Victory, history for Stags
SACO—The "Game of the Century" proved to be just another day at the office for the finest football team in the state.
Make that the finest team in the history of high school football in the state.
For the better part of three seasons, the Cheverus Stags have turned away every foe and risen to the level of champion.
Saturday afternoon at Dr. Paul S. Hill Jr. Stadium, the Stags became a team for the ages.
In a regional final rematch/showdown at Thornton Academy, Cheverus displayed every reason why it is the program that all others now measure themselves against.
When the Stags needed to run the ball, they did, to the tune of 313 of their total 399 yards. When they needed to mix it up and go to the air, that worked as well. Then, of course, there was the defense, which held the potent Golden Trojans to just 196 yards.
Contributions came from up and down the sideline, from big-name stars, to a first-time varsity starter, to the finest coach this state has ever seen.
Cheverus made an immediate statement by driving 67 yards in seven plays on its first possession and going ahead when senior big-game standout extraordinaire Donald Goodrich bulled in from 2-yards out.
The Stags had a chance to open things up in the second period, but senior quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick was intercepted in the end zone by Thornton Academy junior standout Andrew Libby and with 4:33 to go before halftime, a 4-yard Libby TD run pulled the Golden Trojans even.
No one does halftime adjustments like legendary coach John Wolfgram, however, and Cheverus was a new, more confident and even more unstoppable force in the second half.
The Stags marched 77 yards in nine plays to begin the third quarter and went on top for good when Goodrich scored from the 4 with 7:27 remaining. After forcing a punt, Cheverus got a bit of a cushion on a 15-yard Goodrich scamper with 2:35 to play in the third.
As expected, Thornton Academy battled back and when Libby scored on a 6-yard run with 9:33 to go, the Cheverus lead was cut to 21-14.
After the Stags ran over four minutes off the clock, but missed a field goal, unheralded junior Sam Cross, starting in lieu of injured senior Brent Green, intercepted a pass and returned it 30-yards to paydirt in what was essentially the coup de grâce.
Cheverus' defense held two final times, then the Stags ran out the clock and celebrated their No. 1 seed-clinching, bragging rights-rich 28-14 victory, which made them 7-0 on the year, dropped the Golden Trojans to 6-1 and oh by the way, matches South Portland (from 1995-97) for the longest winning streak in Class A history, at 31 straight victories.
"It's more special than just another win," said Wolfgram. "No question. Mainly because Thornton Academy's an excellent football team. It gives us a chance to have a high seed in the playoffs. It was a fun week. It was a great day for high school football."
Something had to give
Seemingly since the final horn of Cheverus' state championship game win over Lawrence last November, high school football fans were looking ahead to this year's Cheverus-Thornton Academy regular season showdown, the first such meeting in at least a decade. The teams did play in the 2009 Western A semifinals (a 36-7 Stags' triumph) and a year ago in a taut, entertaining Western A Final (won by Cheverus, 21-10).
With six opportunities to stumble before the showdown, neither powerhouse came close to faltering.
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 last week overcame a sluggish start by pulling away from host Windham, 35-14.
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). Last Saturday, the Stags tasted adversity for the first time and had to scratch and claw to hold off visiting Bonny Eagle, 21-7.
That win was Cheverus' 30th in succession (please see sidebar) and put the Stags on the brink of history.
No one knew that better than Wolfgram, who directed South Portland to 31 straight victories between 1995 and 1997, but he and his players had zero interest in talking about anything other than the game.
With in excess of 4,000 thousand fans on hand, the Golden Trojans and Stags put on a show, but ultimately, Cheverus had the answers once more.
The Stags won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession until the second half, giving the hosts first crack on offense.
Cheverus' defense set the tone on the first play when Goodrich and senior Brad Kritzer combined to sack Thornton Academy senior Eric Christensen for a 7-yard loss. After Christensen threw incomplete, he found senior Dakota Tarbox for 12 yards, but the Golden Trojans had to punt.
The Stags took over at their 33 and quickly moved down the field to take the lead.
A 7-yard run from Goodrich got it started. On third-and-2 from the 41, Goodrich ran for 5 yards and a first down, barreling over Libby in the process.
"I love to hit," Goodrich said. "I get up after those plays and it gets me more fired up."
