SOUTH PORTLAND—It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
The second-ranked South Portland boys’ lacrosse team, a squad referred to as special on numerous occasions this spring, was close enough to taste its first ever trip to a regional final when the Red Riots held a 7-3 lead over No. 3 Kennebunk in the third period of Saturday evening’s Western Class A semifinal at Martin Memorial Field, but the Rams came to life, scoring four times in just under three minutes to forge a 7-7 tie with 12 minutes to go.
Kennebunk, which got a dominant performance from freshman Patrick Gassman in the faceoff circle, went up, 8-7 and 9-8, but South Portland tied the game on goals from juniors Duncan Preston and Thomas Leddy.
Then, with 5:46 to play, the Rams went ahead to stay on a fluky goal and they added one more with 2:10 to play, Despite chances to answer, the Red Riots couldn’t do so and Kennebunk went on to an 11-9 victory.
Gassman won 12 of 14 faceoffs in the second half, while junior Josh Hussey scored four times and the Rams improved to 11-3, advanced to meet top-ranked, three-time defending state champion Scarborough Wednesday at 5 p.m., in the regional final and ended the best season in South Portland history at 11-3.
“(The guys’) hearts are truly broken,” said Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini. “This team brought this program to a place where it’s respected, where they’re respected and where we’re considered one of the top teams and we belong there. If we won the game, I would’ve been screaming at them for the silly things they did. Losing the game, I told them they played their hearts out for each other and the played their hearts out for me. “
Fiorini felt coming into the year that South Portland would be a top team and the Red Riots went out and played some of the most memorable games around.
South Portland started the spring with home wins over Marshwood (8-7) and Gorham (12-7). After rallying for a 13-10 victory at reigning Eastern A champion Cheverus, the Red Riots battled back from an early 6-0 deficit before falling, 9-8, at Scarborough. A 15-4 home loss to Class B power Yarmouth followed, but South Portland then turned around to rattle off seven straight wins to close the regular season: 15-3 at Bonny Eagle, 17-2 over visiting Windham, 10-7 over visiting Thornton Academy, 17-7 at Massabesic, 14-8 at Waynflete, a first-ever victory over visiting Kennebunk (8-7, on Leddy’s goal in double overtime) and a 21-3 victory at Biddeford in the finale to wind up a program-best-tying 10-2 and earn the No. 2 seed.
The Red Riots then handled No. 7 Gorham, 12-6, in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round.
Kennebunk shot to an 8-0 start, then fell by a goal at Scarborough, 5-4, was blanked at Cape Elizabeth, 5-0, then lost at South Portland, 8-7, in double overtime, before closing with a 15-2 home romp over Deering.
As the No. 3 seed, the Rams held off No. 6 Thornton Academy, 12-8, in their quarterfinal.
The teams had met once before in the playoffs, a 5-3 Kennebunk win in last year’s quarterfinals.
Saturday, South Portland appeared to have the victory within sight, but it couldn’t finish.
The Red Riots almost got the jump in the second minute, when Leddy, the hero of the first meeting, was robbed by Rams’ junior goalie Ben Bath in close.
The visitors then went up, 1-0, when junior Tyler Elkington scored unassisted with 9:32 to play in the first quarter. Kennebunk wouldn’t lead again until the fourth period.
After Bath made a kick save on a Preston shot, South Portland senior Alec Neal scored unassisted with 5:09 left to pull his team even.
The Red Riots went ahead, 2-1, when Preston, who had been robbed by Bath seconds earlier, took a feed from freshman Jack Fiorini and finished with 59.4 seconds remaining in the first.
Leddy almost put South Portland up by two, but his shot was saved and with 9 seconds to go and Red Riots sophomore goalie T-Moe Hellier out of position, the ball appeared to be rolling into the goal, but senior defenseman Cody Munson made a heads-up play and dove to knock the ball away and allow South Portland to take the lead to the second quarter.
Early in the second, Preston hit the post and Bath saved a Leddy shot.
