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PORTLAND—After a challenging regular season and short playoff stay, the Deering football team hung its hopes on a Thanksgiving Day showdown with a Portland squad coming off its best campaign in seven years.
The Rams hoped to close the high school football season on a high note and after a slow start Thursday morning/afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium, they did that very thing.
There wasn’t much separation in the first half, but in the second, a familiar script was penned as the Rams kicked it into gear.
A long touchdown run from senior quarterback Kenny Sweet in the third period put Deering ahead to stay and the Rams added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a commanding three touchdown lead. The Bulldogs tried to rally late with a score, but could draw no closer and Deering triumphed, 28-14, making it three straight Turkey Day wins and 10 over the past 11 seasons.
Portland still leads the all-time series 54-40-7.
Sweet was the star, gaining 248 yards on 21 carries, rushing for three TDs and throwing for another, as he capped a rollercoaster season for the Rams in grand style.
“It means we finished our chapter on a great note,” said Deering coach Jon Gallant. “We talk about how each year is its own chapter. That’s the beauty of having this game. We took advantage of it. It makes the turkey taste better. It was important to us.”
For the first time since 2006, Deering and Portland met on Thanksgiving Day after both taking part in the postseason (the teams didn’t meet in the regular season this year)
The Rams overcame an 0-4 start this fall to finish 3-5 to earn the eighth and final playoff spot in Western Class A. Deering’s playoff stay was short and painful as it was ousted by two-time defending champion Cheverus, 49-0.
The Bulldogs made it to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons after going 5-3. As the No. 5 seed in Western A, Portland won at fourth-ranked Windham, 35-21, in the quarterfinals, its first postseason victory since 2005. The Bulldogs were then eliminated by Cheverus in the semifinals, 35-7.
Deering and Portland have played on Thanksgiving Day since 1911. For 90 years, the Bulldogs ruled the rivalry, winning 53 times, losing 30 and tying seven. In fact, from 1982 to 2001, Portland won 19 of 20 meetings.
The series changed for good in 2002, when, just days after the Bulldogs won the Class A state title, the Rams sprung a 16-10 overtime upset on Thanksgiving Day. Deering has only dropped the 2009 meeting since.
Thursday, under a gorgeous sunny sky, with a kickoff temperature of 42 degrees, it took awhile, but the Rams carried the day once more.
Deering won the opening coin toss and took the ball, but after Sweet converted a fourth down run, the drive stalled at midfield and the Rams had to punt.
Portland started at its 13, but in a disturbing sign of things to come, committed a false start penalty before its first snap. A fumbled exchange followed and even though they recovered the ball, the Bulldogs were in too deep a hole and soon had to punt.
Deering took over at its 25 and began a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took nearly six minutes to execute.
A 4-yard Sweet run on third-and-3, with a late hit penalty tacked on, moved the ball to midfield. On third-and-6 from the Portland 45, Rams senior Dominic Lauture ran for 7 to move the chains. Runs of 12- and 16-yards by Sweet set up a first-and-goal at the 4.
On the next snap, Sweet ran in for an apparent touchdown, but it was negated by a hold. An illegal formation pushed Deering back to the 21, but on a sweep to the right, Sweet gained 15 yards and on third-and-goal, Sweet ran up the gut and crossed the plane to put the Rams on top.
Sophomore Jacob Coon added the extra point and with 44.5 seconds to go in the opening stanza, Deering had a 7-0 lead.
The Bulldogs gained their first down on the final play of the quarter, an 8-yard run by senior Nick Volger, but the Rams held an 88-15 advantage in yardage and a 9 minute, 15 second to 2:45 edge in time of possession.
Early in the second period, Portland moved the ball to the 40, but had to punt and Deering began to march again, moving from its 33 into Bulldogs’ territory, but this time, Portland’s defense stiffened and forced a punt.
The Bulldogs were pinned at their 8, but a 14-yard run from junior Justin Zukowski provided some breathing room. A 13-yard scamper from Volger moved the ball to the 39, but Zukowski was thrown for a 2-yard loss by Deering senior Tyler Wiggin and consecutive incomplete passes by Portland junior quarterback Ryan Ruhlin forced another punt.
Then, the Bulldogs defense made a play.
On first-and-10 from the Rams’ 32, Sweet kept the ball and ran for 4 yards, but fumbled and Portland senior Josh Hoyt came up with the loose ball at the Deering 36.
It took eight plays and 3:14, but the Bulldogs managed to pull even.
Runs of 5-yards by Volger and 8 from Zukowski moved the chains. An 8-yard Volger run gave Portland a first down at the 11. After Volger and Zukowski were both thrown for 1-yard losses, Zukowski gained 2, but the Bulldogs faced a fourth-and-10 at the 11.