On the next play, Cheverus eschewed the run as Fitzpatrick ran a play action, dropped back and lofted a pass to Casale behind the defense. Casale rumbled all the way to the Thornton Academy 11 before being tackled.
"It's always been part of our repertoire," said Fitzpatrick. "(Casale's) an athlete. We wanted to get him the ball. It was open and coach called the play. (Ryan's) a good enough athlete to throw him the ball. We always come out flying. We caught them off guard, I think."
"Ryan's diverse," Goodrich said. "He's a great player. He's a huge leader on the field."
Goodrich then broke a tackle attempt by Tarbox in the backfield, shook off another tackler and wasn't brought down until he reached the 3. After Goodrich gained a yard, he got the ball again and this time found paydirt from the 2, capping a seven-play, 67-yard, 3 minute, 1 second drive. Sophomore Patrick Mourmouras added the extra point to make it 7-0.
On their next series, the hosts got a first down when Christensen gained 12 yards, but on third-and-3, senior Nick Kenney was held to a rush of a yard and Cheverus had forced a punt again.
The Stags began to move the ball once more as junior Cody O'Brien gained 2 yards on third-and-inches for a first down at the 46, but a chop block penalty short-circuited the drive and Cheverus had to punt.
Again, the Stags defense stood firm, but a facemask penalty on the possession kept the hosts' drive alive and proved to be a disturbing sign of things to come. On third-and-1 from the 41, Thornton Academy committed a false start and Christensen's pass, intended for Libby, was broken up by Cheverus junior Will Hilton.
On the final play of the opening stanza (in which the Stags outgained the Golden Trojans, 92 yards to 41), O'Brien rushed for 8 yards to spark another drive. On the first play of the second quarter, Fitzpatrick ran for 6 yards and a first down. O'Brien and Goodrich each had 8-yard runs to move the chains again and O'Brien then rumbled for 37 down to the Thornton Academy 16. After Goodrich was held to no gain and O'Brien gained a yard, a false start backed Cheverus to the 20. Fitzpatrick and Goodrich hooked up for a 2-yard pass, but on fourth-and-12, Fitzpatrick's pass into the end zone was intercepted by Libby, who returned the ball to the Golden Trojans' 13, ending the threat.
Thornton Academy then put together its best drive of the day, marching 87 yards on eight plays to pull even.
On third-and-3 from the 20, Christensen hit Tarbox for 15 yards and a first down. A 7-yard Libby run, followed by a facemask penalty, moved the ball to the Cheverus 47. After an offsides penalty, Christensen hit Tarbox again, as the burly receiver outleaped Fitzpatrick to come down with a 27-yard reception to the 15. A 6-yard Libby run and another facemask penalty set up first-and-goal from the 4 and from there, Libby, in the "Wildcat," did the rest, taking the ball and diving to the stripe for a touchdown. Senior Brandon Briggs' extra point made it 7-7 with 4:33 remaining in the half.
After a touchback, the Stags had an opportunity to go back on top and a run of 9 yards by Goodrich and a 7-yard Fitzpatrick-to-Goodrich pass moved the ball to the 47. Cheverus wasn't able to complete the drive, however, as a 16-yard pass to Goodrich only moved the ball to the Golden Trojans' 25 as time expired.
The Stags had been done in by six penalties for 40 yards in the first half, but came out a new team in the second half.
Getting the first chance on offense, Cheverus got runs of 9- and 11-yards from Goodrich to move the ball to the 43. After O'Brien gained 5, Fitzpatrick ran for 18, cutting back to elude several defenders to earn a first down at the Thornton Academy 34. After Goodrich ran for 3 yards and O'Brien gained 9, Fitzpatrick and Casale hooked up again through the air, this time for 18 yards, and a first-and-goal at the 4. That set the table for Goodrich, who outran the defense to the left pylon for a touchdown. Mourmouras' point after with 7:27 to go in the third quarter gave the Stags a 14-7 lead.
"We made a couple adjustments," Wolfgram said. "They worked right away on that first drive of the half. That changed the pace of the game."
Thornton Academy's first possession of the second half saw it gain one first down, but a sack by O'Brien forced a punt.
Cheverus took over at its 48 and five plays later, earned some breathing room.
This time, the Stags did it all on the ground. Goodrich gained 8 yards on first down. After O'Brien picked up a first down with a 9-yard scamper, Goodrich rushed for 11 and O'Brien for 9. Goodrich then capped the march with a 15-yard scoring run, as he took advantage of a big hole on the left side of the line. Mourmouras' extra point pushed the lead to 21-7 with 2:35 remaining in the third.
