Cheverus rallies to deny Portland, returns to state final
PORTLAND—One year after suffering a home loss to Thornton Academy in the regional final, the Cheverus football team was once again staring agony in the face in that round Saturday afternoon at Boulos Stadium.
But this time, the Stags, who prior to their showdown with rival Portland, hadn't trailed for a single second this fall, weren't about to let history repeat itself.
Demonstrating its enormous heart and will, Cheverus rose to the challenge.
The Stags, who led early on a short touchdown run from senior Cody O'Brien, suffered through a painful second quarter and found themselves down, 19-7, at halftime, as the Bulldogs got a short touchdown run from senior standout Justin Zukowski, scored again when junior Ryan Ruhlin recovered a fumble in the end zone, then got a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Jordan Talbot to senior Ronald Hargrove.
With its season and legacy on the line, however, Cheverus played a sensational second half, not allowing Portland to pick up a single first down, while holding the Bulldogs to 16 yards of offense.
After a momentum-turning fumble recovery, the Stags got back in the game on a 1-yard run from O'Brien and late in the third period, they turned to secret weapon, sophomore Kenny Drelich, who hauled in a 65-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ethan Jordan to go ahead to stay.
Down the stretch, Cheverus prevented Portland from answering and held on for a 22-19 victory.
The Stags improved to 10-0, ended the Bulldogs' campaign at 8-2 and set up a Class A state final showdown versus Bonny Eagle (9-1) Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium at a time to be announced.
"We wanted to win this to get to Fitzpatrick Stadium," said legendary Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. "We don't get reflective until the season's over, but we'll enjoy this one. It's a huge win. (Portland's) very good. It feels very good to beat a city rival like that. I thought we executed well. We showed the resiliency and character we needed to be successful. That was the key thing."
Cheverus and Portland entered the 2013 season as the favorites in the newly restructured Eastern Class A and simply solidified that status as the year progressed.
The teams met in the opener, Sept. 6 at Fitzpatrick Stadium, where the Stags prevailed, 35-25.
Cheverus then decimated everyone else, romping over visiting Lewiston (67-8), visiting Oxford Hills (54-0), host Windham (57-22), visiting Edward Little (48-0) and Thornton Academy (56-7) and host Windham (49-7) and Deering (56-12) to go 8-0 and earn the No. 1 seed for the fourth year in a row.
The Stags had a bye for the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, then had no trouble with fourth-ranked Bangor in the semifinals, 37-0.
The Bulldogs shook off their loss to Cheverus and also ran roughshod on the opposition, defeating host Deering (45-19), visiting Edward Little (45-7), host Bangor (33-20) and Oxford Hills (68-0), visiting Windham (57-14), host Lewiston (42-6) and visiting South Portland (38-14) to go 7-1, good for the No. 2 seed.
After also enjoying a bye, Portland had no trouble with No. 3 Windham in the semifinals, 55-7.
Prior to Saturday, the Bulldogs held a 45-31-5 all-time advantage in the series with the teams splitting two previous playoff meetings (see sidebar, below). Neither team had been tested in weeks, but this one was close throughout before the Stags ultimately found a way to survive.
Portland got the ball first, but couldn't manage a first down, as Zukowski, the region's leading rusher in the regular season with 1,531 yards, was held to a yard, Hargrove ran for three yards and on third-and-6, senior Jayvon Pitts-Young was held to four yards.
After a punt, Cheverus took over at its 43 and 13 plays and 6 minutes, 8 seconds later, had the lead.
A 19-yard run from junior Liam LaFountain got things started. After O'Brien ran for two yards, LaFountain picked up nine more to move the chains again. Junior standout Joe Fitzpatrick, the second leading rusher in the regular season with 1,444 yards, then got the ball for the first time and ran for six, followed by a five-yard O'Brien run for another first down. A false start penalty appeared to short-circuit the march, but on third-and-13, Jordan hit junior Zordan Holman for 10 and on fourth-and-3, Fitzpatrick, thanks to a second effort, got the necessary yardage to set up first-and-goal from the 10.
After Fitzpatrick ran for seven yards, then gained two to move the ball to the 1, O'Brien got the call and despite getting turned around, lunged for the goal line and broke the plane. Junior place-kicker Patrick Mourmouras added the extra point and with 3:58 left in the first period, the Stags had a 7-0 lead.
