TA ends Cheverus' streak, season
PORTLAND—The unbeatable team has met its match and as a result, the longtime bridesmaid will play for a Gold Ball.
The Thornton Academy Golden Trojans came to Boulos Stadium Saturday for the Western Class A Final full of confidence and with a nothing-to-lose air and imposed their will and physicality on the two-time defending Class A state champion Cheverus Stags, who were riding a state record 34-game win streak.
The Golden Trojans never trailed, held the prolific Stags' offense in check and featured the finest player on the field, junior Andrew Libby, who rushed 33 times for 133 yards and three TDs, to help his team, which has suffered its share of November disappointments in recent seasons, spring a memorable upset.
The Golden Trojans went ahead, 7-0, on a 5-yard Libby TD run in the first quarter. After the Stags drew even on senior quarterback Liam Firzpatrick's 17-yard touchdown scamper in the second period, Thornton Academy produced a memorable drive, culminated by a 4-yard Libby TD run with 32.9 seconds left in the half, which gave it the lead for good.
Cheverus made things interesting when senior Donald Goodrich scored on a 17-yard run with 7:18 to go, but the extra point was blocked and after the Stags gave the ball away deep in their own territory, Libby gave the Golden Trojans some breathing room on a 20-yard scoring run with 4:16 left.
Cheverus had one final chance and drove to the Thornton Academy 23, but the Golden Trojans' defense had the final say, sacking Fitzpatrick three straight times before a final desperation pass fell incomplete to give Thornton Academy a 20-13 triumph.
The Golden Trojans improved to 10-1, advanced to face 11-0 Lawrence in next weekend's Class A state final and ended the Stags' three-year win streak and their campaign at 10-1.
"We didn't play as well as we did some games this year, but we played with a lot of will," said storied Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. "I told our kids I thought they played like men. Losing is part of the game, unfortunately. We haven't been involved in that for a long time. That was hard."
Ever since Cheverus defeated Thornton Academy in last year's regional final, most fans and pundits expected the teams to meet again in this season's Western A Final and neither disappointed.
Thornton Academy opened by rolling over visiting Deering, 44-14. A 67-7 drubbing of host Gorham followed, but in Week 3, the Golden Trojans were pushed at Bonny Eagle before prevailing, 37-20. Thornton Academy had no trouble with visiting Massabesic (42-14) or Scarborough (35-7) and overcame a sluggish start by pulling away from host Windham, 35-14. A 28-14 Homecoming loss to Cheverus followed, but the Golden Trojans bounced back to crush host Biddeford, 42-14.
As the No. 2 seed in Western A, Thornton Academy got its share of fits from No. 7 Kennebunk in the quarterfinals before surviving, 42-34. Last week, against third-ranked Scarborough, the Golden Trojans pulled away early and triumphed, 49-14.
Cheverus hardly broke a sweat in its first five outings, pulling away to win at Sanford, 43-6, then dismantling visiting Portland (42-0), host South Portland (42-0), host Windham (47-0) and visiting Gorham (56-14). The Stags were then tested by visiting Bonny Eagle (21-7), at Thornton Academy (in the game which tied South Portland's 13-year standing state record) and by visiting Deering (21-7), which set a new standard.
As the top seed for the third year in a row, Cheverus met Deering again in the quarterfinals, but this time it wasn't close as the Stags dominated, 49-0. In last week's semifinal, Cheverus controlled play virtually throughout en route to a 35-7 victory over No. 5 Portland, which improved its state record Class A win streak to 34 games (please see sidebar).
The teams had met four previous times in the playoffs with the Golden Trojans taking the 1991 quarterfinals (36-6) and the Stags prevailing in the 1996 quarterfinals (28-19), 2009 semifinals (36-7) and last year in the regional final (21-10).
When Cheverus and Thornton Academy last met on the gridiron, it was the most hyped regular season football game in recent memory.
Saturday, the hype wasn't quite as strong, but over 4,000 fans (including an inordinate number of Thornton Academy supporters) crowded the hill to witness a regional final that was tight throughout.
It was clear from the get-go that Thornton Academy, still stinging from the loss Oct. 13, was confident and carefree. Cheverus was viewed as the favorite, playing on a field where it hadn't lost since Oct. 25, 2008 (40-6 to Deering), a string of 25 games.
Both defenses made statements early as the Golden Trojans, hurt by a couple initial penalties, went three-and-out and the Stags did the same (losing 15 yards in the process).
On its second possession, Thornton Academy drove 37 yards on 10 plays and went up 7-0 when Libby scored on a 5-yard run up the gut. An 11-yard pass from senior quarterback Eric Christensen to Libby on third-and-15, followed by a 7-yard Christensen-to-Libby hookup on fourth down, set the stage for the TD. Libby, who gained countless yards on the afternoon after initial contact, had a big hole and easily scored. Senior Brandon Briggs added the point after and Cheverus faced its biggest deficit of the season.