The Golden Trojans rose off the deck and as the third period gave way to the fourth, answered.
Runs of 15-yards by senior Dylan Morton, 10 from Christensen and 9 from Libby set the tone. On the first play of the final stanza, Libby rushed for 8 yards and a first down at the Cheverus 16. Christensen ran for 6 yards, Libby picked up a yard and on third-and-3 from the 9, Libby rushed for 3, barely picking up the first down. Libby then capped the 11-play, 73-yard, 4:57 drive with a 6-yard TD run up the gut. Briggs' extra point cut the deficit to 21-14 with 9:33 to go.
The Stags were pinned at their 18 after a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff, but Goodrich flipped the field with a 55-yard scamper down the left sideline, setting up a first down at the Thornton Academy 27. O'Brien gained 5-yards, Goodrich ran for 1 and O'Brien gained just shy of 4 to set up a pivotal fourth-and-inches from the 17. The ball went to Goodrich and he barely picked up the necessary yard to move the chains. After Goodrich was held to no gain, Fitzpatrick ran for a n apparent16-yard score on a rollout left, but the touchdown was negated by a holding penalty and the drive stalled at the 18.
With 5:01 remaining, Mourmouras came out to attempt a 35-yard field goal to push the lead to 10 points, but the kick was short and the hosts had a chance to drive and pull even.
Their hopes lasted all of one play and seven seconds.
Christensen dropped back and threw a pass over the middle, but instead of finding Tarbox, Cross snared the ball at the Golden Trojans' 30 and had clear sailing to the end zone. His 30-yard return brought the Stags' sideline to their feet and when Mourmouras added the extra point, Cheverus was up, 28-14.
"It was exciting," Cross said. "It was just a reaction, really. I just jumped the route. I didn't think about it. It just happened. It ended up in my hands. I knew there were still five minutes to go and it wasn't over, but it lifted the pressure off the defense. For my first varsity start ever, it was great. Green told me I could do it. We stepped up, made the plays and were physical. That's what we needed to do. The starters talked to me, helped me out in practice. Talked about situations. They definitely pulled me through."
Cross' teammates and coach weren't surprised he came up big on the big stage.
"I talked to him before the game," Fitzpatrick said. "I said, 'Are you ready for this?' He said he was ready. He made a big play. I was going crazy. He was. It was a big moment."
"Sam's a great player," Goodrich said. "Before he stepped up, he ran the scout team for us and he kicked our butt every day."
"Sam played very well," Wolfgram added. "He was sound before that in plays and when he stepped in front of that slant pass, that was a huge play. Sam's a great kid. He works hard in practice."
Thornton Academy still had 4:49 to work with, but the Stags' defense was able to pin back its ears and seal the deal.
After a 14-yard Christensen scramble gave the Golden Trojans a first down at the Cheverus 36, a false start backed them up five yards. Christensen then dropped back and after being flushed from the pocket by O'Brien, was sacked by Goodrich for a 4-yard loss. On second-and-19, Christensen again wasn't able to throw a pass as Goodrich and senior Matt Cushing combined for a sack. A deep pass on third down was batted down by Fitzpatrick and on fourth-and-20, Christensen threw incomplete again and the Stags got the ball on downs with 2:55 to go.
Cheverus hoped to run out the clock, but Thornton Academy's defense held and the hosts got one final shot from the Stags' 37 with 2:16 to play.
Again, Cheverus' defense sparkled as Casale sacked Christensen for a 4-yard loss on first down. After an incomplete pass, O'Brien got in on the act, bringing Christensen down for a 13-yard loss and on fourth-and-27, Goodrich sealed it with yet another sack.
The Stags ran three more plays and that was that.
Cheverus 28 Thornton Academy 14.
"It was great," Fitzpatrick said. "We've been in big games, but there's never been a game like this before in the regular season. It was exciting. A lot of fun to play in. (Thornton's) a good team and they were going to battle until the end like we did and we came out on top this time. It's a statement win. Without a doubt, we'll see them again. We're looking forward to the next time we see them."
