SP steals one...Red Riots win Western A in final second
SOUTH PORTLAND—The Red Riots live to play another day.
South Portland's boys' lacrosse team, the Class A favorite from the get-go this spring, was on the brink of an agonizing defeat to Thornton Academy in Wednesday evening's Western Class A Final when it turned to its heart, drive and inspiration from a fallen but never forgotten member of its family to steal victory from the jaws of certain defeat.
The top-ranked Red Riots, so explosive throughout the season, were held to one first period goal and two in the second and trailed the growing-more-confident-by-the-minute third-ranked Golden Trojans, 4-3, at halftime.
South Portland then hit its stride in the third period, going on a 5-2 run to grab an 8-6 lead, capped when sophomore Jack Fiorini scored with 3:20 to go in the stanza.
Thornton Academy wasn't done, however, and rallied to tie the score, then took the lead before the quarter was over.
The Golden Trojans then twice went ahead by two goals in the fourth, making it 11-9 with 2:04 to play, when senior Cody Falton scored a man-up goal.
Inside of the final minute, the Red Riots were still down two and hope was dwindling by the second, but a man-up goal from junior Kam Andrews with 48.7 seconds showing gave them life and after an illegal stick penalty on Thornton Academy's standout faceoff man, senior Sam Legere, provided even more reason for hope, South Portland held the ball before senior Duncan Preston set up classmate Thomas Leddy for the tying tally with just 6.9 seconds remaining.
With everyone thinking about overtime, the Red Riots capped the frenetic finish and breathtaking comeback, when Preston, an All-American, won the ensuing faceoff, ran in and bounced a shot into the goal with only 1.9 seconds to play, putting the finishing touch on an epic 12-11 victory and giving birth to the Martin Memorial Miracle.
Preston's lone goal of the game was the biggest of his life, Fiorini and Leddy both scored three times and some how, some way, South Portland improved to 13-1, ended the best season in Golden Trojans' history at 11-4 and advanced to its first-ever Class A state final, where it will meet Brunswick (13-2) Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
"It's just heart," Leddy said. "The word that comes to mind is definitely heart. Trailing the whole game, there was a lot of pressure to come back. I give so much credit to TA. It's the best game we've played all season and they're the best team we've played all season. Hats off to them. We couldn't have any more respect for them. They're a class act. I couldn't be any more proud of my team. Defense stepped it up. Middies stepped it up. (Junior goalie) T-Moe (Hellier) stood on his head, like usual. On offense, we were able to put the goals in when it counted."
A year ago, during an emotional season, South Portland felt it was ready to take the next step, but the Red Riots let a second half lead slip away in a semifinal round loss to Kennebunk that was overshadowed by the loss days later of Ted Hellier, a longtime South Portland youth coach and the father of the Red Riots goalie.
South Portland entered the 2014 season with the motto, "Unfinished Business" and Ted Hellier has never been far from the Red Riots' thoughts throughout a tremendous campaign.
While South Portland was the preseason favorite, Thornton Academy saved its best lacrosse for the end and it was fitting that the two squared off Wednesday evening.
Thornton Academy turned heads early, downing visiting, two-time defending Eastern A champion Cheverus, 9-8, and blanking visiting Marshwood, 12-0, before taking Scarborough to overtime in an 8-7 loss. After a 14-7 home win over Deering and an 8-3 triumph at Portland, the Golden Trojans were upset by visiting Greely, 7-6, and were doubled up at South Portland, 12-6, before closing on a five-game surge, downing visiting Waynflete (9-2), host Biddeford (13-3), visiting Bonny Eagle (13-4), visiting Westbrook (11-3) and host Gorham (11-8).
Thornton Academy eliminated No. 6 Biddeford in the quarterfinals, 15-1, then shocked four-time defending Class A champion Scarborough with surprising ease in Saturday's semifinal, 13-4.
