Freeport parties like it's 1978…Falcons edge Cape in regional final thriller

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Freeport’s boys’ soccer team erupts in celebration at the conclusion of its 3-2 win over Cape Elizabeth in Wednesday’s Class B South Final. The Falcons will play in their first state final in 40 years Saturday against Presque Isle.

Brianna Soukup / Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

FREEPORT—Break out the platform shoes and cue the Bee Gees, preferably on 8-track.

That’s because for the first time since 1978, Freeport’s boys’ soccer team will play for a state championship.

Wednesday evening at the Joan Benoit Samuelson Track and Field, the Falcons ended their 40-year trip in the wilderness with a regional final victory over Cape Elizabeth that won’t soon be forgotten.

And there were a ton of witnesses on hand.

Second-ranked Freeport got off to a sizzling start, as just under two minutes into the game, sophomore Ethan Prescott’s corner kick found the head of senior Shea Wagner for a quick 1-0 lead.

When Wagner set up senior Eriksen Shea for a sliding, highlight reel with just over 18 minutes to play in the half, the Falcons enjoyed a 2-0 lead.

But the fourth-ranked Capers, who ended the four-year title reign of top-ranked Yarmouth in the previous round, refused to go quietly.

With 9:20 left before halftime, senior Calvin Stoughton set up junior Killian Lathrop for a goal and Cape Elizabeth had life.

With 24 minutes left in regulation, senior Phil Tarling tied the score and seemingly gave the Capers all of the momentum, but Freeport would have the last laugh.

With 14:58 to play, Shea directed the ball in front where sophomore Will Winter scored the biggest goal of his young life and the Falcons’ defense and senior goalkeeper Atticus Patrick held Cape Elizabeth off from there as Freeport prevailed, 3-2.

The Falcons improved to 12-3-2, ended the Capers’ season at 9-5-3 and advanced to the Class B state final Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Hampden Academy where they will meet Presque Isle (14-1-2).

“We haven’t gone (to states) in 40 years, so it’s special for the school, the town and the fans,” Winter said. “It’s just unreal. We were motivated as soon as the whistle blew. We knew what we had to do.”

A long drought ends

Cape Elizabeth won eight state titles between 1987 and 1997, but in the 20 years since, while the Capers made the playoffs every season, they hadn’t been able to advance past the regional final.

This year’s team started slowly, sandwiching scoreless ties against Greely and York around a loss at Yarmouth, but Cape Elizabeth slowly hit its stride, winning four straight, capped by a home win over Freeport. After a 1-3-1 stretch, which included losses to Yarmouth, Greely and Freeport, the Capers won their final two contests to finish fourth in Class B South. Cape Elizabeth then opened the playoffs with a 5-0 win over fifth-ranked Lincoln Academy in the quarterfinals before shocking top-ranked Yarmouth, the four-time defending state champion, 2-1, in Friday’s semifinals, ending the Clippers’ 17-game postseason win streak and their 45-game unbeaten streak in the process.

Freeport’s glory days came between 1976 and 1978, when it won Class B every year. The Falcons had made it to the regional final three times in the interim (losing in an overtime classic to North Yarmouth Academy in the 2000 Western C Final, to Yarmouth in the 2005 Western B Final and in overtime to Falmouth in the 2007 Western B Final), but hadn’t been able to return to the state game. 

This fall, Freeport entered highly touted and lived up to billing under new coach Bob Strong, going 9-3-2, losing only to Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth and York and tying Greely and Yarmouth. The Falcons finished with the No. 2 seed in the region and handled seventh-ranked Leavitt, 5-0, in the quarterfinals, then beat third-seeded Greely, 3-1, in the semifinals.

The teams split this fall, each winning at home, as the Capers prevailed, 2-0, in Cape Elizabeth Sept. 14 and the Falcons won, 2-1, Oct. 12 in Freeport.

The teams met once before in the playoffs, a 2-1 overtime victory for Cape Elizabeth in the 2015 Class B South preliminary round.

Wednesday, on a 45-degree evening, with occasional light rain falling, in front of a more-than-capacity crowd that came dressed for Halloween, the squads put on a show, as both produced highlight reel goals.

In the end, however, Freeport made one more big play and punched its ticket to the state final.

The Falcons pressured early, earned a corner kick and with 38:02 to go in the first half, Prescott served the ball right in front, where Wagner headed it past Capers senior goalkeeper Harry Baker and into the net, just inside the back post, for a 1-0 lead.

“Getting that first goal was huge,” Wagner said. “My role is to get to where the ball will be in the air. I saw the ball in the air and I went for it. I saw it go in and it was a great feeling.”

“It almost seemed like slow motion when Shea tracked that ball,” Strong said. “The Wagner boys are baseball players and they do a great job tracking the ball.”

“Last time we played them, they scored two goals on corners and that was an area we focused on coming into that game, so (that goal) was disappointing,” lamented Capers coach Ben Raymond. “To (Freeport’s) credit, they do something very well to get free and score on corners.” 

