Cheverus' second half surge leads to regional crown
PORTLAND—The Cheverus football team was in a most unfamiliar place at halftime of its regional final against Thornton Academy Saturday afternoon at Boulos Stadium.
Struggling to find the end zone and facing a deficit.
The Stags' offense was frustrated repeatedly over the first 24 minutes and the defending Class A state champions trailed, 3-0, at the break, but Cheverus got off the canvas in the second half and returned to form.
The Stags' defense allowed the Golden Trojans to gain one measly yard in the third quarter and that sparked the offense. Before the period was over, Cheverus had a 14-3 lead behind touchdown runs from senior quarterback Cam Olson and junior Donald Goodrich.
When Olson hit senior Louie DiStasio with a touchdown pass in the fourth, Cheverus had all the points it would need and while Thornton Academy added a late touchdown, the top-ranked Stags went on to a 21-10 victory, their 11th straight this autumn and 23rd in a row overall, ending the No. 2 Golden Trojans' fine season at 9-2 and setting up a date with Lawrence (11-0) in next Saturday's Class A state final at Fitzpatrick Stadium at a time to be announced on Monday.
"It did not come easily, but playing 48 minutes is our motto," said Olson. "Every single game. It doesn't matter what the score is, if we're down or up. We played 48 minutes and got the job done."
Forty-eight minute men
After a close call in 2009 (a 7-6 loss at eventual state champion Windham in the regional final in the rain and mud), Cheverus got the job done a year ago, winning all eight regular season contests and holding off threats from Windham, Scarborough and Deering in the regional playoffs before going on to dominate Bangor, 46-8, in the state final.
This fall, the defending champs won their first six games by a composite 271-47 margin. The Stags only held a 17-14 halftime lead in the opener against visiting South Portland before erupting for 42 second half points en route to a 59-21 triumph. Cheverus then blanked host Gorham (35-0), rolled at Bonny Eagle (42-18), dominated visiting Sanford from start to finish in a 41-8 win, blanked Scarborough in a playoff rematch, 38-0 and pitched a 56-0 home shutout against Biddeford.
Then, things got interesting.
At unheralded Portland, the Stags fell behind 7-0 early and found themselves tied 7-7 at halftime before going on to a 21-7 victory. In the regular season finale, Cheverus again had a tussle at rival Deering. The teams were scoreless at halftime before a pair of long TD runs in the third period gave the Stags a 14-0 win. That triumph proved costly, however, when senior standout Spencer Cooke (the hero of last year's state game win) suffered an injured leg which has kept him out for the past three weeks.
Even without Cooke, Cheverus had no trouble with No. 8 Scarborough in the quarterfinals, 35-7, or fifth-ranked Deering in last week's semifinals, 45-0.
Thornton Academy (routed by Deering in the 2010 quarterfinals) lived up to its preseason billing as a top contender. The Golden Trojans opened with a 20-6 home win over Bonny Eagle. After a 20-16 setback at South Portland, Thornton Academy held off visiting Windham (7-0), rolled at Noble (42-14), rallied for a confidence-building 28-21 triumph at Deering, then held off upset-minded host Portland, 14-12, visiting Scarborough (28-14) and visiting rival Biddeford (34-0).
Thornton Academy downed No. 7 Windham, 21-9, in the quarterfinals, before holding off third-ranked South Portland in a 20-15 semifinal round thriller last week.
The Stags and Golden Trojans did not play this year. They did meet in the playoffs two years ago in the semifinals where visiting Cheverus went on to a stunning 36-7 victory. The teams also met in the 1991 quarterfinals (a 36-6 Thornton Academy triumph) and the 1996 quarterfinals (28-19 Cheverus).
Saturday's game was much closer than many "experts" expected as the Golden Trojans comported themselves with great pride and skill, but in the end, the Stags managed to advance.
Thornton Academy won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.
Cheverus took over and appeared primed to add to its mind-boggling total of 101 first quarter points this season when it drove from its 26 into Golden Trojans' territory, but the march would stall.
