Super Stags do it again
PORTLAND—Repeat after me.
The Cheverus football team is the best in Class A.
Without a doubt.
Saturday morning/afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium, the Stags put on an offensive, defensive and special teams clinic against undefeated Lawrence in the state final, capitalizing on early turnovers with touchdown runs from juniors Brent Green and Donald Goodrich to take a 14-0 lead after one quarter.
Goodrich scored again early in the second, but the Bulldogs answered and appeared ready to make a game of it before Goodrich broke their backs with a 91-yard kickoff return, which gave Cheverus a 28-7 advantage at halftime.
From there it was a formality and the Stags ran away and hid in the third period, thanks to two Goodrich TD runs and another from Green, and went on to a commanding 49-7 victory.
Cheverus finished the 2011 season 12-0, extended its win streak to 24 games and captured its second straight Gold Ball and third in program history in the most emphatic of fashions.
"(The guys are) a proud group," said Stags coach John Wolfgram, who took home his 10th Gold Ball. "They've worked very hard. We came together. The kids were pretty well focused. They knew how difficult it was to repeat, but they were set on repeating. We strapped it up every game and played hard. I'm so proud. It's a great group of kids. It's a great group of student-athletes. Good competitors. We were expecting a closer game for sure.
"This never gets old. It's the most exciting thing in the world."
Cheverus won its first championship in 1985, dominating Lewiston in the most lopsided state game to date, 65-13. The Stags wouldn't return to the state final until last year when they again won with ease, riding a 37-0 second half run to a 46-8 triumph over Bangor.
Cheverus wasn't necessarily expected to run the table again in 2011, especially after the loss to graduation of Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Peter Gwilym, bruising fullback Evan Jendrasko and lineman extraordinaire Zach Dulac, but the Stags met every challenge this fall.
Cheverus 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. The Stags then blanked host Gorham (35-0), rolled at Bonny Eagle (42-18), dominated visiting Sanford from start to finish, 41-8, blanked Scarborough, 38-0 and pitched a 56-0 home shutout against Biddeford.
Then, things got challenging.
At Portland, Cheverus fell behind 7-0 early and found itself tied 7-7 at halftime before going on to a 21-7 victory. The regular season finale proved to be a tussle at 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 sidelined him for the regional playoffs.
Even without Cooke, Cheverus had no trouble with No. 8 Scarborough in the quarterfinals, 35-7, or fifth-ranked Deering in the semifinals, 45-0.
In last weekend's regional final, the Stags got a stern test from No. 2 Thornton Academy. Trailing, 3-0, at halftime. Cheverus got the offense going in the second half and went on to a 21-10 triumph, to punch its ticket to the state game.
Lawrence has a rich history in both Class A and B.
The Bulldogs won the 1973 Class B crown, lost to Mt. Blue in 1980 final, won it all in 1983 and 1984 and lost to Gardiner in 1985 and Winslow in 1986. By 1988, Lawrence was competing for Class A hardware, but lost to Thornton Academy, 47-13. After falling to Biddeford in the 1990 Class A Final, 19-14, and South Portland in 1992 (6-0) and 1996 (16-10), the Bulldogs finally got over the Class A hump with a memorable 14-13 win over Gorham in 2006, in a game ultimately decided by a blocked extra point. They returned to states the following fall, but lost to Bonny Eagle, 34-14.
In each of the past two seasons, Lawrence appeared primed to get back to the ultimate game, but Brunswick upset the Bulldogs both times.
This year, Lawrence had no peer in Eastern A.
The Bulldogs struggled to get past visiting Edward Little, 26-18, in the opener, then made a statement with a 32-25 victory at two-time defending regional champion Bangor. Lawrence downed host Oxford Hills (25-0), visiting Mt. Ararat (48-6), host Skowhegan (38-14), visiting Lewiston (14-0), host Cony (28-18), visiting Brunswick (10-7) and host Messalonskee (25-16) to cap a 9-0 campaign and earn the top seed in the region.
The Bulldogs advanced with a 28-13 semifinal round win over Messalonskee and a stunningly lopsided 40-14 regional final victory over Bangor, the two-time reigning regional champions.