Portland began its next drive at its 20 and appeared stuck in netural again when Zukowski ran twice for five yards and Hargrove picked up three, forcing another punt, but the Bulldogs got a dose of serendipity as the snap to Talbot was low and Talbot was forced to take off down the left sideline. He wasn't stopped until gaining 21 yards for a first down.
On the final play of the first period, Talbot hit senior Brett Howell for 43 yards down the left sideline, as Howell made a stellar diving catch, to set up a first-and-10 from the Cheverus 11.
After Zukowski gained six yards on first down, a facemask penalty on the Stags moved the ball to the 2, where Zukowski carried it into the end zone. Sophomore kicker John Williams added the point-after and with 10:56 remaining in the half, the game was deadlocked, 7-7.
Portland's good fortune continued over the next 10 seconds, as a pair of plays left everyone in attendance stunned.
On the kickoff following the touchdown, LaFountain caught the ball just outside the end zone and tried to make a cut, but slipped on the turf and the ball was spotted at the 1.
Jordan couldn't handle the ensuing snap and the fumble fell into the end zone and Ruhlin pounced on the loose ball for the easiest touchdown of his life. Williams missed the PAT, but Portland had its first lead, 13-7, with 10:46 to go before halftime.
The Bulldogs' defense kept the pressure on by forcing a three-and-out, but after moving into Stags' territory on an 11-yard Talbot to senior Matt Talbot pass, the drive stalled at the Cheverus 33 and the visitors had to punt.
Cheverus got a pair of first downs, highlighted by a 23-yard Jordan-to-senior Sam Cross pass, but Portland junior Jeremiah Copeland threw LaFountain for a loss and a false start penalty forced the Stags to punt again.
The Bulldogs got the ball back at their 10 with 3:53 to go before halftime and embarked on a drive to extend their lead.
After Zukowski broke a pair of tackles to gain 11 yards for some breathing room, Talbot hit sophomore Joe Fusco for 21 yards into Cheverus territory.
Talbot ran for 10 yards on third-and-10 to move the chains and a roughing the passer penalty moved the ball to the 17 with less than a minute to go.
Talbot then dropped back and threw a ball up for grabs near the left pylon. Hargrove went up for the ball and as Stags sophomore defender Isaac Dunn slipped, Hargrove had himself an easy TD reception with 26.5 seconds left. Williams' extra point was blocked by Cross, but Portland had a 19-7 lead, which it would take to the break.
In the first 24 minutes, the Bulldogs outgained Cheverus, 192 yards to 94, ran 30 plays to just 24 by the hosts and held the ball for 13 minutes, 9 seconds.
Fitzpatrick only handled the ball five times, but said that was part of the plan.
"We wanted to spread everyone out and make them see some new looks," Fitzpatrick said. "We also didn't want to get away from our roots. We tried different stuff."
"The message at halftime was think about what we needed to do and do it," O'Brien said. "Coach always talks about having a short-term memory. We had to keep going and not get hung up on our setbacks."
The Stags, well aware of their desperate circumstances and what was at stake, found a way to dig deep and refocus during the break.
"At halftime, the message was to play with character and heart," Cross said. "It was our first challenge of the year. Coach always has a plan no matter what. He teaches us to always be ready and to play our heart out."
Cheverus hoped to turn momentum at the start of the third quarter, but despite a 21-yard pass from Jordan to senior Noah Stebbins, the drive stalled and the Stags had to punt, a nice 33-yard boot from Fitzpatrick which pinned Portland at its 10.
Cheverus' special teams play set the stage for the defense to come up huge.
After Zukowski ran for two yards and Hargrove gained three, Talbot dropped back to pass, but was sacked from the blind side by sophomore Justin Johnston and fumbled. Junior Dan O'Brion pounced on the loose ball at the Bulldogs' 10 and suddenly, the Stags had life.
After Fitzpatrick ran to the 1, O'Brien got the ball and bulled in for a touchdown. Mourmouras' extra point cut the deficit to 19-14 with 7:04 to play in the third period.
"We had to dig deep," O'Brien said. "(The fumble) definitely changed momentum. We needed momentum at that point. It helped us come back. I knew there was more work to do. We had to keep working and that's what we did."
"It turned momentum, no question," Wolfgram said. "The defense helped the offense. That was big."
Portland coach Jim Hartman had an inkling that the fumble would prove fatal.
"That (fumble) gave them a touchdown," Hartman said. "That killed us."
