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Cheverus holds off Bonny Eagle, sets up TA showdown

Sports

Cheverus holds off Bonny Eagle, sets up TA showdown

PORTLAND—The Cheverus Stags' 30th straight football victory certainly didn't come easily Saturday afternoon at Boulos Stadium, but the Stags did their part to set the table for what might be the most highly anticipated regular season showdown in Maine high school football history, a battle of 6-0 teams next Saturday afternoon at Thornton Academy, a game which won't just be for bragging rights, Crabtree Points and playoff positioning, but also a contest in which Cheverus will look to match the Class A state record for successive wins.

Hosting a Bonny Eagle squad Saturday that might be not the Scots of old, but is dangerous nonetheless, the Stags struggled to finish drives in the first half and even gave up a long touchdown pass to find themselves tied, 7-7, late in the second quarter.

Cheverus, playing without injured senior fullback Brent Green, circled the wagons and took the lead for good when senior quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick hit classmate Ryan Casale for a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Stags extended their lead in the third period on another Fitzpatrick-to-Casale TD pass, but the win wasn't sealed until a Cheverus defensive stand in the fourth period allowed the Stags to hold on for a 21-7 victory, their closest call in almost a year.

Cheverus has now won 23 straight regular season games, 30 in a row overall and improved to 6-0 on the 2012 season, dropping Bonny Eagle to 2-4 in the process.

"It was the first test we've had all year," said Casale, who caught three touchdown passes and also played a key role on defense. "I thought our team showed good character, we played tough and came out with a win. That's the first game I've played all four quarters."

Stags set stage

The Stags had barely broken a sweat in winning their first five games this fall, 43-6 at Sanford, 42-0 over visiting Portland, 42-0 at South Portland, 47-0 at Windham and 55-14 over visiting Gorham.

Bonny Eagle, the Class A standard bearer prior to Cheverus' rise, winning the Class A championship in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008, opened with a 42-14 victory over Biddeford. The Scots then lost at Scarborough (35-18), at home to Thornton Academy (37-20) and to visiting Portland (13-7, in overtime), before bouncing back to edge host Sanford, 14-6.

Cheverus' last regular season loss came at Bonny Eagle, 24-21, in overtime, Oct. 16, 2009. The Stags snapped a long losing streak to the Scots late in the 2010 season in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, 23-20. Last year, Cheverus had no problem winning at Standish, 42-18.

Saturday, in a game that began under sunny skies and ended with a strong shower, Bonny Eagle gave the Stags fits, but in the end, the champions passed their first serious test of the season.

Cheverus has made a habit out of burying its foes in the first quarter and appeared primed to do that again when it drove from its 20 deep into Scots' territory to start the game (a 48-yard run by senior Donald Goodrich and a 23-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to junior Noah Stebbins got the Stags close), but the visitors set the tone by stiffening on fourth-and-goal from the 2, throwing Fitzpatrick for a 2-yard loss, creating a loss of downs.

Bonny Eagle's second offensive play was also a harbinger of things to come, as sophomore quarterback Zach Dubiel, who has ably replaced injured senior Tyson Goodale, launched a bomb good for 48-yards down the right sideline to senior Tom Eppich. Unfortunately for the Scots, the gain was negated by an illegal procedure penalty, but they had demonstrated they could go deep and would return to that play with more devastating results.

The Bonny Eagle drive would stall after the penalty and the Scots were forced to punt. Junior Joe Bissonnette's punt was low and hit junior lineman Brian Rollins in the back of the helmet, killing the play and giving the Stags the ball at the Bonny Eagle 16.

Cheverus quickly took advantage and went ahead on third-and-5 from the 11, when Fitzpatrick and Casale hooked up for the first time, as Casale slipped free and found himself wide open in the back of the end zone. Sophomore Patrick Mourmouras added the extra point to make it 7-0 Stags midway through the first period.

On the third play of the next Bonny Eagle drive, Fitzpatrick intercepted Dubiel at the Scots' 48 and Cheverus drove to the doorstep again.

A 12-yard run from junior Cody O'Brien got the drive started. Runs of 5-, 1-, 11- and 15-yards from Green moved the ball to the 4, but on his final carry, Green went down with a knee injury and didn't return.

