State final stunner; Bonny Eagle scores in final minute to deny Cheverus' championship
PORTLAND—The coronation that so many felt was a mere formality never happened.
Cheverus' football team, led by the most storied coach in state history, John Wolfgram, was supposed to come away from Saturday's Class A state championship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium with another Gold Ball, but this time, the Stags met a team every bit their equal.
In talent and in heart.
In a game that will go down as an instant classic, Cheverus was pushed and pushed and pushed by a valiant Bonny Eagle squad, but the Stags kept answering and with less than a minute to play, appeared on the verge of glory, but it would be the Scots, adding to their burgeoning legacy, who celebrated last and loudest.
While many so called "experts" felt Cheverus would roll, it was Bonny Eagle which made noise early, grabbing a quick 7-0 lead when bruising junior Matt Smith broke free for a 66-yard touchdown scamper just 4 minutes, 18 seconds in.
The Stags, as they did all day, would respond, pulling even when junior standout Joe Fitzpatrick scored on a 3-yard run.
Early in the second quarter, the Scots retook the lead with another stunning big play, as on third-and-forever, junior quarterback Zach Dubiel hit classmate Ben Malloy, who had the game of his life, on a 75-yard catch-and-run for a 14-7 advantage.
Again, Cheverus answered, chewing up nearly eight minutes before Fitzpatrick scored from the 1 to make it 14-14 just before halftime, but Bonny Eagle managed to drive in the waning seconds and as time expired, got what proved to be a pivotal 33-yard field goal from senior Isaiah Reynolds.
When senior Joe Bissonnette broke free for a 54-yard touchdown run seven plays into the second half, the Scots led, 24-14, and had the Stags on the ropes, but as it did in the regional final, Cheverus dug out of its hole.
First, capping another long march, senior quarterback Ethan Jordan found classmate Sam Cross from the 1 on fourth-and-goal and after Bonny Eagle went three-and-out and only managed a 12-yard punt, the Stags took their first lead on a 3-yard dive from senior Cody O'Brien with just over a minute to go in the third quarter.
Cheverus was on the verge of locking away the victory, but twice the Stags drove deep into Scots' territory, only to come up empty and with 2:12 left, Bonny Eagle took over at its 18 with time for one last chance.
After senior Jon Woods single-handedly got his team close with several long runs, combined with an untimely and costly Cheverus penalty, the game, season and title came down to a fourth-and-1 from the 6, where Dubiel did it himself, racing into the end zone for the go-ahead score with just 22.8 seconds to go.
The Stags weren't able to pull off a miracle rally and as Jordan's last-ditch pass was intercepted by Woods, the upset was complete.
Bonny Eagle finished 10-1 and made it five Class A championships in 10 seasons with a 31-28 decision, handing Cheverus its first ever loss in a state final, ending the Stags' terrific season at 10-1 in the process.
"We did a lot of things we wanted to do," said Wolfgram. "We played a very good football game. In the final analysis, we just couldn't stop them. That's just the way it is."
"We were confident coming in," said Bonny Eagle coach Kevin Cooper, a phenomenal coach in his own right. "Most people didn't think we'd win and most people didn't think we'd even be in the game, but we did it."
Cheverus had just one test in the regular season, a 35-25 win at Portland, 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. Last Saturday, in a memorable regional final, Cheverus dug a 19-7 halftime hole, but dug out to beat No. 2 Portland, 22-19.
As for Bonny Eagle, it won seven of eight games in the regular season, stumbling only at Thornton Academy, 30-21, in the penultimate week. In their seven victories, the Scots outscored the opposition, 297-102, and as a result, they earned the top seed in the new-look Western Class A. After blanking No. 4 Scarborough, 27-0, in the semifinals, Bonny Eagle avenged its lone loss with a 28-13 victory over No. 2 Thornton Academy in last weekend's regional final.
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.