The hosts quickly responded as the first period gave way to the second, driving from their 24 for a first-and-goal at the 5, thanks to a 20-yard scamper by Goodrich on the final play of the quarter.
Goodrich ran for a yard on the first play of the second, Fitzpatrick rolled left for two, then, on third-and-goal, Goodrich bulled his way to the shadow of the goal line, only to be stopped inches short.
That set up a pivotal fourth-and-goal and the visitors got a huge break as the center snap went awry and Fitzpatrick could do nothing but fall on the ball to give Thornton Academy possession.
It proved to be a momentary reprieve for the Golden Trojans as the Stags' defense held and the Cheverus offense got the ball back at the Thornton Academy 35.
Four plays later, Fitzparick scored on a 17-yard rollout down the left sideline. It appeared Libby had a bead on Fizpatrick, but before he was able to make the tackle, he ran into a teammate. That set Fitzpatrick free down the sideline and after he eluded the tackle of senior Dakota Tarbox, he was in for the score. Sophomore Patrick Mourmouras kicked the point-after and with 6:29 to go in the half, the game was even, 7-7.
Thornton Academy then embarked on a sensational 14 play, 67 yard, 5 minute, 50 second drive to take the lead for good.
The running of Libby picked up one first down, then Christensen found junior Cody Lynn, who made a superb diving catch, for 27 yards into Stags' territory. Libby did the rest, carrying seven straight times (including a stellar second effort to pick up a fourth-and-2 from the 7) with the final rush resulting in a 4-yard score. Briggs kicked the extra point for a 14-7 advantage with 32.9 seconds left before halftime.
"We wanted to get the ball in (Andrew's) hands," said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal. "The field was wet and slippery and it was windy. Our line and tight ends block really well. It was hard to throw the ball. It's tough to stop him."
Cheverus did its best to answer, driving from its 46 into Thornton Academy territory, thanks to a 10-yard run from senior Brent Green (who missed the first meeting with a knee injury) and a 9-yard Fitzpatrick-to-Green pass, but a Fitzpatrick scramble to the Golden Trojans' 18 ran out the first half clock.
The Stags, who had deferred possession to the second half, hoped to get back in the game with their first possession, but on the first play of the third quarter, Goodrich fumbled after a 7-yard gain and Libby pounced on the loose pigskin at the Cheverus 33.
"There will be ebbs and flows in every game," Kezal said. "We knew we had to play 48 minutes. Last year, we played a great 24 minutes, then we came out and they took it to us. We talked about it. They've been a great third quarter team all year. The turnover set the tone that the kids learned from last year. "
The Golden Trojans had a great chance to take control of the game, but the drive stalled at the Stags' 15 after a Goodrich sack. Kezal sent Briggs on for a 32-yard field goal attempt, but it fell short.
Cheverus had dodged a bullet, but couldn't take advantage, going three-and-out and having to punt.
Thornton Academy then began at its 49 and again threatened to make it a two-score game, moving to the Stags' 20 for a fourth-and-inches as the final stanza dawned.
Libby ran for three yards to start the fourth and the Golden Trojans got to the Cheverus 12, but again couldn't finish as a Briggs 30-yard kick looked on target, before the wind blew it just wide of the right goalpost.
With 9:54 still to play, the Stags were still very much alive, but again went three-and-out.
Then, the defending champs got a break as Christensen fumbled and Cheverus junior Sam Cross recovered at the Stags' 48.
Cheverus took advantage and made things very interesting.
An 11-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Green got the Stags into Thornton Academy territory. After a holding penalty backed it up, Cheverus moved to the Golden Trojans' 19, thanks to a great sliding catch by junior Noah Stebbins, which completed a 25-yard pass play. Two plays later, Goodrich found room on the left side and scored from 17-yards out and with 7:18 remaining, the Stags appeared primed to tie the score.
Problem was, Mourmouras' extra point never got past the line of scrimmage.
It was blocked by Thornton Academy sophomore Ben Zuke and the Golden Trojans clung to a one-point lead.
The Stags' defense held, but the offense could do nothing and on fourth-and-8 from its own 19, Cheverus could have punted and hoped to get the ball back, but Wolfgram rolled the dice.
Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass, found himself under pressure and had to scramble, but only gained a yard.
With 4:23 remaining, Thornton Academy took over at the Stags' 20.
"It was tough for us to stop them," Wolfgram said. "If we gave them back the ball, they'd only need one first down. I calibrated and I knew one first down and they'd run out the clock. We had to get it then. It was fourth-and-8. If it was fourth-and-15, I probably would have punted it, but fourth-and-8, I thought it was makeable."