Again, the Scots rose up on defense. Goodrich lost a yard on first down, Fitzpatrick gained 3 on a second down scramble and O'Brien gained nothing on third down, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 2. Fitzpatrick, under pressure, threw a weak pass toward sophomore Zordan Holman in the end zone. Holman went down and trapped the ball, but the officials saw it hit the ground first and Cheverus again had given the ball up on downs with just 12.6 seconds to go in the first quarter.

"It was motivating and it got the sideline fired up a little bit," said Bonny Eagle coach Kevin Cooper. "Without Tyson Goodale, we have to play a different style of game. We might need four downs to get a first down and get the ball down the field."

By period's end, the Scots pulled even, thanks to a play that was anything but conservative in nature.

On first down, eschewing the run, Dubiel dropped back and again threw a long pass down the right sideline. Bissonnette was there to haul it in and he outran the pursuit, completing a 98-yard score as time expired in the quarter. Junior Isaiah Reynolds added the extra point and suddenly, despite a 141-3 edge in yardage prior to the touchdown pass, the Stags found themselves tied, 7-7.

"You have to take shots," said Cooper. "They're so aggressive up front. They play so hard. It's a one-on-one matchup. We have a guy in Joe Bissonnette we think can win one-one-one matchups so we have to take those chances."

Bonny Eagle's defense then forced a three-and-out and the visitors took over at their 28 with a chance to take the lead. Dubiel and Bissonnette hooked up for 18 yards on first down. Two plays later, Dubiel found Eppich for 13 yards and a first down at the Cheverus 38. Successive 6-yard runs by Dubiel and junior Stephen Hannigan set up another first down, but on fourth-and-9 from the 25, Dubiel's pass was intercepted by Cheverus sophomore Matt O'Leary, ending the threat.

The Stags gained a first down on a 16-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to O'Brien, but the drive stalled and they had to punt, pinning Bonny Eagle at the 5.

Cheverus forced a three-and-out and this time, the offense capitalized to go ahead for good.

After a short punt and a 10-yard return from Fitzpatrick, the Stags began at the Scots' 22. On first down, Fitzpatrick hit Casale with a short pass in the slot and Casale outran the pursuit into the end zone for a touchdown.

"We haven't given up many touchdowns this year, so that was a shock," Casale said. "We had to get over it quick and we did. That's what counts. We don't throw much, but when we have to, we can. I just got open, got where the defense wasn't and caught the pass."

"We had some big throws for touchdowns," Cheverus coach John Wolfgram said. "Ryan's a weapon. Fitz threw the ball accurately when he had to."

Mourmouras' extra point made it 14-7 Cheverus with 3:15 to go before halftime.

After another Bonny Eagle three-and-out, the Stags had a chance to add to their advantage, but a sack by Scots' senior Shawn Duane ended the threat and the game went to halftime still very much in doubt.

In the first half, Cheverus had a slight edge in yardage, 178-145.

In the second half, the Stags' defense and championship heart carried the day, but Bonny Eagle never gave up.

The Scots got the ball first and on third-and-17 from their 13, Dubiel was intercepted by Holman, who returned the ball to the Bonny Eagle 16.

Runs of 6-yards by Goodrich and 7 by Fitzpatrick set up a first-and-goal at the 3, but the visitors appeared primed for another goalline stand when two Goodrich runs only moved the ball to the 2. On third down, however, Fitzpatrick rolled right and hit Casale, who, considering what he had done so far, was surprisingly wide open to haul in a 2-yard touchdown pass. Mourmouras added the extra point to make it 21-7 Cheverus with 8:51 left in the quarter.

Bonny Eagle then embarked on its longest drive of the game, running 18 plays, chewing up 10 minutes and carrying the game into the fourth period before an opportunity went by the wayside.

Dubiel did the lion's share of the damage, keeping the ball 13 times for 51 yards, but after gaining a first down at the Stags' 25, senior Riley Murphy was thrown for a 2-yard loss, Dubiel was wrangled down for a 4-yard loss by O'Brien and senior Matt Cushing and on the first play of the final quarter, Bissonnette only rushed for a yard. After a false start, Bonny Eagle faced a fourth-and-20 from the 35 and Dubiel's pass fell incomplete, giving Cheverus the ball back with 10:51 to play.

The Stags then ran 8:01 off the clock, as Goodrich and O'Brien alternated carries, moving the ball from the Cheverus 35 to the Bonny Eagle 2. The Scots finally held one final time, but got the ball back with little time to work with.