Runs of 8- and 9-yards from junior Brent Green got things started. Goodrich then broke free for a 25-yard run to the Thornton Academy 29. After Green rushed for 6 yards on two carries and Olson gained 3, on fourth-and-1 from the 20, Olson was denied at the line of scrimmage and the visitors took over on downs.
The Golden Trojans got consecutive 12-yard pass plays to begin a threat of their own.
Junior quarterback Eric Christensen found classmate Dakota Tarbox on the first completion and dangerous sophomore Andrew Libby on the second. After junior Nick Kenney gained 7 yards to the Stags' 48, Christensen threw incomplete and Libby rushed for 2, setting up a fourth-and-inches. Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal opted to punt and Libby unleashed a beauty, pinning Cheverus at its 1.
The hosts managed to get out of the shadow of their end zone, thanks to a 15-yard Goodrich run, but the drive stalled and Olson punted back to the Golden Trojans, who began at their 35.
Cheverus' defense stood tall again on third-and-11 when junior Ryan Casale sacked Christensen and forced him to fumble and senior Charlie Rainville recovered for the Stags at the Thornton Academy 30.
As the first period gave way to the second, Cheverus squandered its opportunity when Olson fumbled and the Golden Trojans took over at their 26.
Thornton Academy again moved the ball, thanks to a 7-yard pass play from Christensen and a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Stags. After Christensen hooked up with Libby for 15 yards, the visitors were at the Cheverus 32, but a 3-yard Kenney run was followed by three consecutive incomplete passes, the last batted away by DiStasio in the end zone (as he battled Tarbox one-on-one), and the hosts had dodged a bullet.
The Stags looked like they were finally end zone-bound when Olson found DiStasio for 33 yards down the left sideline, but after successive 7-yard rushes from Olson and Green, a chop block pushed Cheverus back and on third-and-15 from the Golden Trojans' 20, Olson's pass was intercepted by Libby at the front line of the end zone and he ran it back to the 33.
Thornton Academy's offense took advantage, driving 61 yards on eight plays in 3 minutes, 9 seconds to finally break the scoring ice.
A 16-yard pass from Christensen to Tarbox on third-and-7 moved the ball to the Stags' 48. Christensen then hit Libby for 31 yards and as he was forced out of bounds, another personal foul penalty on the Stags set the visitors up first-and-goal at the 8.
Cheverus wouldn't allow the Golden Trojans into the end zone, however, as Libby ran for a yard, Goodrich threw Kenney for a 2-yard loss and a 3-yard Christensen run forced fourth down from the 6.
Kezal sent junior Brandon Briggs on to the field to attempt a 25-yard field goal and with 1:56 to play before halftime, the kick split the uprights and Thornton Academy was up, 3-0.
"For us, that was lucky that they only got three," Olson said. "That was a great stand we had. They didn't get in the end zone."
The Stags (trailing for only the second time all season) hoped to answer before halftime, but they went three-and-out and to the shock of just about everyone in the huge crowd on the hill overlooking Back Cove, Cheverus was behind at the half for the first time since Nov. 6, 2010 (when the Stags trailed Scarborough, 14-7, in the Western A semifinals, before rallying for a 21-14 triumph).
Cheverus didn't panic and would be a very different team in the second half when the expected triumph finally came to fruition.
As has been the case so many times during this long win streak, the Stags' defense set the tone.
The Golden Trojans got the ball first in the third quarter, but went three-and-out. Cheverus took over at the Thornton Academy 48, but couldn't take advantage.
An 11-yard run from Goodrich moved the ball to the 37, but Green was thrown for a 2-yard loss on the next snap. On third-and-12, Olson found DiStasio for 11 yards on a slant, but on fourth-and-1, Goodrich was thrown for a 1-yard loss by Libby and junior Bobby Begin and the Golden Trojans took over on downs.
Again, the Stags rose up defensively, forcing another Thornton Academy three-and-out and after a punt, Cheverus started at its 44 with 7:56 left in the third period.
This time, finally, the Stags drove for the go-ahead score.
It took six plays and 2:31 to march 56 yards for the game's first touchdown.