The Scots beat the Stags again in the 2009 regular season, 24-21, in overtime, but Cheverus won in the regular season in 2010 (23-20), 2011 (42-18) and again in 2012.
Cheverus won its previous three trips to the state game: 65-13 over Lewiston in 1985, 46-8 over Bangor in 2010 and 49-7 over Lawrence two years ago.
Bonny Eagle won all four its prior state games: 29-19 over Bangor in 2004, 41-13 over Mt. Blue in 2005, 34-14 over Lawrence in 2007 and 26-6 over Skowhegan in 2008.
There was a feeling that since the Stags had dodged a bullet in the regional final, they would be in control Saturday, a script the team followed in its last two state game appearances, but the Scots weren't intimidated, came in confident and in the end, managed to do what it took to capture the biggest prize in Maine high school football.
Bonny Eagle won the opening coin toss (the coin used was a Kennedy half dollar, in honor of the slain president 50 years and one day after his assassination), but chose to defer possession to the second half, something which proved to be a wise choice at the onset of both halves.
With the temperature reading 39 degrees (29 after a 19 mile-per-hour wind out of the northwest was factored in), Cheverus hoped to take a quick lead, but after Fitzpatrick ran for a yard on first down and Jordan hit O'Brien for just two through the air on second down, Fitzpatrick was held to three yards on a third down run and the Stags had to punt.
With 10:06 to play in the first quarter, the Scots took over at their 13 and it took just five plays to march 87 yards to break the ice.
Bonny Eagle's passing game set the tone on third-and-10, when Dubiel somehow threaded a pass through a couple Cheverus defenders to hit Malloy for 18 yards. After Woods ran for three yards, Smith took a handoff and saw nothing but wide open turf in front of him. Smith turned on the jets and outraced the pursuit to score untouched from 66 yards out. Reynolds added the extra point and with 7:42 to go in the first period, the Scots were on top, 7-0.
That touchodown marked the first time all year that the Stags didn't score first.
Cheverus' second possession would be much more productive.
The Stags began at their 35 and took 3:29 and nine plays to strike paydirt.
An 8-yard pass from Jordan to Cross allowed Cheverus to register its initial first down. After O'Brien moved the chains with a nine-yard run, a 27-yard O'Brien scamper set up first-and-goal from the 9.
O'Brien picked up six yards on the next snap, then, Fitzpatrick scored from the 3 and when junior Patrick Mourmouras added the extra point, the game was tied, 7-7, with 4:10 to go in the opening stanza.
Bonny Eagle kept the pressure on its next series, as Woods ran for 11 yards and a first down and Dubiel hit Malloy for 14 yards on a slant to move the chains again, but the Stags' defense held and a sack from junior Matt O'Leary forced a punt.
Cheverus got the ball at its 12 as the first period gave way to the second, but after picking up a first down, a false start short-circuited the drive and the Stags had to punt.
The Scots began at their 38, but a holding penalty pushed them back and eventually set up a third-and-23 from the 25.
As it turned out, Bonny Eagle had Cheverus right where it wanted it.
Dubiel dropped back to pass and launched a bomb down the right sideline where Malloy got behind a defender. Malloy hauled in the ball, broke a tackle, stayed on his feet and eventually completed the 75-yard scoring strike to put his team back on top.
"I stumbled a little bit and thought I was going to out of bounds, but I kept my balance and kept going and scored," Malloy said.
Reynolds kicked the PAT and with 8:07 left before hafltime, the Scots led, 14-7.
Cheverus then embarked on another long drive, this time marching 64 yards in 17 plays and 7:41.
A roughing the passer penalty on Bonny Eagle got things going and moved the ball into Scots' territory. After Fitzpatrick picked up a first down, Jordan ran twice for eight yards and an offsides penalty on Bonny Eagle gave the Stags a first down at the 22.
Fizpatrick then carried six straight times for 21 yards, but Cheverus found itself facing a fourth-and-inches from just outside the 1.