Cape Elizabeth looked to answer in the fifth minute, but on a free kick from senior Nick Aceto, Patrick came out and punched the shot away.

With 29 minutes to go in the half, Baker had to come out to break up a feed from Shea to Winter at the last second.

The Capers almost tied the score with 23:50 left in the half, when senior John O’Connor got the ball to sophomore Archie McEvoy, who beat Patrick with the shot, but Freeport senior back Caleb Arsenault calmly cleared the ball away from the line at the last moment.

That set the stage for the Falcons to double their lead.

The goal was set up by a great run by Wagner up the left flank. Wagner absorbed a body check, kept going, then crossed the ball all the way across the goalmouth, where Shea came sliding into the picture at the last second and booted the ball past Baker and into the net for a highlight reel tally and a 2-0 advantage.

“Coach always tells us to look for the back cut, the secondary run and I was just at the right place at the right time, “Shea said. “I saw the ball coming, my eyes got huge and I put it in. I was super-excited.”

“The second goal was a great goal and gave us comfort, maybe too much comfort,” Strong said.

Sure enough, the proverbial “two goal lead is the worse lead in soccer” soon reared its ugly head and Cape Elizabeth answered.

After Patrick barely beat McEvoy to an Aceto through-ball and Patrick punched out an O’Connor free kick, the Capers got on the board with 9:20 to play in the half.

Lathrop sent the ball just wide of the frame to Patrick’s left and the Falcons’ defenders appeared to think it was going out of bounds, but Stoughton raced in and played the ball across to Lathrop, who one-timed it past Patrick and into the net to cut the deficit to 2-1.

“Their first goal was a letdown in our end,” Strong said. “We thought the ball was going out. That was important for them. They’re so well-coached. I knew they’d stick around and give us a fight.”

Just before halftime, a long free kick from Aceto forced Patrick to dive and knock the ball out for a corner kick and on the ensuing corner, O’Connor fired a shot where Patrick again had to make like a pugilist, punching it away.

Patrick then saved an O’Connor header and the game went to the break with the Falcons up by a goal.

Cape Elizabeth had a 6-3 edge in shots in the first 40 minutes, but Patrick’s five saves kept the hosts on top.

For the moment.

The second half produced even more drama.

In the opening minute, Winter almost extended the lead after stealing the ball, but he missed high with his shot.

The Capers then pushed for the equalizer, but Patrick got to Aceto’s header to Stoughton, junior Charlie Dall missed high on a free kick and Stoughton eluded a defender and hit the net, but it was outside of the near post.

Freeport then had its chances to make it 3-1, but Shea was denied by Baker and on a corner kick, senior Owen Patrick’s shot was saved as well.

The equalizer came with 24 minutes remaining in regulation and came on the run.

Aceto set the goal up with a pass to Tarling, who was streaking up the left side. Tarling got into the box alone and when Atticus Patrick challenged him, Tarling blasted the ball past him and into the net to complete the comeback and tie it, 2-2.

“The kids definitely worked hard to come back,” Raymond said. “That’s what we’ve done all year. We got here because we’ve worked hard all season long.”

Many teams wouldn’t be able to respond after surrendering a two-goal lead, but this Freeport squad isn’t just any team. The Falcons shook off the equalizer and went back to work to regain the lead.

First, Wagner won a 50-50 ball in the box and shot, but Baker kicked it away.

After Winter missed on a free kick, he got another chance and this time, delivered.

With 14:58 to go, Shea got the ball into the box played it over and Winter managed to get a foot on the ball in traffic and sent it past Baker and in for a 3-2 lead.

“I don’t even know what happened,” Winter said. “It’s kind of a blur. The ball came to me off a deflection and I tapped it past the goalie. It felt good.”

“We kept pushing and it paid off,” Shea said. “I knocked the ball in the middle and fell to the ground, then I looked up and saw the ball in the net.”

“Will hadn’t scored in a few games and he picked a good time to put it in the back of the net,” Strong added.

“We had a lot of momentum there, but there wasn’t a ton of flow to the game,” Raymond lamented. “It was stop-and-go. It was tough to get into rhythm. It was a matter of that final ball.”

Freeport then had nearly 15 long minutes to hold off Cape Elizabeth a second time.

With 13:30 to play, an O’Connor free kick deflected out to junior Ben Payson, who sent a shot wide.

With 7:46 remaining, the Capers had a corner kick which Patrick punched out to McEvoy, who missed just high.

That would be Cape Elizabeth’s last good look, as a pair of off-sides penalties prevented shots.

The Falcons then transitioned to offense, killed the clock and at 8:41 p.m., four decades after “Grease” was the word, disco was king and Bucky “Bleepin'” Dent was a newly-minted New England pejorative, the program was able to celebrate a regional championship.