South Portland pummeled host Biddeford, 19-1, in its opener, then outscored visiting Cheverus, 15-10. The Red Riots dominated visiting Marshwood (18-4) and host Westbrook (21-4), avenged last year's playoff loss with a 14-9 home win over Kennebunk, then earned an impressive 12-6 home victory over Thornton Academy. The next victory made an even bigger statement, as South Portland rattled off 10 straight goals en route to a 10-7 triumph at perennial power Yarmouth. The Red Riots then went on an offensive explosion, dominating host Deering (26-6), visiting Portland (22-6), host Massabesic (26-1) and visiting Bonny Eagle (17-1). The run and the fun ended with a regular season-ending 14-8 loss at Scarborough, which served as a valuable wakeup call heading into the playoffs.
After a quarterfinal round bye, South Portland came to life in the second half of Saturday's semifinals and ousted No. 4 Gorham, 16-3.
The Red Riots had won all three previous playoff meetings between the schools (see sidebar, below), with the most recent coming in the 2009 quarterfinals (9-5).
Wednesday, fans would be treated to 48 palpitating minutes, with every second being needed to decide a winner.
Both teams were sloppy in the first quarter and it took nearly six minutes before South Portland broke the ice when senior Ben Bilderback set up senior Andrew Whipple for a goal. Thornton Academy answered late in the first, when junior Isaac Sinclair scored unassisted and that was it for the first period.
Thirty-seven seconds into the second quarter, Sinclair finished a feed from junior Christian Michaud and beat Hellier, to give the visitors their first lead and with 9:32 to play before halftime, sophomore Charles Katz scored unassisted for a 3-1 Golden Trojans' advantage.
South Portland snapped an 11 minute, 46 second drought when Leddy scored his first goal, unassisted, with 7 minutes left before halftime, but Falton scored unassisted with 3:39 remaining to make it 4-2.
The Red Riots would take a little momentum into halftime when Fiorini finished a feed from junior Chris Mitchell, beating Thornton Academy senior goalie Jack Grondin with 1:23 to go and South Portland was only down one, 4-3, at the break.
"Both teams would like to have the first quarter back," said Golden Trojans coach Ryan Hersey. "Way too many nerves and turnovers. At halftime, with how sloppily we'd played, I was ecstatic to be ahead."
Both teams' offenses hit their stride in the third period.
After senior Taylor Browne put Thornton Academy back on top by two, 5-3, with an unassisted goal 2:18 into the third, the Red Riots got a Fiorini goal (from Bilderback) and another from Bilderback (set up by Preston) in a 12-second span to tie the score.
With 7:37 left in the frame, Fiorini assisted on a Whipple goal and for the first time since it was 1-0, South Portland had the lead, 6-5.
Less than a minute later, it was Mitchell's turn, as he finished a pass from Fiorini and a 4-0 surge had put the Red Riots ahead by two.
Back came the Golden Trojans, on an unassisted strike from Falton at 5:53, but with 3:20 remaining, Bilderback set up Fiorini again and South Portland had an 8-6 advantage.
The Red Riots then went cold and Thornton Academy started to seize control of the game.
With 2:34 left in the third, junior Zachary Bryant scored unassisted and 34 seconds later, sophomore Gregory Ruff scored an unassisted goal to tie the game, 8-8.
Then, with 40.1 seconds showing, on a rush, junior longstick Tyler LaPointe fed Sinclair for a goal to put the Golden Trojans back on top, 9-8.
Hellier kept his team within one when he denied a Michaud shot with only 10 seconds to go and it was on to what would prove to be a roller-coaster fourth quarter.
As the realization hit that its season was on the line, South Portland tightened up and turned the ball over on four straight possessions to start the final stanza.
Then, after going man-up, the Red Riots had a great chance to tie, but Whipple was robbed by Grondin, then hit the post.
After causing a turnover, Thornton Academy took advantage as LaPointe again created offense, setting up Falton for a goal with 6:16 to play and the visitors had a 10-8 lead.
After a slashing penalty to Browne, South Portland again had a chance, but Preston's long shot was saved by Grondin and after the penalty expired, Bilderback shot wide and Preston shot high.
With 2:38 to go, again playing man-up, the Red Riots finally drew within one, as Whipple fed Leddy in front for a shot Grondin couldn't stop, making the score 10-9.
Legere was able to win the faceoff, however, and playing man-up, the Golden Trojans got an all-important insurance tally when Michaud set up Falton with just 2:04 to play.
Thornton Academy's first regional championship was close enough to taste, but South Portland refused to buckle.