O'Brien got the next carry and was upended, causing the Scots to celebrate, thinking they had stopped the Stags, but O'Brien, while failing to cross the goal line, did pick up a first down just inside the 1. After Fitzpatrick was stuffed for no gain, he got the ball again and this time, he broke the plane behind left tackle and when Mourmouras added the extra point with 22.3 seconds left in the half, the game was tied, 14-14, and it appeared the score would remained deadlocked at the break.
Instead, Bonny Eagle struck quickly again and wound up posting three critical points.
Smith returned the ensuing kickoff 21 yards to the Scots' 49. Dubiel then dropped back and threw a deep pass to Woods, good for 35 yards to Cheverus' 16.
Then, as time expired, Reynolds came on and with a straight on approach that hearkened up the glory days of Lou "The Toe" Groza, he split the uprights from 33-yards out to give Bonny Eagle a 17-14 halftime lead.
The Scots outgained the Stags, 215 yards to 141 in the first half. Cheverus had an almost 2-to-1 edge in time of possession, first down and plays, but for just the second time all season, trailed at the break.
Bonny Eagle's decision to defer possession to the second half paid off big time as it drove 76 yards on seven plays to extend its lead.
The Scots' ability to move the ball through the air set the tone, as Dubiel, on third-and-3, hit Malloy for five yards and a first down. Then, after Dubiel gained a yard on third-and-1, the ball went to Bissonnette on a sweep right and Bissonnette managed to turn the corner before outrunning Cheverus' pursuit for a 54-yard TD scamper. Reynolds' PAT made it 24-14 Bonny Eagle with 8:37 to go in the third period.
On the ropes, the Stags dug deep into their unparalleled reservoir of heart and dominated the rest of the quarter.
Beginning at its 38, Cheverus marched 62 yards in 10 plays, chewing up nearly five minutes to get right back in the game.
After Jordan hit senior Noah Stebbins for eight yards and a first down, Fitzpatrick ran for four to move the chains again. Fitzpatrick then had his lone breakaway run of the day, rumbling 38 yards to the Bonny Eagle 3.
The Stags would get their six points, but it took awhile.
Fitzpatrick ran twice, but was held to no gain on both carries. He then got the ball again, but was stopped at the 1, setting up fourth down.
With the Scots expecting a run, Cheverus mixed things up, as Jordan faked a handoff, then threw to a wide open Cross in the end zone for a 1-yard score. Mourmouras' PAT cut the deficit to 24-21 with 3:41 left in the period.
The Stags' defense then rose to the fore with help from Bonny Eagle, which was called for a holding penalty. Cheverus then kept the Scots pinned at their 10, forcing a punt, which only went 12 yards.
The Stags took over at the Bonny Eagle 22 and O'Brien single-handedly gave his team the lead.
After rushing for 11 yards on the first snap, O'Brien ran for eight yards to the 3. On the next play, O'Brien got the handoff again and got tripped up, but dove across the end line for a go-ahead touchdown. Mourmouras' PAT made it 28-24 Cheverus with 1:02 to go in the stanza and it appeared the Stags were on the verge of seizing control for good.
Sure enough, the Scots went three-and-out on their next series and with just seconds remaining in the third, Cheverus got the ball at the Bonny Eagle 45.
On the first play of the final quarter, Jordan hit junior Zordan Holman for 31 yards to the Scots' 15.
At that point, the Stags had a chance to produce a backbreaking touchdown, but it never happened.
After O'Brien ran for two yards, Fitzpatrick was held to no gain and on third down, Jordan threw incomplete.
Wolfgram then called on Mourmouras to attempt a 31-yard field goal into the wind to push the lead to seven, but Mourmouras' kick, while long enough, went wide left and the score remained 28-24.
"They had a stretch there that was typical Cheverus," Cooper said. "They had the wind, they made us start a couple drives (inside our) 20, we had short punts and they had a short field and scored. It was tough for us, but we just had to weather the storm."