Lawrence and the Stags had no history entering Saturday's contest, which was played amid windy, but comfortable conditions.
It didn't take long before Cheverus took command.
The Stags won the opening coin toss and as has so often been the case this season, Wolfgram deferred possession to the second half, putting the onus on the defense to start the game.
That unit delivered.
Lawrence did pick up one first down on a 15-yard run from senior quarterback Alex Leathers, but on second-and-8 from the 34, after Leathers found senior Bryant Wade for a 15-yard gain through the air, Wade was hit by Cheverus senior Louie DiStasio, fumbled, and the loose ball was grabbed by senior Cam Olson before he fell out of bounds at the Bulldogs' 49.
Seven plays later, the Stags had the lead for good.
A run of 11 yards from Olson, the quarterback, got things started. A 20-yard burst from Goodrich on third-and-3 put the ball at the 11. After a false start penalty backed Cheverus up five yards, Olson ran for 5, Goodrich for 10 and on first-and-goal from the 1, Green did the rest, diving into the end zone to break the ice. DiStasio added the extra point and with 6:22 to play in the opening stanza, the Stags had a 7-0 lead.
Lawrence would shoot itself in the foot again on its next opportunity with the ball.
On third-and-3 from midfield, Leathers rolled to his left and threw, but the pass was intercepted by Cheverus junior Liam Fitzpatrick. A 65-yard return was nullified by a block in the back penalty, but the Stags had possession at their 3o.
All the penalty did was force Cheverus to embark on a longer touchdown drive, but it only took three plays and 62 seconds to score again.
After a false start penalty, Olson dropped back and threw deep down the middle of the field where DiStasio had gotten past Bulldogs junior defender Aaron Lafrance. DiStasio made the reception and was brought down at the Lawrence 25, a 45-yard reception.
"When we watched film during the week, we saw they left the backfield open, so we knew the backside post would be wide open," DiStasio said. "Coach went with that and it seemed to work."
Green broke off a 25-yard run to the 5 on the next play and Goodrich scored on the ensuing snap. DiStasio's point-after made it 14-0 Stags with 3:28 to go in the first.
"We came out and worked really, really hard," said Goodrich. "Our line did a great job pushing forward. The whole offense played well and the defense really stepped up. We had a lot of really big plays. My team does a great job supporting me out there. They really get me fired up and I love it. It's all about blocking. Any back can run through the hole. The line does a great job. They really know how to work. They give me big holes to run through."
The good news for the Bulldogs on their next possession was that they didn't turn the ball over, but they did have to punt after Goodrich knocked down a pass on third-and-7.
Late in the first, Cheverus took over at its 19. On first down, on what proved to be the final play of the quarter, Olson again found DiStasio deep, this time for 46 yards and as the second period began, the Stags were in business.
On the second play of the new quarter, DiStasio caught a slant pass and broke several tackles for a 21-yard gain to the 10. Cheverus moved the ball to the 1 with three rushes, but faced fourth down. There, Goodrich got the handoff, the left side of line surged forward and the junior easily took the ball into the end zone with 9:20 to play before halftime. Another DiStasio extra point put the Stags on top, 21-0.
Lawrence's offense finally clicked on its next series, as the Bulldogs marched 66 yards on five plays for their lone score of the game.
After senior standout running back Shaun Carroll picked up a first down with a 2-yard run on third-and-2, then ran for 4 more, junior Anthony Sementelli took a pitch from Leathers, ran right and found a hole. He burst through, ran down the right sideline and beat the pursuit to the pylon to get Lawrence on the board. Freshman Chad Martin added the point after and with 7:13 left in the half, it appeared that the Bulldogs had life, down, 21-7.
That life was snuffed out immediately.
Goodrich took the ensuing kickoff at the 9 and did the rest, reading his blockers expertly and letting his speed and elusiveness do the rest. He turned the corner at midfield and no one was going to catch him as Goodrich raced 91 yards to paydirt (he was flagged for taunting at the end of the run, but the TD stood).