Cheverus kept the pressure on by forcing a Portland three-and-out and the offense took over at the 35. Two plays later, thanks to an improbable hero, the Stags went ahead to stay.
Fitzpatrick was held to no gain on a first down carry and Jordan dropped back to throw on second down. He launched a pass over the middle and there, running free was a player, Drelich, that no one outside of Cheverus loyalists even knew.
Drelich caught the ball in stride and completed a stunning 65-yard catch and run for the go-ahead touchdown.
"I just read a post and scored the touchdown," Drelich said. "I just had to catch the ball. I just did my job. It was pretty easy. I just did what I do every day in practice. I don't even know what to say. It was amazing."
"We run two plays off that same set," Wolfgram said. "We'd run a play action pass before, but we saw the secondary rolling and we hit the cavity perfectly. It's just something we'd seen before."
Drelich's emergence wasn't exactly a shock to his teammates.
"I'm not surprised at all," Cross said. "He played for me when I got hurt. He didn't make one mistake. He's only a sophomore. He's a great player. I had no doubt he'd make that catch."
"We've always known he could play awesome," said O'Brien. "He replaced Sam at safety in eight or nine games. When he caught that pass, we were excited for him. He's faster than you'd believe."
"He's one of the smartest kids I know," Fitzpatrick said. "He pays attention and does his job. I know he'll be great. He's got a lot of heart. He showed that today. I thought he did a great job."
The Stags then went for the two-point conversion and Jordan hit Holman in the end zone to make it 22-19 with 4:30 remaining the stanza.
That would be the final score, but the Bulldogs had several possessions with chances to answer.
After the touchdown, the visitors gained seven yards, but a sideline pass from Talbot to Zukowski on third-and-5 was held to minimal yardage as Cross leveled Zukowski on the sidelines, forcing a punt.
As the third period (in which Cheverus outgained Portland, 109 yards to 4) gave way to the fourth, the Stags gained one first down, but had to punt.
On the first play of the final quarter, Fitzpatrick's punt was blocked by Zukowski and the Bulldogs were in business at Cheverus' 36.
The game could have turned there, but the Stags' defense wouldn't budge.
After Zukowski ran for three yards and Talbot gained one, Talbot threw incomplete, then tried again on fourth down, but again threw incomplete and Cheverus got the ball back at its 32 with 10:26 to go.
"We should have done something there, but we're not mature enough right now," Hartman said.
After Fitzpatrick gained a first down with runs of six- and seven-yards, Fitzpatrick appeared to put the hosts on the verge of another score with a 31-yard scamper, but a holding penalty brought the ball back and forced a punt.
Portland took over at its 27 with 7:19 to play, but after Zukowski ran twice for three yards, Talbot threw incomplete and once again, the Bulldogs had to punt.
The Stags took over at their 38 with 5:49 to go, but Portland senior Cody McCormack threw Jordan for a four-yard loss and despite a 10-yard pass from Jordan to Stebbins, the hosts had to punt again.
The Bulldogs got the ball at their 15 with 3:52 to play and appeared to get off on the right foot when Zukowski ran for five yards, but Talbot only gained one yard on second down and after a timeout, Talbot rolled left, but found no open receiver and was forced out at the 20 for a loss of one, forcing another punt.
That would prove to be Portland's final offensive snap of the season.
After a punt, Cheverus got the ball at its 40 with 3:24 remaining and the Stags proceeded to run out the clock.
After Fitpzatrick was held to a yard on first down, O'Brien found a big hole up the middle, gaining 20 yards, but as he was tackled, he fumbled.
Luckily for the hosts, senior Connor Conley pounced on the ball and the play was whistled dead before Zukowski wrestled it away from him, allowing Cheverus to keep possession.
After rushing for four yards, Fitzpatrick broke free for 11 and another first down at the Portland 24. Fitzpatrick then twice ran for three yards and after Hartman used his final timeout, Fitzpatrick gained three more to set up fourth-and-inches at the 15 with 37.9 seconds to play.
Wolfgram called timeout and Fitzpatrick then extinguished any remaining Bulldogs' hopes with a five-yard carry.
"Joe had that fourth down play and he was a monster," O'Brien said. "He bulled right through there. That was awesome."
"It's a great feeling to run out the clock like that and control the game like that," said Wolfgram. "To win a big game, there has to be an element of physicality. We showed physicality to get those first downs. (Joe and Cody are) our mailcarriers for sure. It's a mature line. They play together well."