The drive was spearheaded by a questionable pass interference call on second-and-8 from the 46 when Olson's pass was well over DiStasio's head, but the flag flew and Cheverus got a new set of downs at the Golden Trojans' 39. On the next play, Olson hit a wide open Casale in the middle of the field and Casale fought his way to the 5. After Goodrich was held to no gain and Olson threw incomplete, Olson rolled to his right, decided to keep the ball and eluded a defender en route to the end zone. The 5-yard TD run and DiStasio's ensuing extra point put the Stags on top to stay, 7-3, with 5:25 left in the third quarter.
"It was supposed to be a pass, but I had a seam and I ran it," Olson said. "I did whatever I could to get in the end zone. I was glad it worked out. We knew from there, we couldn't lose the game. It was a big play. It wasn't all me. It was the line."
"We didn't have to do anything different," Goodrich added. "We knew they were wearing down and we had to come out hard. We've been in this situation before. We were confident and ready to go."
Cheverus was a new team and would soon add to its lead.
The defense forced a third straight Thornton Academy three-and-out and the Stags began their next drive at their 46.
"We weren't down at all (at halftime)," said Olson. "We knew what we had to do. We start with the defense. We have great players. The line is unbelievable. They get pressure on the quarterback. It helps spark us."
"We just come prepared (on defense)," said Goodrich. "Our defensive end coach does a great job teaching us our reads and you have to just trust the reads. We love defense. As a team, we pride ourselves on our defense. We love to come out and hit people. It's our favorite thing to do."
This time, the hosts would score quickly.
On the first snap, Olson handed off to Goodrich, who found a big hole and raced past the defense and down the sidelines. He didn't stop until he completed a 54-yard TD scamper and when DiStasio added the point-after with 3:39 left in the period, Cheverus had extended its lead to 14-3.
"It was great blocking," said Goodrich. "I had a nice lead block. I was just able to get through."
Goodrich, a first-year Cheverus student, who came to the school from York, has seen more snaps on offense after Cooke's injury and has certainly made his mark.
"He starts for us, defense and offense," said Olson, of his teammate. "When Cooke went down, he's stepped up so big. He's a jack of all trades out there."
The Golden Trojans' frustrating third period continued on their next series when they went backwards 11 yards and had to punt again.
The Stags took over the Thornton Academy 40 and picked up a first down on a 12-yard pass from Olson to DiStasio. On the first play of the final quarter, facing third-and-13 from the 25, Olson dropped back and threw a ball up for grabs in the right corner of the end zone. DiStasio, showing off his basketball leaping skills, went up and grabbed the ball and landed inbounds to complete the 25-yard TD pass. DiStasio added the extra point and with 11:53 to go, Cheverus had a commanding 21-3 advantage.
"It was supposed to be a screen pass," Olson said. "I didn't see anything there. I saw 6-foot-4 Louie DiStasio in the corner and I knew he's a reliable receiver. I threw it up and he made an unbelievable catch."
"We took advantage of the wind in the second half," Cheverus coach John Wolfgram said. "That helped a lot. Cam threw the ball really well. We took advantage of the wind for sure."
Thornton Academy (which had 136 first half yards, but just 1 in the third period) started the final stanza the way it played the prior, going three-and-out.
With 10:57 to play, the Stags took over at their 37, but the Golden Trojans defense held and forced a punt.
Thornton Academy got another chance at its 15 with 7:31 to play and this time, drove for a score.
After Kenney ran for 5 yards and Christensen threw incomplete, Christensen threw a deep pass down the middle, Libby went up and snared it, eluded a defender and outraced the pursuit all the way to the end zone to complete an 80-yard scoring play. Briggs added the extra point and with 6:06 showing, the Golden Trojans still had a pulse, down 21-10.
After Thornton Academy's defense forced a three-and-out, the offense took over at its 48 with still 4:21 to play, but a dramatic rally wasn't to be.
On the first play, Christensen was sacked, fumbled and Cheverus senior Colie Walsh pounced on the loose pigskin at the Golden Trojans' 42.
"Colie stepped up big today," Wolfgram said. "He's improved so much throughout the year. He didn't play much last year, but he has a lot of games under his belt right now and he's really come along."
Thornton Academy wouldn't see the ball again.