After forcing a turnover, the Red Riots got the ball to Fiorini in prime scoring position, but Grondin denied him.
The Golden Trojans then took an unnecessary roughness penalty and after Bilderback shot wide, South Portland pulled within one once more, as Bilderback fed Andrews, who beat Grondin with a rocket.
That set the stage for the biggest moment of the game.
After Andrews scored, South Portland coach Tom Fiorini asked the officials to check Legere's stick.
Sure enough, they ruled it to be illegal, sending Legere to the sidelines for a three-minute, locked in penalty, removing his stick from the game and most importantly, giving South Portland possession without a faceoff.
"Kids were saying (his stick) was pinched," said Tom Fiorini. "I saw it was pinched. I waited and waited. I wanted to pick my moment. We got the goal and I called it."
"It was ruled to be an illegal stick," Hersey said. "We have two certified officials, myself and my brother. We checked it at the start of the game and in the process of him winning seven or eight faceoffs in a row, it got warped and pinched in on him. It's just one of those things. He didn't do it on purpose."
The Red Riots were playing man-up, but had trouble getting a look.
After Jack Fiorini had a shot blocked, South Portland retained possession and Preston took it in from the side. He had some room, ran toward the goal, then sent a pass in front, which Leddy snared and one-timed past Grondin to tie the game for the fourth and final time, 11-11.
Only 6.9 seconds remained and the Red Riots cheering contingent erupted.
"We were just taking our time," Leddy said. "We knew if we took a bad shot, that could be it. Credit to everybody for being patient and waiting for the shot. We saw the opportunity and we took it. Duncan has great vision. As the games get more intense and teams watch film and hear things from around the league, they try to lock me and our other middies off. As our outside guys start to score, the guy on me slides a little early and I'm left open. I do what I can."
Preston admitted that Leddy wasn't even his target on the pass.
"I saw Thomas and he was covered and I saw Andrew back post," Preston said. "The pass was supposed to go to (Whipple), but Leddy stuck his stick in there, which he's good at, caught it and finished. That was going to Whipple originally."
"We work on man-up, man-down every single day in pratice," Tom Fiorini said. "These guys know how to move the ball and find the open guy. I have all the faith in the world that they'll do the right thing."
Hersey asked for Leddy's stick to be checked as well (had it been illegal, the goal would have been wiped out), but it was deemed to be OK.
That set the stage for a moment that will celebrated in South Portland boys' lacrosse lore long after Duncan Preston's grandchildren have graduated high school.
Going up against the Golden Trojans' backup faceoff man, Preston won possession cleanly by pushing the ball forward.
He scooped it up and ran toward the goal.
As the clock wound down, Preston had room and wound up for a powerful shot from some 25-yards out.
Preston threw the ball with all his might, it bounced one time and Grondin couldn't make the stop as the ball tickled the twine.
All eyes then turned to the clock.
Which showed 1.9 seconds.
The Red Riots had not only rallied, but had essentially won.
"I'd been scoreless all game," Preston said. "As soon as I passed to Leddy and he put it in (to tie it), I saw how much time was left on the clock and I knew I had to win the faceoff and go down and put the game behind us. That's what I did. I won the clamp and put it in front of me and as soon as I saw the restraining line and no one stepped to me, I let it go. I put an underhand bounce shot, because I knew (Grondin would) eat up anything up high and luckily, we play on some of the grossest grass. It took a heck of a bounce and went right under the crossbar. (Grondin) played a phenomenal game, but anyone would have had a tough time saving that.
"I don't think remember what happened after I scored. My knees went weak. I hugged Thomas and he held me up for a few seconds until I caught my breath."
"I was thinking we had to have it, but I didn't honestly think we could score two goals that quickly," Leddy said. "Hats off to Duncan. He made it happen."
"Every time Duncan touches the ball, I get the feeling something special will happen," Tom Fiorini added. "That's why he's an All-American. We wanted the ball in his stick."
One more faceoff was necessary, but even if Thornton Academy won it cleanly, it wouldn't have had time to answer.
At 7:25 p.m., Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in the 14th game of the program's 15th season, South Portland could at last call itself regional champions.
Red Riots 12 Golden Trojans 11.