With 5:15 to go in the half, in transition, Kennebunk pulled even when senior Nick Bath passed to Hussey, who beat Hellier.
The Red Riots went back on top 46 seconds later, as Preston scored unassisted.
An unassisted tally from sophomore Andrew Whipple pushed the lead to 4-2 at the 4:12 mark and after Hellier made a nice save on a bid from Rams sophomore Patric Murphy, South Portland senior Colton Gervais dodged a defender and finished to seemingly give the Red Riots a three-goal halftime bulge.
Instead, Kennebunk got a man-up goal with 14.9 seconds to go, as junior Ryan Keefe scored to pull the Rams within 5-3 at halftime.
Faceoffs were even in the first half, but that changed dramatically in the second half.
Regardless, South Portland appeared to be pulling away as Leddy took a pass from Preston and scored on a little backwards flip with 7:39 to go in the third quarter and with 5:42 left, playing two men up, Fiorini finished a feed from junior Joey Babbidge and the Red Riots were up, 7-3, and were on the verge of pulling away.
Then, everything changed.
After a Gassman faceoff win and a Red Riots’ penalty, Hussey scored a man-up goal (from Elkington) to make it 7-4.
A little over a minute later, junior Patrick Rimmer eluded two defenders, then shot past Hellier to make it 7-5.
Momentum had shifted and with 2:43 left in the third, Hussey scored unassisted to make it a one-goal game.
Fiorini called timeout, but it didn’t stem the tide and with 1:33 to go in the period, again playing man-up, Kennebunk tied the score as Keefe scored unassisted after a ground ball win.
Four goals in just under three minutes had staggered the Red Riots.
“We started making mental mistakes we shouldn’t have made,” Fiorini said. “Things we hadn’t done all season. Changing people on the fly on defense, chasing people up the field.”
The game was deadlocked going to the fourth quarter, but there, the Rams continued to do the little things that led to possession and good looks at the goal.
When junior longstick Nicco Delorenzo scored unassisted 21 seconds into the final stanza, Kennebunk had its first lead since 1-0. An unassisted tally by Preston with 10:45 left ended a 6 minute, 57 second drought and an 5-0 Rams’ run to the tie the game, 8-8, but 26 seconds later, Rimmer scored unassisted to put the visitors ahead once more, 9-8.
With 7:40 to play, Leddy finished a feed from Whipple to tie the game, but South Portland woudn’t score again.
After Hellier turned aside bids from junior Bryce Fraser and Keefe, sophomore Jacob Boothby was credited for the go-ahead tally, when his pass from up top somehow got through a few players and eluded the goalie to make it 10-9 Kennebunk.
Hellier kept it a one-goal game when he robbed Hussey with 2:44 left. At the other end, with 2:26 showing, Leddy was denied by Bath and the Rams transitioned to offense and got some breathing room when Rimmer fed Hussey for a goal with 2:10 to play, making it 11-9.
In the final minute, the Red Riots tried desperately to rally, but Preston was off-target with a pair of shots and at 7:43 p.m.,, time ran out on South Portland’s season as Kennebunk prevailed, 11-9.
Hussey led all players with four goals. Keefe and Rimmer both scored twice, while Boothby, Delorenzo and Elkington each tickled the twine once. Nick Bath, Elkington and Rimmer had assists.
Gassman was the true hero, going 17 of 23 on faceoffs, putting on a clinic in the second half.
“We have a great faceoff guy,” said Kennebunk coach Dan Seavey. “In my opinion, he’s the best faceoff guy in the conference. He dominates almost every game. In the first half, it was back and forth. We pulled two poles up on the wing and went from there.”
“(Gassman) flipped the switch,” Fiorini lamented. “We did everything we could.”
Bath made 12 key saves.
The Rams had a 59-43 advantage on ground balls, as Gassman led the way with a game-high 11, Elkington collected nine and Delorenzo had eight. Kennebunk overcame 23 turnovers and had a 34-32 shots advantage (23-21 on cage).