On the first play after the change of possession, Libby scored on a 20-yard run.
With 4:16 to go, Kezal went for the two-point conversion and a two-possession lead, but Libby's run was stopped just short of the goal line and Cheverus still had life, down, 20-13.
The Stags took over at their 23 with 4:07 to play and Fitzpatrick and Stebbins began to play pitch and catch.
A 12-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Stebbins gave Cheverus a first down. A 7-yard completion between the duo and a 3-yard Goodrich run was good for another first down.
After a false start penalty, Wolfgram sent junior Ethan Jordan in to play quarterback and split Fitzpatrick wide to the right. Fitzpatrick caught a 7-yard pass, then, senior Jackson McMann ran for 9 and another first down.
With 1:57 to go, the Stags had a great chance to find the end zone as Stebbins got behind the defense. Fitzpatrick spotted him and threw the ball down the field, but the pass was behind Stebbins and the receiver had to come back for the ball. He caught it at the Thornton Academy 23, but was downed immediately.
Still, Cheverus was a mere 23 yards from tying, or perhaps winning the contest.
The Stags wouldn't gain another inch.
In fact, they went backwards.
On first down, Fitzpatrick dropped back and was corralled by Tarbox for a 12-yard loss.
"I had some kill shots and missed them," said Tarbox. "That's what made me get the next one. The important one."
On second down, it was senior David LaPauloue's turn, sacking Fitzpatrick for 10 more yards and suddenly, Cheverus faced third-and-32 from the 45.
"We had to stay in it mentally," said Libby. "The defensive line stepped up. They sacked (the quarterback). It was great."
The third down play resulted in yet another sack, this time by senior Quinlan O'Brien and with the clock under a minute, the Stags had to try a fourth-and-33 desperation play from the Golden Trojans' 46.
Jordan came in at quarterback and heaved a bomb down the right sideline, but no Cheverus receiver could catch up to it.
With 32 seconds left on the clock, Thornton Academy took possession.
Christensen took a knee, the time wound down and at 2:37 p.m., the Golden Trojans were regional champions and the Stags were defending champions no longer.
Thornton Academy 20 Cheverus 13.
What ensued was equal part Cheverus heartbreak and Thornton Academy exhilaration as the disconsolate Stags watched the Golden Trojans celebrate in front of their fans.
"It's unbelievable," Tarbox said. "It's not just getting to the championship. It's the fact it's Cheverus. We had a splinter under our skin from last year. We had them this year. We just couldn't get over the hump. We knew it was about the emotion. We had to bring 150 percent the whole way. Our attitude coming in was to succeed and to not fear failure."
“We played with heart and brought it up another level,” said Libby. “We were more physical than the other side. No secrets. We just played harder. It's a great feeling. Last year, I was on this field with my brother (Luke) and we lost. This one was for him, big time."
“We were close last year,” Kezal added. “To be able to take that next step is huge. This time of year, you have to play physical football. You have to execute. Our kids have been confident all year. They've done a great job buying in and they did that today.”
Cheverus suffered its first loss since Nov. 14, 2009 (7-6 to Windham in the slop in that year's regional final).
“We had to play our 'A' game to beat them," Wolfgram said. "We did in the first game, but we didn't this game. That's part of football.”
The Stags wound up with a 222-210 edge in total yardage, but they never got their prolific attack going.
Goodrich capped his sensational two-year Cheverus career with 82 yards and a touchdown on 13 rushes. Fitzpatrick gained 41 yards (with a TD) on nine carries. Junior Cody O'Brien had a relatively quiet 18 yards on six rushes. Green only ran one time, for 10 yards. McMann had nine yards on his one attempt. Through the air, Fitzpatrick was 7-of-10 for 92 yards. Jordan completed 1-of-2 passes for 7. The top receiver was Stebbins, who had four catches for 65 yards. Green caught two balls for 20, Fitzpatrick and McMann each had one reception for 7. Cheverus, which wasn't flagged in the first half, finished with four penalties for 24 yards and one turnover.
"(Thornton Academy) played very well," said Wolfgram. "They only had one turnover. They're a very physical team. Very hard to stop. All you can do is hope to contain them. They're big and strong. We had trouble running the ball against them. They shut down our main weapons, so we had to go to other things. Some of those things worked well, some we didn't do well."
For Thornton Academy, it was all Libby, all the time. After only handling the ball 12 times in the regular season meeting, the standout (and early favorite for the 2013 Fitzpatrick Trophy) had 133 yards rushing and also caught four passes for 19 yards.
"The line did a great job blocking for me and I really appreciate it," Libby said.