With a second life, the Scots looked to march for a go-ahead score, but after Woods ran for 11 yards and a nice reception by Bissonnette followed by a run by Dubiel produced another first down, Cheverus' defense rose up and forced a punt.
With exactly seven minutes to go, the Stags took over at their 42 and looked to put the game away.
It almost happened.
After Fitzpatrick ran for three yards and Jordan gained two, Fitzpatrick ran left, appeared hemmed in, then made a jawdropping spin move to elude a couple tacklers to pick up eight yards and a first down at the Scots' 45.
Two O'Brien rushes gained eight yards and Bonny Eagle then jumped offsides, giving Cheverus a first down at the 32.
The Scots' defense then came to life, stuffing Fitzpatrick for no gain and after Jordan threw incomplete, holding Fitzpatrick to just two yards, forcing a punt.
The Stags hoped to pin Bonny Eagle inside its 10, but Fitzpatrick only punted the ball 14 yards and with 2:12 left in the game and the season, the Scots took over at their 18.
"It was fourth-and-9 and it's difficult to pick up those nine yards, so I have no second thoughts (on deciding to punt)," Wolfgram said. "I hoped to get the ball inside the 10 and make them drive the field. It didn't happen."
Little did anyone know, but one of the most memorable drives in state game history was about to ensue.
On first down, Dubiel dropped back and attempted a long pass down the left sideline for Malloy, but Stebbins broke it up.
Bonny Eagle then eschewed the pass and Woods etched his name into school lore.
Woods ran for 21-yards, 11-yards, then 20 more and at the end of that last carry, he was hit late out of bounds, which put the ball at the Cheverus 15 with under a minute to play.
"They have a good defense and they were right on me and they stopped me (early in the game), so we had to go to other things and we did that," Woods said. "The line did a great job. They believed in me and I followed them."
"Woods is the best," said Dubiel. "You can't find a running back other than Fitzpatrick who's as good as Woods. He's great. He led us today."
"We didn't set the edge in that situation," Wolfgram lamented. "Woods is very fast. They got him rolling. We just didn't stop him."
Woods ran for two yards on first down and six on second, but on third down, he only gained a yard, being brought down by Stags junior Matt Drouin, setting up a fateful fourth-and-1 from the 6 with roughly 30 seconds to play.
With many expecting the ball to come to Woods again, the Scots instead kept the ball in the hands of their quarterback and Dubiel not only picked up the first down, he didn't stop until he broke the plane and as the Bonny Eagle sideline exulted, many Cheverus players sank to their knees in disbelief.
"I just told (the guys) to stay on the blocks," Dubiel said. "(Junior lineman) Lucas Winslow was pulling for me on that play. I looked him in the eye and told him, 'If you get this (block), we're winning this game.' He led me into the hole and we got the touchdown. I want to be a big time player and I think I proved that tonight."
"(Zach's) a great player," Woods said. "He'll be great next year too. Hopefully he'll win another Gold Ball."
Reynolds added the extra point and with just 22.8 seconds to go, the Scots, somewhat improbably, were on top, 31-28.
Stags junior Liam LaFountain returned the ensuing kickoff to the 31, but only 17.2 seconds remained to pull off a miracle, which wouldn't come to fruition.
Jordan's pass on first down fell incomplete.
On second down, he threw in the flat to O'Brien, but he only managed to gain two yards and Cheverus had to call timeout with 4.5 seconds showing, allowing time for one final play.
Jordan would drop back and throw a prayer down the center of the field. The ball would be caught, but it was hauled in by Woods at midfield, who thought for a split second about trying for a return, but then thought better of it, falling to the turf to end the play, the game and the season.
As the clock showed 1:31 p.m., after 142 thrilling minutes, Bonny Eagle had upset Cheverus, 31-28.
Celebration and heartache
Bonny Eagle, despite being perceived as the underdog, had its fifth championship and celebrated accordingly.