A 13-yard Goodrich run put him over the 100 yard mark and gave the hosts a first down. Three plays later, on third-and-7, Goodrich ran for 11 more to move the chains. After Green had rushes of 5-yards and 1-yard, Olson iced it with a 4-yard run for a first down and Olson took one more snap, dropping to his knees, and it was official.
Cheverus 21 Thornton Academy 10.
"At this point, only the good teams are left and (Thornton Academy) played great," said Olson. "We knew it would happen. I love playing here. It's our hill. We wanted to protect it. You have no idea how much pride we have."
"This is my first year," Goodrich said. "It's a great feeling. I love it. I love to come out and play football and it's a great feeling to be here with this team."
"It was a battle," Wolfgram added. "(Thornton Academy is) a very good team. They're physical and very well-coached. Obviously, they're a tough team. They were the No. 2 seed. They only lost one game in our league.
"We were composed. We made a couple adjustments on offense and defense and got ready for the second half. We made a couple mistakes in the first half and didn't execute. Our playmakers made plays in the second half. We have very good kids, very good players. They're proud and work hard and are resilient. Some different kids stepped up and did a good job for us."
The Stags finished with a 361-219 edge in total yardage and were able to overcome two turnovers and four penalties for 48 yards.
Goodrich led the way statistically with 127 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries.
"Donald ran well and did a nice job on defense," Wolfgram said.
Green added 55 yards on 14 attempts. Walsh had three carries for 10 yards. Olson rushed 10 times for 52 yards with a TD. He also threw for a score and 124 yards on 6-of-11 passing, which included an interception. DiStasio caught five balls for 90 yards and a TD. Casale had the other reception, good for 34 yards. Casale also had a sack, while Goodrich and senior Mike Dedian split a sack.
The Golden Trojans, who turned the ball over twice and had just two penalties for 20 yards (but the second was the game-turning pass interference call), were paced by Libby, who had five rushes for 24 yards, threw one pass that was completed for a loss of 4 yards and caught six balls for 147 yards and a TD. Christensen completed 8-of-21 pass attempts, good for 178 yards. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble and gained 1 yard on five rushes. Tarbox had four catches for 31 yards and had a sack on defense. Kenney carried seven times for 14 yards.
If you take away Libby's 80-yard TD reception, Thornton Academy only managed three second half yards as the Cheverus defense once again spelled the difference.
"The defense has played well all year," Wolfgram said. "Sometimes when we score points it gets lost that the defense sets it up with field position. It's a proud group of kids. We just made plays in the second half. (Thornton Academy) didn't show us a lot we haven't seen before, but they did a couple things we had to adjust to. They worked out pretty well. They had out-physicaled a lot of teams. I thought our front seven on defense played very well. Donald, Colie Walsh and (junior) Parker Doyon, our nose guard played well. Our three defensive tackles, (senior) Christian Deschenes and we rotate the other two tackles, (seniors) Mike Dedian and Charlie Rainville. The two linebackers played very, very well. I think that was the key to the game. We shut down (Thornton Academy's) internal game. They had been gouging everyone else."
Cheverus and Lawrence have no history, but are about to make some in what could be a memorable state final Saturday.
The Bulldogs won the 2006 Class A title, but in each of the past two years, was upset at home by Brunswick in the playoffs.
That wasn't the case in 2011 as Lawrence won all nine regular season games by a composite 246-104 margin. As the top seed in Eastern A, the Bulldogs advanced with a 28-13 semifinal round win over No. 4 Messalonskee and a surprisingly easy 40-14 regional final victory over second-ranked Bangor, the two-time defending regional champion, Friday night.
The Stags are close enough to taste a second straight championship (and third in school history), but know the final step won't be easy.
"I've just been paying attention to our league," Goodrich said. "I hear they have a good running back (senior Shaun Carroll). I'm looking forward to it."
"We expect the same thing," Olson said. "(Lawrence will) give us 110 percent and we'll give them 110 percent."
"We know nothing about Lawrence," added Wolfgram. "Obviously, they're a very good team. We'll start studying them tomorrow morning, but we'll enjoy this one a little bit. To win the Western Maine Final is big thrill for our program."