Jordan took a knee on the ensuing snap and that did it.
At 2:37 p.m., after 130 hard-fought minutes, the Stags had a 22-19 victory and the Eastern A title.
"I can't even describe it," Fitzpatrick said. "It makes up for last year. We played with character. We took care of business. We knew what we needed to do. We came out in the second half and we did it. We readjusted at halftime. Once we got momentum, we got rolling and didn't stop."
"I think we played well the whole game, we just let up a couple home run passes in the first half," said Cross. "In the second half, we were ready to play. It's perfect. Everyone from last year's team told us to have no regrets. We weren't going to lose here two years in a row."
"This means everything to us and it makes those who went before us proud," O'Brien said. "It shows that everyone busted their tails and that the 34-game win streak (which was snapped by Thornton Academy last November) didn't go to waste. It came down to heart. Winning 50-20 is easy. Games like this is where character comes in. Coach emphasized that point and we just played out of our minds. We were focused and we pushed as hard as we could every play. We were disciplined. We moved forward. It was our drive and falling back on everything we've ever learned from the guys we look up to. We thought of what they'd do and we formed our own character."
Wolfgram, who has seen everything and now has 302 career victories, had plenty of praise to bestow.
"At halftime, we talked about what we had to do to get back in the game and it wasn't emotionally getting out of control or yelling or screaming or whatever," he said. "It was doing what we do best. We hadn't really faced any setbacks all year. We had to find out what we were made of. We had to climb back one series at a time. It's a high character group and we did that. There's no quit in our kids. Sometimes we have too much on the emotional side as compared to the composure side, but we reined it in and got more focused. The defense had an amazing effort in the second half. With the athletes (Portland) has, it's tough to contain those guys. We played good assignment defense and got to the ball well."
Cheverus didn't run roughshod over the opposition for the first time since early September, but still had a 265-208 edge in yardage.
Fitzpatrick had a game-high 104 yards on 23 carries.
"Our offensive line and Cody and Sam opened up huge gaps for me and made my job look easy," Fitzpatrick said.
O'Brien had 38 yards and scored twice on nine attempts. Jordan completed 5-of-10 passes for 129 yards and a score.
The Stags, who had a 26:45-21:15 edge in time of possession (15:54 of which came in the second half) turned the ball over once and were further hindered by seven penalties for 54 yards, but found a way to survive and advance.
Portland was paced by Zukowski, who had 69 yards and one TD on 20 carries. Talbot completed 5-of-10 passes for 94 yards and a score. The Bulldogs had one turnover and were flagged twice for 10 yards.
Portland wound up three points from playing for its first championship in 11 years, but despite a valiant effort, fell just short.
"There are no moral victories," Hartman said. "These are hard losses. We played tougher defensively, but offensively, for whatever reason, we didn't come through. That's on me. It's an enormous help for (Cheverus) being in these games before. They smartened up to the pass and played us tougher. They blew the linebacker and pinched with the tackles. We just didn't make the plays. We're young. The kids who had to make the plays just didn't come through. We walked through last week and thought we'd come out and crush these guys. There's a mental stamina that needs to happen."
The Bulldogs aren't done for the year, of course, They'll meet Deering on Thanksgiving Day and will look to use that game as a springboard for a 2014 title run.
"Hopefully, we'll rebound against Deering in the big game and carry it into next season," Hartman said. "We have to learn how to play these games."
Only 48 minutes to glory
Cheverus has just one more obstacle, Bonny Eagle, standing between it and a fourth championship in program history (1985, 2010 and 2011 were the others).
The Stags and Scots did not play this year, but Cheverus prevailed a year ago, 21-7, at home.
Bonny Eagle won the only previous playoff meeting, 35-0, in the 2008 quarterfinals.
After last year's hiccup, rest assured that the Stags will be ready to capture a Gold Ball next weekend.
"I haven't watched (Bonny Eagle) play at all," Cross said. "We'll bring everything we've got and leave it all on the field."
"I'm thankful we get one more week," O'Brien said. "Like we do every week, we'll go back to the drawing board and we'll come out and play."
"We have to look at film, do our jobs in practice and prepare mentally as much as we can," Fitzpatrick added. "I think we'll be good."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous Cheverus-Portland playoff meetings
Western A semifinals
@ Cheverus 35 Portland 7
Western A quarterfinals
@ Portland 21 Cheverus 12