“We came out a little flat and played some sloppy defense,” Seavey said. “Our slides weren’t there in the middle. We weren’t coming down on sticks. We came out in the second half and cleaned our game up. We tried to get our offense together. We got some transition goals and got some fire and went from there. After watching film and going over what they have, we knew we were a better team. We came in today and brought that fire.”
The Rams are off to Scarborough for the regional final. The way this team is peaking and the fact it only lost by one at the Red Storm May 15, gives Kennebunk plenty of confidence it can make it to the Class A Final in its final year at that level (the Rams go back to Class B next season).
The Rams and Red Storm met in last year’s regional final (a 6-3 Scarborough win). They also squared off in the 1996 Division II quarterfinals (a 15-12 Kennebunk win in the first year of the Scarborough varsity program) and the 2009 semifinals (a 13-5 Red Storm victory).
Expect another down-to-the wire thriller.
“I think the kids are ready to go,” Seavey said. “I think we’re ready to make a name for Kennebunk and put our first plaque in the case at school. We have a great group of kids here. A lot of athletes. We’re peaking at the end of the season. We have to control the transition game. We held them five last time, we just didn’t put it in the net. We’ll just have to put some goals in the net.”
Scarborough coach Joe Hezlep certainly has a lot of respect for the Rams.
“Kennebunk has a terrific goalie, poles who can make plays, an attack that scores a lot of points and their midfielders do a good job getting up and down the field,” Hezlep said. “Their defense has the ability to make you make bad passes. We need to play our game and work to get solid shots. We just need to do what we do at a high level.”
The Kennebunk-Scarborough winner will draw Brunswick (12-1) or Cheverus (12-2) in Saturday’s Class A state final, 10 a.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
South Portland was paced Saturday by three goals from Preston, two from Leddy and one apiece from Fiorini, Gervais, Neal and Whipple. Babbidge, Preston and Whipple had assists. Hellier made 11 saves, while Munson had one. Preston led the team with six ground balls, while Babbidge and Hellier both collected five. The Red Riots committed 19 turnovers.
After the game several players embraced Hellier’s father, Ted, a longtime youth coach in South Portland, who is battling cancer. Ted Hellier was the team’s emotional spark this spring and not surprisingly, the Red Riots produced a season unlike any other in their history.
“These kids love Ted,” Fiorini said. “It was emotional because these kids believed they could win a championship this year. In addition, they really wanted to do it for Ted. They gave him a lot of highlights. They’re a great group.”
South Portland left the field still believing it was that better team and that it merited another crack at Scarborough.
“We should be going into Scarborough and challenging them, not giving up six goals in the first quarter and see what we could do,” said Fiorini. “To be honest, I really thought we’d have one more game. I thought that at the beginning of the season. I was counting on going in as the No. 1 seed and having a little easier ride. I still say the champion’s coming out of the West. If Scarborough, Kennebunk and South Portland played 10 different times, there would be 10 different winners.”
Closing on the bright side, the Red Riots could be even better in 2014.
“The good news is that we only lose four,” Fiorini said. “We already have our theme for next year, ‘Unfinished Business.’ March 24th (the first day of practice) cannot get here fast enough.”
South Portland junior Joey Babbidge is defended by Kennebunk junior Nicco Delorenzo.
South Portland sophomore Trenton Lloyd-Rees tries to get the ball away from Kennebunk junior Ryan Keefe.
South Portland junior T-Moe Hellier makes one of his 11 saves.
South Portland junior Duncan Preston fires a shot past Kennebunk junior goalie Ben Bath.
South Portland senior Alec Neal runs past a Kennebunk defender.
South Portland sophomore Andrew Whipple leaves a Kennebunk defender in his wake during the teams’ Western A semifinal Saturday night. The Red Riots couldn’t hold a 7-3 second half lead and suffered an agonizing 11-9 defeat.
More photos below.