"It's amazing, I can't even explain it," Dubiel said. "I've waited for it my whole life and now it's here, it's just amazing. "Our mindset had to be right. Cheverus had lost one game in four years. They're the best. We had to come in and prove that we're the best. This means everything in the world for us. We've waited for this. Now that it's here, it's the greatest feeling ever. I'd love to win another Gold Ball. Next year, hopefully we can do that."
"Ever since camp in the summer, we've preached Gold Ball dreams," Malloy said. "We knew it would come down to who had the biggest heart. We knew we couldn't give up. Nobody gave up and now we're champions."
"We knew what we had to do and we came in and we did it," said Woods. "We knew it would be a battle. We believed we'd do something special. We'd been working hard all season. The goal was a Gold Ball and we came together as a team."
"I can't say enough about our kids," Cooper added. "The growth they had during the year and to get us here is just incredible. I'm very proud as a coach. They've given us great memories to fall back on. We felt we could throw the ball on them and attack the edge a bit. Being able to have success early kept our confidence up. At the end, we just wanted the ball one more time and take a shot. It's amazing how long five years can be, but our kids worked so hard in the offseason and all season to get us here. Credit to them."
Cooper paid tribute to the Stags.
"It was the same old Cheverus," he said. "I didn't expect Coach Wolfgram to change. They did what we expected and they did it well. They're a good team. We feel fortunate to beat a team like that. They've been the gold standard of Maine high school football for a number of years. They have great players. They play hard. They play the game the right way. They're coached the right way. It was an honor to be out here with those guys today."
For Cheverus, the unexpected result was difficult to bear, but once again, the Stags gave their all for 48 palpitating minutes.
"We kept coming back," Wolfgram said. "We answered three or four times. We just couldn't get those first downs to put them away. (Bonny Eagle's) a good team. They're an explosive team. It's their explosiveness which won the game for them. They're well coached. We just couldn't stop them at the end. We expected to win. We coached to win. We were prepared to win. We just didn't win. That happens. We just came up a little bit short."
As was the case on the scoreboard, Bonny Eagle had a slight edge in most statistical categories, outrushing Cheverus, 252-223, and outpassing the Stags, 151-52.
Woods had 99 yards on 15 carries. Smith rushed just three times, but had 72 yards and a touchdown. Bissonnette was even more economical, running for a 54-yard score on his one carry. Dubiel had 27 yards and arguably the most critical touchdown in program history on nine attempts.
DuBiel was solid through the air, completing 8-of-14 passes for 151 yards and a TD.
"I worked a lot on passing through the year," Dubiel said. "I believed I got better, but I still have work to improve on."
Malloy, who didn't play varsity football until this season, had four catches for 112 yards and a score.
"It's my first year with the team," said Malloy. "It's like my family. To do this it's great."
Woods caught two balls for 34 yards and Bissonnette had a pair of receptions for 5 yards.
Bonny Eagle overcame six penalties for 49 yards.
For Cheverus, Fitzpatrick capped his superb season with 120 yards and two TDs on 30 carries. O'Brien gained 93 yards and scored once on 17 rushes. Jordan carried three times for 10 yards.
Jordan completed 6-of-11 passes for 52 yards with a touchdown and an interception, which came on the final play of the game and was the only miscue for either side.
Cross had two receptions for 9 yards and a TD. O'Brien caught two passes for 4 yards. Holman caught one pass, good for 31 yards, and Stebbins had one reception for 8 yards.
The Stags were flagged three times for 25 yards.
Cheverus had a time of possession advantage of 29 minutes to 19, but it didn't translate into victory.
The Stags didn't wind up with the Gold Ball they so coveted, due in large part to a championship effort from Bonny Eagle, but Cheverus produced a marvelous season nonetheless and its four-year record of 44-2 will likely never be approached.
When all is said and done, the Stags might not have been the champions, but they were certainly something very, very special.
"I have great kids at Cheverus," Wolfgram said. "Great kids with high character."