Ruhlin would complete just one pass on the day, but it came at the most opportune time, on this play. After faking a handoff, the quarterback dropped back and found senior Joe Nielsen on a post pattern in the back of the end zone. Senior Kyle Reichert added the point after and with just 25.5 seconds to go in the half, the game was tied, 7-7, which is how it would remain entering the break.
Deering outgained Portland in the first half, 142 yards to 76, thanks largely to Sweet’s 97 yards on 15 rushes, but the Bulldogs were even and it appeared to be anyone’s game entering the second half.
Portland got the football first with a chance to make a statement, but gained just one yard on three plays and had to punt.
The Rams took over at the Bulldogs’ 46 and converted a big fourth-and-3 when Sweet hit senior James Doyle for 11 yards. On third-and-6 from the 24, Sweet’s pass fell incomplete, but Volger was called for pass interference, moving the ball to the 12.
On the next play, Portland’s senior standout lineman Tate Gale dropped into coverage and made a leaping interception of Sweet’s pass on the goal line. Gale brought the ball back to the 5.
The good news for the Bulldogs was that they had dodged a bullet, remained tied and had the ball, but they were in the shadow of their goal line.
Deering did Portland a favor with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, moving the ball to the 23. A facemask penalty and a 10-yard Volger run set the Bulldogs up near midfield, but a holding penalty ultimately short-circuited the drive and Portland had to punt from the Deering 45.
Sweet then stepped up big on special teams, pressuring Ruhlin into a punt that went nowhere, actually losing 3 yards, and the Rams took over at their 48.
“I just jumped and he had to try to kick it over me,” Sweet said. “I wish I’d blocked it.”
One play later, Deering had the lead for good.
Sweet kept the ball, blew through a hole and outran the pursuit down the left sideline.
“The linemen and wide receivers blocked great today,” Sweet said. “If the receiver didn’t block there, I’d get a 15-yard run, not a 52-yard touchdown.”
Coon’s extra point failed, but the Rams led, 13-7, with 13.2 seconds to go in the third.
Portland went three-and-out and Deering drove for some insurance.
Starting at the Bulldogs’ 43, it took just five plays for the Rams to find the end zone.
On third-and-7 from the 27, Sweet dropped back and threw the ball into the end zone. Initially, it appeared the ball might be intercepted, or at least broken up, but at the last second, Deering junior Ricardo Delgado adjusted his route, jumped and grabbed the ball out of midair for a touchdown.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better catch,” Sweet said. “That was thanks to Ricardo. It was a bad throw. I threw it up there hoping. It could have been picked, but he jumped and got it.”
This time, the Rams went for two, as Delgado tossed the ball to Doyle, who ran in to make it 21-7 with 7:48 remaining.
Portland’s penalty maladies continued on its next series.
A 20-yard Pitts-Young run was negated by a hold and even more damaging, three plays later, Pitts-Young’s 62-yard TD scamper was brought back by another holding transgression.
The Bulldogs ultimately had to punt and Deering took over at its 40 with 5:41 to go.
This time, the Rams didn’t score, but they ran a couple minutes off the clock.
Portland got the ball back on its 34 with 3:21 left, but a long Ruhlin pass was intercepted by Rams senior Adam Rodriquez at the Deering 19.
Sweet then ended all drama.
Sweet kept the ball, ran to the right sideline and with Gallant yelling at him to stay inbounds, cut back, broke a tackle, then reversed field to daylight. Sweet didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line, completing an 81-yard jaunt.
“Kenny’s a great leader,” said Gallant. “He has a great work ethic. He’s just a tough kid. I don’t know if he’s the most gifted athlete, but he never gives up. He won’t wow anybody with cuts or moves. He’s not Barry Sanders, but he can do some things that are very special. I don’t know how many times this year I thought, ‘Go down, go down, keep going, keep going!’ He stayed inbounds and scored.”
Coon added the extra point and with 2:03 to go, the Rams were in control, up, 28-7.
Gale didn’t quit, however, and he broke a 30-yard TD run with 1 minute to play. Reichert added the extra point to make it a 28-14 game.
Portland’s last gasp ended as Reichert’s on-side kick was scooped up by Wiggin. Two Sweet knees later and it was official.
Deering 28 Portland 14.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it,” Sweet said. “It’s the best way to end my senior year. The turkey’s going to taste great. We went in at halftime, we decided to get the edge as much as possible and we just kept cracking away until it finally broke open. (Portland) fought. I’ll give them that. They didn’t back down. We didn’t expect them to back down.”
“We were very confident,” Gallant said. “We’re confident in every game. You can’t play a game if you’re not confident in your game or your scheme. Ultimately, it comes down to if your kids believe. We had a tough early schedule and a tough end to the regular season and playoffs. We wanted to come out and show we’re better than 3-5. That we had the ability to do some things. Whether you’re 0-8, 2-6, 6-2, or 12-0 and state champs, people remember this game. This is the game you want to finish. You have an opportunity to make up for a lot of things in this game.