"I'm beyond excited," said Preston. "It's hard to contain it right now."
"My knees got a little weak, I'm not going to lie," Tom Fiorini said. "It was incredible. My players never stopped playing. We never stopped coaching and we didn't give up on the game. Ever. With this offense, I can't think of a reason why I should ever give up. They're not quitters. They proved that again tonight."
Most pundits would have said there was no way South Portland could win a game of this magnitude with its top player not scoring in the first 47 minutes, 58 seconds, but the Red Riots' depth made the difference.
Fiorini and Leddy both had three goals, Whipple scored twice and Preston, along with Andrews, Bilderback and Mitchell, each had one goal. Bilderback had four assists, Fiorini and Preston each added two and Mitchell and Whipple wound up with one apiece. Hellier made eight saves and South Portland ended up with a 55-32 advantage in ground balls (sophomore Nick Mezzanotte had a team-high eight, while Andrews and Mitchell both collected five).
The Red Riots outshot the Golden Trojans, 48-31 (30-19 on cage), and converted three of five man-up opportunities.
One thing that wasn't quantifiable, but unquestionably contributed to South Portland's victory, was the influence of Ted Hellier.
"(Ted) was looking down on us big-time," Preston said. "As soon as I scored that goal, I touched the stick (decal) on the back of my helmet because I knew he was crying up there."
"There's no doubt in my mind that Ted was here with us today," Tom Fiorini said. "He's happy as pie right now. He's sitting up there with my Dad and they both watched this game and they're laughing at me for sure."
Falton led Thornton Academy with four goals in his swan song. Sinclair scored three times, while Brown, Bryant, Katz and Ruff had one goal apiece. LaPointe and Michaud both had two assists, while Brown finished with one. Grondin excelled again by making 18 saves.
"We came out today and played hard," Hersey said. "Our guys battled back and got the two-goal lead. I'm proud of them. I'm proud of our seniors. We didn't have a great season last year. I'm not talking about record, I'm talking about attitude. The seniors righted that ship. This was a great season. To get over the hump against Scarborough was great."
Following the game, Tom Fiorini was effusive and emotional in his praise of Thornton Academy.
"I'm heartbroken that we both can't go," Fiorini said. "They deserved it just as much as my kids. That's an incredible team with an incredible coach."
Now that the Golden Trojans have produced the best season in program history, they desperately want to return to the regional final, win it and capture a championship.
"The great thing is that we now have a lot of motivated underclassmen," Hersey said. "Our top two scorers are juniors. We slew of returning midfielders. We have a backup goalie who's just as good. I think we'll be all set."
The big stage
South Portland and Brunswick did not play this year and have no playoff history.
The Dragons were the top seed in Eastern A and advanced to their first state final since 2009 (when they lost to Portland) by downing No. 8 Lewiston (15-2), No. 4 Mt. Ararat (11-1) and third-ranked Cheverus, the two-time defending regional champion, 9-8.
The Red Riots aren't content with their glorious regional final win. They want to finish the job.
"We felt something special from the beginning of the year, but we told ourselves not to listen to the hype," Leddy said. "Our biggest enemy could have been ourselves listening to what everybody was saying. It says a lot that we were able to settle down and block it out and just play South Portland lacrosse. This means a lot, but our work is not done. We need to do what we've done all year. We need to go at it like we have every other game and not psyche ourselves out. Everyone needs to give their all and hopefully, we'll be alright."
"I want to be a state champion in a team sport," said Preston, who has won individual titles in indoor track. "We have to go into the game and be calm and cool. We have two days of prep. It will be a long two days and it will be an even longer wait until 5:30 Saturday, but we can do it."
"It's been a seven-year climb, but it's been a steady, even climb the whole way," Tom Fiorini added. "We've improved every year. The big hump was getting over that semifinal game.
"I'm already thinking about practice tomorrow. I couldn't be any happier to have two more days of practice. I have to come up with a game plan to win a state championship game. That's what I'm focusing on. I know this team can do it. When they play relaxed and happy and with life, they play great lacrosse. Keeping them loose is the key."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous South Portland-Thornton Academy playoff results
2009 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 9 Thornton Academy 5
2007 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 15 Thornton Academy 9
2006 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 20 Thornton Academy 15