"The wedge did a great job," Goodrich said. "They picked up some great blocks out there. I just picked up the crease and ran. I like to run hard to the end zone. I got a little excited and cost my team some extra yards. I was disappointed in that, but other than that, it was a good run."
"It was a big play," Wolfgram said. "Donald's a good player. He really stepped up and made plays."
DiStasio's extra point made it 28-7 Cheverus with 6:49 showing in the half.
After Lawrence went three-and-out, the Stags had an opportunity to strike again.
Starting from its 12, Cheverus got a 23-yard run from Green and a 12-yard Olson-to-DiStasio pass to get to midfield. Runs of 7-yards from Green, 5 from Goodrich and 9 from Olson put the ball at the Bulldogs' 29. Two more Goodrich runs put Cheverus at the 21. The drive would short-circuit there when an illegal block penalty negated a 13-yard pass from Olson to junior Ryan Casale.
As a result, the Stags were kept off the board, but still took a 28-7 lead (and a 266-124 advantage in yardage) to the break.
Any remaining drama was eliminated in the third period.
Cheverus got the ball first and drove 65 yards on six plays in 2:40.
Green got things started with a 36-yard burst to the Lawrence 29.
"The blocking up front was amazing," Green said. "It's hard to run up the middle against (the Bulldogs), but the line gave me some holes to run through. Donny ran really well too."
On third-and-1 from the 20, Goodrich broke free for 15, setting up a first-and-goal. After Green moved the ball to the 1, Goodrich ran up the gut for the touchdown and DiStasio's extra point made it 35-7 with 9:15 to play in the third quarter.
On Lawrence's first play of the second half, Carroll fumbled and Casale recovered at the Bulldogs' 25.
Five plays later, the Stags scored again.
Green set up a first-and-goal at the 9 with a 16-yard run. Goodrich ran for 5-yards, then 3, but Green was held to no gain on third down.
On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Green got another chance and dove across the plane. DiStasio kicked the extra point and with 6:45 still to go in the third, Cheverus was ahead, 42-7.
Lawrence then drove into Stags' territory after a 21-yard pass from Leathers to junior Spencer Carey. An 18-yard run from junior Jake Doolan put the ball at the 21. On second-and-4 from the 15, Carroll pushed the pile to the 9, setting up first-and-goal, but Leathers' pass to the end zone was picked off by Olson (the second straight year he intercepted a pass in the state final), who returned it to the 14.
Five plays later, Cheverus was in the end zone again.
Green gave the offense some breathing room with a 19-yard burst. On third-and-10, Green broke free for 16 more. Then, Goodrich took centerstage once more, racing 51-yards to the end zone for his fourth rushing touchdown of the game (and fifth overall).
Goodrich, who came to Cheverus from York this school year, had stolen the state game show.
"I feel honored they let me come here and play with them," Goodrich said. "It's an honor to play with a championship team. In my wildest dreams, I thought it might be like this. I like to dream big. I have big goals. Spencer came back and I was hoping to play. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity."
DiStasio added the extra point with 1:14 remaining and the Stags were up, 49-7.
The next Bulldogs' possession also ended with an interception (this time by DiStasio).
The third quarter came to an end with Cheverus having outscored Lawrence, 21-0, outgaining the Bulldogs in those 12 minutes, 233-49.
Neither team would score in the fourth period, but there was drama as Cooke returned to the field for the first time since the regular season finale.
On the first play of the final stanza, the senior standout ran for 8-yards and a first down. He'd carry nine times on the drive, gaining 17 yards, before the Stags finally stalled deep in Lawrence territory.
"It was great to see Spencer back," Green said. "I felt terrible when he broke his leg. He loves to play."
"I was very excited for Spencer," said DiStasio. "That was very cool to see him back in there. That's what we wanted for him."
"His better games were behind him," added Wolfgram. "He was at 80 percent today. We spoke with his parents, dressed him and got him in the game. It was very important because he's a huge part of our program. He has been for three years. He's a team kid. Very unselfish, a heck of a competitor. It was important we got him in even though we knew he couldn't play at a full level."