"He's an animal, a workhorse," said Tarbox, of Libby. "If it wasn't for our line up front, it wouldn't have been the Libby Show, but he's an amazing athlete."
Christensen was 5-of-10 passing for 46 yards (Lynn had the other reception, for 27 yards) and ran eight times for 32. Senior Nick Kenney picked up 11 yards on four rushes and senior Dylan Morton had 5 yards on two carries. The Golden Trojans committed five penalties for 63 yards and had a turnover.
Defensively, Thornton Academy forced a fumble and got to Fitzpatrick a whopping six times, as LaPauloue and Tarbox each had two sacks, while O'Brien and senior Michael Granger had one apiece.
Perhaps the most impactful stat was time of possession, which saw the Golden Trojans hold the football for 29 minutes, 6 seconds, to 18:54 for Cheverus. In the first meeting, the numbers were almost the opposite (28:46 to 19:14 in favor of the Stags).
"Our offense was our best defense today," said Kezal. "We kept their play count down. Defensively, we stopped their base stuff pretty well."
Thornton Academy will seek its first championship since 1988 next weekend against Lawrence (a 20-10 winner over Cony in Saturday's Eastern A Final).
That could be a good omen for the Golden Trojans, whose last state game appearance featured a 47-13 win over the Bulldogs in the 1988 state game.
The thrill of ending Cheverus' streak lives on, but Thornton Academy has one final goal to reach.
“We're not done yet,” Libby said. “It's a great feeling to know we broke the record. We have to play with heart and effort. We'll practice harder than we ever have before.”
"We had run all cylinders to get to states," said Tarbox. "I can play football all year long. To get one more week is just an amazing feeling.”
“We'll enjoy it tonight and get back to it tomorrow,” said Kezal. “We're certainly not done. We've set goals for ourselves this year and we have another quality opponent next week.”
Not to be forgotten
Cheverus' dominance and excellence will only truly be appreciated in time. The sting of this loss will linger, but when players, coaches and fans look back on the past three seasons, jaws will rightly drop.
It's unlikely the Stags (even if Wolfgram coaches into his 70s or beyond) or any other Class A team will enjoy another run of this magnitude.
Cheverus, a program with almost no pedigree prior to the Wolfgram Era, won back-to-back state titles and was the team to beat this fall until the waning hours of Saturday afternoon.
A new Gold Ball will be awarded next weekend, but these Stags remain champions in every sense of the word.
"This is a great group of kids," Wolfgram said. "It's the first time in three years they've lost. That's a great tribute. I couldn't be more proud of these kids."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Thornton Academy 20 Cheverus 13
TA- 7 7 0 6- 20
C- 0 7 0 6- 13
TA- Libby 5 run (Briggs kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 17 run (Mourmouras kick)
TA- Libby 4 run (Briggs kick)
C- Goodrich 17 run (kick blocked)
TA- Libby 20 run (run failed)
Rushing (Thornton Academy, 181-160)
TA- Libby 33-133-3, Christensen 8-32, Kenney 4-11, Morton 2-5
C- Goodrich 13-82-1, Fitzpatrick 9-41-1, O'Brien 6-18, Green 1-10, McMann 1-9
Passing (Cheverus, 99-46)
TA- Christensen 5-10-46-0-0
C- Fitzpatrick 7-10-92-1-1, Jordan 1-2-7-0-0
Receiving (Cheverus, 99-46)
TA- Libby 4-19, Lynn 1-27
C- Stebbins 4-65, Green 2-20, Fitzpatrick 1-7, McMann 1-7
Sacks (Thornton Academy, 6-1)
TA- LaPauloue, Tarbox 2, Graner, O'Brien 1
C- Goodrich 1
Time of possession
Recent Cheverus-Thornton Academy meetings
October 13, 2012
Cheverus 28 @ Thornton Academy 14
2011 Western A Final
@ Cheverus 21 Thornton Academy 10
2009 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 36 @ Thornton Academy 7
Cheverus' 34-game win streak (click on link for game story)
H PORTLAND W 22-19
@ Kennebunk W 40-0
@ Westbrook W 35-0
Western A quarterfinals
H WINDHAM W 34-27
Western A semifinals
H SCARBOROUGH W 21-14
Western A Final
H DEERING W 35-34
CLASS A STATE FINAL
vs. BANGOR W 46-8
@ Gorham W 35-0
Western A quarterfinals
H SCARBOROUGH W 35-7
Western A semifinals
H DEERING W 45-0
Western A Final
H TA W 21-10
Class A State Final
vs. LAWRENCE W 49-7
@ South Portland W 42-0
@ Windham W 47-0
H GORHAM W 55-14
Western A quarterfinals
H DEERING W 49-0
Western A semifinals
H PORTLAND W 35-7