen at
midfield. Poised to take the lead for the first time, Portland couldn't
do so, as an incomplete pass and two Zagon runs totalling four yards
forced a punt. As the third period gave way to the fourth, DiBiase's
pass on fourth-and-11 from the Bulldogs 34 was intercepted by Strauss.

Portland wasn't able to take advantage, shooting itself in the foot
with a false start penalty. The Bulldogs punted the ball back to South
Portland, then stood tall on defense again, forcing a Red Riots punt.
With 6:09 to play, Portland took over at its 22 and embarked on its
biggest drive of the season.

Zagon ran for 10 yards to get it started. A 6-yard carry from
Alexander and a 5-yard rush from Zagon gave the hosts a first down at
their 43. After junior Caleb Kenney burst free for 17 yards, the
Bulldogs were at the South Portland 40.  Zagon ran for 6 yards, then
Portland was flagged for a false start penalty, pushing the ball back
to the 39. Kenney gained just 2 yards on the next play, setting up a
third-and-7, but Zagon rushed for 11 and a first down. After Alexander
picked up 7 yards on first down, Nielsen was thrown for a 4-yard loss
(Curit got into the backfield to make the tackle), setting up
third-and-7 at the 32. The ball went to Kenney and he bulled his way
for 8 tough yards and a first down at the 15. Bailey called timeout
with 1:05 to play.

A 4-yard run from Zagon and a 5-yard pickup from Nielsen set up a
third-and-1 and forced Bailey to take a second timeout with 28.3
seconds left. Zagon then gained four yards for a first-and-goal at the
2. Portland took its final timeout with 23.4 seconds to play.

Zagon tried to keep it himself on the next snap, but was stopped at
the 1. With time winding down and a few South Portland players
celebrating prematurely, Zagon rushed his team to the line of
scrimmage, took the snap and went in over right tackle for the
touchdown.

"We weren't going to go huddle," said Zagon. "We were going to left or right. We got it on the second play."

"He got stopped on the first one and he said just run '12 iso,'" Alexander said. "He said
if he got stopped, go to '13 iso.' Imadhi stepped up and got in. He
came up big for us."

"They ran the first play, then they had to get back on the line and run the
play again with no timeouts left," said South Portland coach Steve Stinson (who starred as a lineman for Bailey and the Bulldogs in his playing days). "You have to be set for one whole
second. It looked like they had some motion going on before they
snapped the ball. That play was magnified, but there were a lot of plays
that won and lost this football game."

Five-point-two seconds remained and the Bulldogs had the lead for the first time. After Alexander bulled in for the two-point conversion, Portland had a 36-33 advantage. 

South Portland had one final chance. Taking over at its 20 after a
touchback, DiBiase attempted a pass down the left sideline, but Parker
outleaped the receiver to intercept the ball as time expired.

Just like that, Portland had a win, better playoff positioning and bragging rights.

"Coach gave us a big speech at halftime and we all just came together," Alexander said "We had a
rough time the past two years and we wanted to make playoffs real bad. 
We knew we had it and we never gave up. We came out strong in the
second half and our D came out strong and stopped them.

"I think we grew a lot tonight," Bailey added. "In the Windham game, we got behind and
we folded. Same thing in the Bonny Eagle game and the Deering game.
That was our challenge this week. We had to fight to the end. They
responded. It's a tribute to them."

The Red Riots were left crestfallen.

"Every week since Cheverus, we've had exciting games," Stinson said.
"The kids played
their typical way. They played hard, played fast, left it all out on
the field. Portland is a good football team. A well-coached team. They
did a good job. Portland made nice plays late. It was a good chess
game. Imadhi made some plays. Nielsen had a nice game. It was well
played. We needed to make some key stops, we had opportunities,
but they made plays. It was competitive and clean. What can you say? My
kids played their rear ends off. They've definitely been a special
group."

Curit finished his career with 260 yards and four TDs on 22 carries. DiBiase went 2-for-7 for 14 yards with two interceptions.

Zagon rushed for 161 yards (and two scores) on 29 attempts. He also
completed two passes for 32 yards. Parker went 4-for-8 through the air
for 39 yards and a TD. Alexander rushed eight times for 93 yards.
Nielsen gained 67 yards (and a TD) on 12 carries. Kenney finished with
34 yards on four attempts.

Portland had a 394-300 edge in yardage. Each team wound up with three turnovers.

Next step

For a time Friday night, South Portland thought it might be in the
playoffs despite the loss, but the final Western Class A Crabtree
Points will show that Massabesic earned the eighth and final postseason
berth by a slim margin over the Red Riots, who will have to be
satisfied with their growth, dramatic wins over Bonny Eagle and Deering
and the fact they're the first South Portland team since 2001 to avoid
a losing record.

"This is the best South
Portland team since '01," Stinson said. "It's a special group. If we had an opportunity
to play a ninth game, we'd take it. The kids did everything they needed
to do. I have nothing but love for those guys."

Portland will play a ninth game, at 6-2 Bonny Eagle next weekend in
the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs are eager for the opportunity.

"Hopefully we can keep on rolling in the playoffs," said Alexander. "The seniors have
great chemistry. We've been together for awhile. The loss to Deering
killed us. We knew we could have beat them and we came together. We
crushed Cheverus and we kept on winning. I think we can go all the way
if we really put our heads into it."

"We've come a long way," Zagon said. "Everyone's more upbeat in practice. We're
working harder. We know we have it in ourselves."

"We have a chance to redeem ourselves against Bonny Eagle," Bailey
added. "We'll see what happens. The playoffs are wide open. It feels
great to get back. The kids kept plugging. They wanted to get better.
They were committed. We came a long way over eight weeks."

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net

 

Photo: Jason Veilleux
South Portland senior standout Ryan Curit closed his high school career with another stellar effort, rushing for 26- yards and four TDs on 22 carries to help the Red Riots get within 5.2 seconds of their first playoff trip since 2002.

Photo: Jason Veilleux
Portland junior Imadhi Zagon's rush on this play was stopped by South Portland senior Ryan Curit (15) and sophomore Dan Medici, but with the game on the line, Zagon scored on a 1-yard run with 5.2 seconds to go to give the Bulldogs a 36-33 win.

Photo: Jason Veilleux
Portland senior Jake Alexander had a huge game Friday, returning a kickoff for a score and breaking several long rushes.

Photo: Jason Veilleux
Portland senior Kevin Nielsen broke free for a big gainer Friday. Nielsen joined Imadhi Zagon and Jake Alexander and big weapons during the victory.

Photo: Jason Veilleux
Portland senior Jon Brown ran into a wall of South Portland defenders, led by junior Billy Soule (23) and junior Cal Skillings, on this play.