“We never talk about being a family. (The guys) have families. This is the next best thing. This was the last chance we had as the 2012 Deering Rams. We wanted to come out, cherish our time together, cherish this wonderful day and take advantage of it. Have no regrets.”
The Rams finished with 352 yards of offense to just 160 for the Bulldogs. Sweet stole the show in his swan song, rushing for 248 yards and three TDs on 21 attempts and completing 2-of-7 passes for 38 yards with a TD and an interception. Sweet was named Deering’s Outstanding Player.
Rams senior John Deloach was named the Unsung Hero award winner.
Lauture had 49 yards on 16 rushes. Delgado had one reception for 27 yards and a TD. Doyle also caught a pass, good for 11 yards. He rushed once for 3 yards. Deering, which had a slight edge (24:02-23:58) in time of possession, turned the ball over twice and was penalized a whopping 13 times for 99 yards, but persevered.
“We stuck to our game plan,” Gallant said. “We did a good job getting the edge. In the first half, our backs forgot how to run against an aggressive defense. You have to put a foot on the ground and go. We talked about getting the edge and holding on to the ball. Defensively, we talked about not giving up a short field.”
Deering will look for even bigger things in 2013.
“It’s a great opportunity for skill development,” said Gallant. “The city of Portland’s unique. Eighth graders have to make a decision. Hopefully they’ll look at these scores and how we play and the passion we play with. That’s what we want to carry into next year.”
For Portland, Volger had 82 yards on 14 rushes, Zukowski 43 on 17 tries, Gale 41 with a TD on two attempts, Pitts-Young 16 on five tries and Ruhlin 1 on one rush. Ruhlin was 1-of-10 passing for 11 yards. He threw a TD and was intercepted. Nielsen had the reception for 11 yards and a score.
The Bulldogs had one turnover and were really hampered by 12 penalties, good for 112 yards.
“We had too many penalties,” lamented Portland first-year coach Jim Hartman. “We thought we had a good plan, but you can’t keep making mistakes. We haven’t played in a month. I haven’t figured this out yet. We practiced hard, but maybe we had too much practice. I don’t know. We didn’t come out with much life in the second half. I don’t know if we were just tired of football.”
Gale (who also had 13 tackles and an interception on defense) was named the Outstanding Player for Portland.
“Tate’s smarter than most of us, number one,” Hartman said. “He’s very mature. He’s very strong. He’s in the weight room every day. He’s a leader. I’m really glad we had him.”
The Bulldogs made great strides in 2012 and should be a factor again next fall.
“We’ll need some bodies,” said Hartman. “We need to replace Gale and Volger and some other seniors. That will be hard. We need to get in the weight room.”
Portland junior Jayvon Pitts-Young fights for yardage as Deering senior Kenny Sweet tries to haul him down.
Deering senior Dominic Lauture stretches for the ball as Portland senior Nick Volger defends.
Deering senior Dominic Lauture tries to rip the ball away from Portland senior ballcarrier Nick Volger.
Portland junior quarterback Ryan Ruhlin looks for a receiver.
Deering senior James Doyle is tackled by Portland junior Abe Marr.
Portland senior Joe Nielsen is congratulated by juniors Luigi Grimaldi (left) and Jayvon Pitts-Young after his touchdown reception late in the first half.
Deering senior Kenny Sweet had no peer Thursday as he rushed for 248 yards, scored three touchdowns and threw for another TD to help the Rams beat rival Portland, 28-14, in the 101st annual Thanksgiving Day showdown.
More photos below.
D- 7 0 6 15- 28
P- 0 7 0 7- 14
D- Sweet 6 run (Coon kick)
P- Nielsen 11 pass from Ruhlin (Reichert kick)
D- Sweet 52 run (kick failed)
D- Delgado 27 pass from Sweet (Doyle rush)
D- Sweet 81 run (Coon kick)
P- Gale 30 run (Reichert kick)
D- Sweet 21-248-3, Lauture 16-49, Doyle 1-3
P- Volger 14-82, Zukowski 17-43, Gale 2-41-2, Pitts-Young 5-16, Ruhlin 1-1
D- Sweet 2-7-38-1-1, Marzilli 0-1-0
P- Ruhlin 1-10-11-1-1
D- Delgado 1-27-1, Doyle 1-11
P- Nielsen 1-11-1
Deering 28 Portland 14
Deering 33 Portland 0
Deering 35 Portland 14
Portland 41 Deering 6
Deering 39 Portland 14
Deering 43 Portland 0
Deering 40 Portland 8
Deering 21 Portland 14
Deering 21 Portland 14
Deering 49 Portland 0
Deering 16 Portland 10 (OT)
Portland 30 Deering 6
Portland 21 Deering 7