Down the stretch, both coaches substituted liberally and Cheverus ran out the final 3:37 and celebrated its 49-7 triumph.
"It couldn't get any better," DiStasio said. "We worked really hard. That's a great team, but we just proved better. Last year, we lost a lot of veterans, but we had a lot back and those kids stepped up. We just wanted it again."
"It tastes good," said senior lineman and captain Mike Dedian. "We'll hold on to this forever. Motivation got us here. We had some guys out, but people stepped up. That's what happens. I thought it would be a close game. We both have great defenses. I was expecting a close game, but I'm happy with what happened. Coach Wolfgram sets the energy and we work as one. We're a machine."
Cheverus might not have been the favorite at the start of the season (Bonny Eagle, Scarborough, Thornton Academy and Windham were the popular picks), but once again, it was the last team standing.
"It feels wonderful," Green said. "It was our goal from Day One at training camp and we got it done. We knew what we had and we came out wanting to prove everyone wrong. That was some great motivation for us. It's hard to repeat. It's great that we did something that's so hard to do.
"(The Bulldogs) run the same type of offense, same style as us, so we were ready from the get go. We knew we had to come out and play really hard. We got some turnovers early that set the tone. That's what we're all about. Wolfgram's a great coach. He prepared us. We were ready."
Statistically, the Stags put on a stunning show, outgaining the Bulldogs, 551 yards to 178.
"Our entire line did a great job on defense," Goodrich said. "We disrupted the backfield. The secondary made great plays off the throws. We love to hit. Coach teaches physical football and we love to play physical football. Preparation this week and every week before this has been incredible. Coach Wolfgram does a great job preparing us for each game. We come out and work hard in practice and we know we have to work hard in the game. It never changes. Every day."
Olson ran for 25 yards on four attempts and completed four of his five passes, good for 124 yards. Green rushed 20 times for 185 yards with two TDs. Goodrich added 149 yards and four scores on 17 carries (he finished with 240 all-purpose yards, if you add in the kickoff return for a score). Cooke added 17 yards on nine attempts, sophomore Will Hilton 12 yards on four rushes and freshman Joe Fitzpatrick 2 yards on two tries.
"I love the running backs," Dedian said. "We try to open up the holes. Sometimes when we don't, they find the holes. They know what to expect from us."
DiStasio caught four balls for 124 yards and was seven-for-seven on extra points.
"Other kids played well too," said Wolfgram. "I thought (senior) Colie Walsh played well. I thought our offensive line played well. We had good balance. We have a lot of veterans on the line. Guys who played last year too. They really scratch and claw and play hard and have great technique."
Cheverus was flagged five times for 38 yards, but didn't turn the ball over.
For Lawrence, Carroll was held in check, to the tune of just 44 yards on 13 carries. Sementelli had 55 yards and his team's lone touchdown on three attempts. Leathers ran once for 15 yards and finished 4-of-8 through the air, with 44 yards and three interceptions. Carey caught three of the passes for 29 yards. The other reception was by Wade, for 15 yards. Carey also rushed twice for negative-5 yards. Doolan had one carry for 18 yards, sophomore Ethan Powers three rushes for 5 yards and sophomore Beau Grenier two carries for 2 yards.
The Bulldogs only had two penalties for 12 yards, but five turnovers more than sealed their doom.
For the second year in a row, Cheverus will graduate some key seniors, most notably Cooke, DiStasio and Olson, along with Walsh and unheralded linemen Dedian, Christian Deschenes, Charlie Rainville and Thomas Sullivan.
The Stags do return the likes of Goodrich and Green and figure to reload and be very strong again in 2012.
While Wolfgram didn't want to look ahead (rest assured that everyone involved with high school football hopes he'll remain on the sidelines for the foreseeable future), don't be the least bit surprised if Cheverus is holding another Gold Ball celebration on the Fitzpatrick Stadium turf a year from now.
"I hope we have one more in us," Green said. "We have good players coming back and we'll find new guys to fill spots. We have to work hard in the offseason, weightlifting, getting stronger. The league will change a lot. There will be a lot of good teams again like there were this year. It should be fun."