A celebration that was raucous, to say the least.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Shea said. “This was our goal and to check it off our list is just unreal. Cape’s really good. They fought back and kept us on our toes, but it was our team chemistry that was the difference. We’re a unit. Halloween, new track, new coach, it’s great. I don’t know what more to say.”

“We had to put everyone behind the ball, but they could control the tempo,” Winter said. “We just had to hold our shape. We knew how to come back and keep our heads and focus on our common goal of winning. We’ve had a goal of reaching states from the beginning of the year.”

“This is great, especially as a senior, and on this new field too,” Wagner said. “No one thought this would be our last game. It’s just a great feeling. I know it’s special. We’ve known we can do it. Having it happen is just a feeling of joy. This year, we’ve focused a lot, especially in preseason, on team chemistry. We got used to being with each other. We got that down to the field. It made us flow really well.”

“I’m proud of them,” Strong added. “I’m happy for our school and our community and these boys. It’s special to do this in the first year of this facility. Our senior leadership is great. The 13 seniors pour everything they have into the team. Everyone else follows their lead.”

Freeport had a 10-8 advantage in shots on frame and a 5-2 edge in corner kicks. Patrick stopped five shots and Arsenault added a defensive save.

What a ride

Cape Elizabeth got seven saves from Baker and erased a two-goal deficit before ultimately falling just one goal short of its elusive regional crown.

“We made it tight and made it come down to the end,” Raymond said. “A couple plays here and there they were quicker to the ball and it paid off for them. Freeport’s a hard team to deal with. They’re very well-coached and they’re organized. They put us under pressure, but we worked hard to get back in it. We pushed to the end, but it just didn’t happen.”

The Capers managed to score twice even with O’Connor, one of the state’s premier players, hindered by a leg injury suffered in the semifinals.

Heading into the game, O’Connor’s status was uncertain, but he gutted it out, playing nearly the whole 80 minutes.

“It was a great effort tonight by a senior who wanted to do it for his teammates,” Raymond said, of O’Connor. “He has a lot of pride in his ability and how he plays. He definitely wasn’t 100 percent, but anyone who watched the game would have a hard time saying that. We tried to take him up front, but taking him out of the midfield limits what we can do. He’s the key cog in our offense. He makes the players around him better. We didn’t want him off the field.”

Cape Elizabeth enjoyed its best season in 16 years.

“We accomplished a lot, but we came up a little bit short,” Raymond said. “I hope the guys can look back in a couple weeks and be proud of our season. The way we improved from beginning to end, they did a great job. The kids got a heck of a lot better. If you told me Phil Tarling would score a goal in the regional final in August, I would have said you’re out of your mind. The hockey final maybe, but not soccer. That’s a credit to how hard he and the guys worked. Practices were always fun. They looked forward to competition. It’s tough to lose no matter when it is, but a lot of teams would like to trade places with us and have the opportunity we had tonight. We went a long way and accomplished a lot.”

The Capers graduate Aceto, Baker, O’Connor, Stoughton, Tarling, Sam Dresser, Duncan Geikie and Nick Martin and their absence will be felt, but the 2019 squad will be primed to make another run at the coveted championship.

“We lose some great seniors and it’ll be a hard group to replace, leadership-wise and ability-wise, but we have a really strong group coming back,” Raymond said. “Kids who got a lot of time and kids who understand what’s expected of them. Hopefully they can carry it a little bit farther next year.”

Coronation?

Freeport, meanwhile, has played in three previous Class B state finals, downing Fort Fairfield, 2-0, in 1976, beating Schenck, 2-1, in 1977 and defeating Penobscot Valley, 2-1, in 1978.

The Falcons like their chances to make it four titles Saturday when they meet a Presque Isle squad they have never faced.

“Senior year, it’s nice to play as many games as we can,” said Shea. “We need to focus in practice and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

“We want to get ahead and if we come out strong and put them on their heels, I think we have a really good chance to win,” Wagner said.

“We knew we wanted to go states and win it,” Winter said. “We have to come out with the same tempo we did today, get some early goals and we’ll be good.”

“We know Presque Isle is strong and athletic and we play a lot of teams like that,” Strong added. “We’ll have to adapt to what we see, but I’m confident that with the leadership we have that we’ll make a game of it. Hopefully we can finish it off.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Freeport senior Eriksen Shea goes horizontal to knock the ball away from Cape Elizabeth Phil Tarling.

Cape Elizabeth sophomore Archie McEvoy boots the ball up the field.

Freeport senior Shea Wagner keeps the ball away from Cape Elizabeth senior Nick Aceto.

Cape Elizabeth junior Killian Lathrop gets his head on the ball.

Freeport senior Owen Patrick races to celebrate with his teammates at the final horn.

Freeport senior goalkeeper Atticus Patrick and his classmates receive the regional championship plaque.

Hoffer photo.

The Freeport student section showed up loud and in costume Halloween night.

Hoffer photo.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.