Bonny Eagle, behind more Dubiel dramatics, moved from its 3 into Stags' territory, but time ran out and Cheverus was victorious, 21-7.

"Our older guys stepped up and our younger guys stepped up," said Casale. "We have a lot of younger guys who don't see a lot of time because we have such a good starting roster. They'll have to step up the next couple weeks and I know they will. Our defense played tough. We've had great defense all year. We're bend, but don't break on defense and we didn't break. We're a unit."

"It was a battle," Wolfgram said. "(Bonny Eagle's) a very physical football team. Kevin's a great coach. They tested us with the things they did. I think we made plays when we had to and we were physical enough when we had to be. We showed character to prevail in the second half. I thought we responded well. We played hard. We shut them down pretty well. No question, it's an important win for us. We played with  a lot of character and made plays on both sides of the ball when we had to. The new kids who stepped in did a nice job overall."

The final statistics suggested the closeness of the contest. The Stags gained 256 yards to 252 for the Scots.

Goodrich had 75 yards on 15 carries. O'Brien gained 49 on 13 attempts. Green rushed for 40 yards on six carries before leaving with his injury (the severity of which was unknown after the game). Fitzpatrick rushed for 11 yards on four attempts and completed 5-of-10 passes for 80 yards and three scores. Casale had three receptions (all for scores), good for 49 yards. Stebbins caught a ball for 23 yards and senior Jackson McMann had a catch for 8 yards. Cheverus didn't turn the ball over and was flagged just twice for 20 yards.

Bonny Eagle, which had three turnovers and 11 penalties for 58 yards, was led by Dubiel, who had 27 carries for 88 yards. He also completed 5-of-12 passes for 137 yards, a TD and three interceptions. Bissonnette caught two passes for 116 yards and a score. He ran three times for negative-2 yards. Murphy ran six times for negative-6 yards. Hannigan had two carries for 7 yards. Eppich had two catches for 18 yards and rushed once for negative-3 yards. Senior Seamus Meyer caught a pass for 3 yards.

"I'm proud of our guys," Cooper said. "They knew they had to play hard because Cheverus is a team that plays very, very hard. We proved we can do enough things to give ourselves a chance to win against these guys. That was important for us today. We're close. This is another step in our progress. We've come a long way from a couple weeks ago over at Scarborough. Our kids have done a great job advancing the program. We have to get better. We make critical mistakes at times. We put ourselves in bad field position and that's a recipe for losing when you play Cheverus."

Game of the century

Bonny Eagle (sixth in the Western Class A Crabtree Points standings) hosts Kennebunk Friday, then closes at Windham. The Scots are in a position to finish strong, reach the playoffs again and perhaps be a spoiler once there.

"We still have things we can do to get better," Cooper said. "We need a couple wins to get in the playoffs. that's the biggest thing right now. The progress we've made, we have reason to believe we can win the last two."

Cheverus' next opponent needs no introduction. Thornton Academy has been every bit as dominant as the Stags, winning its six outings by an average 43-13 margin. The Golden Trojans have an explosive offense, powered by do-everything junior Andrew Libby, and an opportunistic defense. Last year, in the Western A Final, visiting Thornton Academy flustered Cheverus for a half, leading, 3-0, before the Stags came alive to win, 21-10.

To say people are looking forward to this showdown would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Cooper has a unique perspective, having played both teams in recent weeks.

"They're both good," Cooper said. "To me, Cheverus plays very, very hard. I think that's their best quality. They have a running back who is just fantastic. Thornton Academy has tremendous skill. They might throw a little bit better. It's going to be a great game next week."

Cheverus, which pointedly avoided discussion of the impending showdown (and has ignored mention of its win streak altogether) until Saturday's win was in the books, is nothing but respectful toward the Golden Trojans.

"I didn't even know we played TA next until you told me," said Casale, in his postgame interview. "It should be a good game. We'll have a hard week of practice, watch film and we have to come out to play. If we don't come out to play, that could be the deciding factor. Whoever comes to play will win."

"I think (Thornton Academy is) a very good football team," said Wolfgram, who holds the previous win streak record as the coach of South Portland in the 1990s. "We have our work cut out for us. It should be a great game. Two 6-0 teams. They're a veteran team. They have good skill people. It'll be a good test for us. We'll have to pick up the pieces to see where we are and come up with something next week."

The Stags close the regular year at home against Deering Oct. 20.

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