"It wasn't just another game, because we were out there playing for Brent Green and (injured senior) Michael Flaherty," Goodrich said. "Two seniors who work hard for us. That's what this game was for. We wanted to win it for them. I was pointing to Brent and Michael after every play. We were determined in the second half. We came out and played Cheverus football on every play."
"We prepare the same way every week, but I think we had a little extra focus this week because it was a game for a very high seed," added Wolfgram. "It was a good week of practice. It was raining a lot, but our kids concentrate well in practice. I thought it showed today the way we played."
The final statistics were dramatically in the Stags' favor, starting with a 399-196 edge in total yardage, including 313 on the ground.
"On offense, we controlled the ball when we had to and did what we had to do to win," Wolfgram said.
Goodrich stole the show with 166 yards (and three TDs) on 25 carries.
"We're just going to give him the ball until they stop him," Fitzpatrick said. "He's a strong kid. He's fast. He's good at eluding tackles."
"Donny's very, very good," Wolfgram said. "I can't compare him to other people. We like to have him on our side. He's a competitor. He's quick, he runs hard. He's a good player. He's got the heart of a lion."
O'Brien was stellar as well, gaining 110 yards on 19 carries.
"We have a very diverse offense and I'm not the only one who can run," Goodrich said. "Cody stepped up. We have depth."
Fitzpatrick rushed for 37 yards on seven attempts and completed 6-of-8 passes for 88 yards with one interception. Casale (63 yards) and Goodrich (25) each caught three balls. It wasn't the cleanest game for Cheverus, with eight penalties for 58 yards and a turnover, but the Stags overcame.
For the Golden Trojans, Libby rushed for 59 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. Christensen gained 62 yards on seven rushes, Morton had two attempts for 22 yards and Kenney gained 19 yards on seven attempts. Christensen completed 5-of-12 passes for 63 yards with an interception. Tarbox had four of the catches, for 58 yards. Libby caught the other, for 5. Thornton Academy was penalized six times for 50 yards and had one turnover.
The Stags' defense was sensational and produced seven sacks, three by Goodrich, two by O'Brien, one by Casale and a half apiece by Cushing and Kritzer.
"We hit hard and executed," said Goodrich. "It's a football game. You have 11 guys on both sides of the ball. It's not won by one player. They have a very good offense, a tough offense to cover. We looked at keys, watched film and tried to get ready. It's all about preparation."
"Thornton's a very good football team," Wolfgram said. "They're well coached. They're good on both sides of the ball. I thought we played disciplined on defense. They got a lot of yards, but only got 14 points. We made a lot of plays. We did what we had to do."
Thirty one is the loneliest number
Following the game, Wolfgram again reiterated that the win streak is merely a number and that his and the team's focus is on the present and immediate future.
"The streak doesn't mean anything to me," Wolfgram said. "We'd like to get a top seed in the playoffs. That's the way our kids are thinking and that's the way I'm thinking. The other stuff is extrinsic stuff."
While Wolfgram doesn't want to dwell on the magnitude of coaching a team to 31 straight victories (for a mindboggling second time), the rest of the local high school football world sure does. The Wolfgram legend was well established before he even set foot at Cheverus, but the job he's done with the Stags will be the standard by which all other coaches are measured.
He's certainly made an impact on his players.
"We play every game for coach," Goodrich said. "He puts in a ton of effort every week and we want to reward him for that effort. He's dedicated to us. He puts in the same kind of effort we do. He studies film, gets the game plan together and prepares us."
Bigger games to come
For all the hype this showdown generated, it was just the penultimate game of the regular season. Both teams have to play their respective rivalry finales this coming weekend, then each will embark on a title quest that will likely intersect in the Western A Final Nov. 10., this time in Portland
Thornton Academy (now locked into the No. 2 spot in Western A) will go to 3-4 Biddeford for its finale Friday night.
Top-ranked Cheverus is back in action Saturday when it host 3-4 Deering, a team riding a three-game win streak. Last year, the Stags struggled at the Rams in the regular season, winning just, 14-0, but in the Western A semifinals, they drubbed Deering from start to finish, 45-0.
"(This win is) a good thing for the program, but we're looking forward to Deering next week," Fitzpatrick said. "I'll be riding home on the bus watching Deering on my iPhone."
"We'll get ready for Deering now," Goodrich said. "That's who's next."
Another bout of triumph and history awaits.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Cheverus' 31-game win streak
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
@ Thornton Academy W 28-14