South Portland beats back Brunswick, wins first title
PORTLAND—The climb was long, treacherous and at times, frustrating, but the South Portland Red Riots are at last the kings of the Class A boys' lacrosse world.
Saturday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, South Portland got pushed for 48 minutes by a proud and talented Brunswick squad, but with a long-awaited title and its legacy on the line, the Red Riots did what it took to be crowned champions.
Three days after a breathtaking comeback win over Thornton Academy in the regional final, South Portland got off to a strong start, scoring five straight goals in one stretch and getting stellar goalkeeping from junior T-Moe Hellier to open up a healthy lead. When senior standout Duncan Preston scored unassisted late in the second quarter, the Red Riots enjoyed a 6-2 advantage at halftime.
But this one was far from over.
The Dragons roared back in the third period and when junior Tyler Sullivan scored with 6:58 to go, South Portland's lead had been cut to 7-6.
Red Riots junior Andrew Whipple restored order with an unassisted strike, but Brunswick junior standout Cam Glover answered to make it a one-goal game once more.
Late in the third, Preston scored to give South Portland a little breathing room and another Whipple goal, with 10:13 to play, made the score 10-7.
The Dragons got close again, when Sullivan scored with 2:31 to play, but the unheralded Red Riots defense slammed the door from there and South Portland completed its journey in the most delicious way possible, winning the championship by a 10-8 score.
Preston scored four times, Whipple and sophomore Jack Fiorini added two goals apiece and Hellier made a dozen saves as the Red Riots finished the season 14-1, ended Brunswick's run at 13-3 and established once and for all that the best Class A team in the state is from the city with one of the most storied athletic traditions around.
"I'm so happy and so excited," said South Portland coach Tom Fiorini, who inherited a program back in 2008 which boasted a mere two playoff wins in its history and steered it to the pinnacle. "These kids have worked their tail ends off for this. They've worked hard since youth program. This was the ultimate goal and we made it and it feels incredible."
Saturday was uncharted waters for South Portland both on the state championship stage and in going up against its opponent. The Red Riots and Dragons had never before squared off in a countable game.
Brunswick was competing in its fifth state final (see sidebar, below). The Dragons beat Portland in the 2007 Class A state game and lost to Cape Elizabeth in a one-class state final in 2002, to Scarborough in the 2008 Class A Final and to Portland in their most recent appearance, the 2009 Class A state game.
Both teams have knocked loudly on the door in recent seasons, but were denied.
This spring, however, the Dragons and the Red Riots have had almost everything come up in their favor (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories).
Brunswick, which lost by a goal to Cheverus in last year's Eastern A Final, opened with wins over Mt. Ararat, Edward Little, Messalonskee, Oxford Hills and Cony, to the tune of a composite 75-19 margin. After falling at home to Yarmouth, 7-6, the Dragons had no trouble with Lewiston, but were then no match at defending Class B champion Cape Elizabeth in a 16-2 setback. Brunswick then closed with victories over Edward Little, Messalonskee, Mt. Ararat and Morse to secure the top seed in Eastern A.
After handling No. 8 Lewiston in the quarterfinals (15-2), the Dragons sent No. 4 Mt. Ararat packing, 11-1, in the semifinals, then held off No. 3 Cheverus in Wednesday's regional final, 9-8.
South Portland started thinking about the 2014 season the second the final horn sounded on last year's agonizing semifinal round playoff loss to Kennebunk, a setback which was compounded by the loss to cancer days later of longtime youth coach Ted Hellier, T-Moe's father.
The Red Riots entered 2014 as the favorite and didn't disappoint, handling all foes but one.
After pounding Biddeford in the opener, South Portland outslugged Cheverus in an early test. Easy wins over Marshwood and Westbrook were followed by a therapeutic home victory over Kennebunk. The Red Riots downed Thornton Academy, then won at Yarmouth for the first time, in arguably the biggest regular season triumph in program history. South Portland then absolutely dominated the likes of Deering, Portland, Massabesic and Bonny Eagle before crashing back to Earth with a 14-8 loss at Scarborough in the regular season finale.
The Red Riots still managed to earn the top seed in Western A and after going on a 12-0 run to oust No. 4 Gorham, 16-3, in the semifinals, penned the Martin Memorial Miracle Wednesday, but scoring three times in the final 48 seconds, twice in the final 6.9 seconds, to stun No. 3 Thornton Academy in a regional final for the ages, 12-11.
Saturday, after the teams waited an extra hour for the Class A girls' game to be decided in five overtimes, South Portland was tested for 48 minutes, but ultimately secured its destiny.
Preston, who won the regional final by scoring off a faceoff with a second left, almost started the state game with a carbon copy.
He won the faceoff and raced in for what he hoped would be a quick goal, but his shot was blocked by a Brunswick defender.
Jack Fiorini then had a shot blocked before the Red Riots turned the ball over.
The Dragons then grabbed a 1-0 lead, when Glover scored unassisted with 10:13 to play in the first quarter.
Hellier made sure his team didn't fall behind any further, stopping a shot from freshman Christian Glover and denying a bid from junior Owen Ginty.
After Preston and senior Ben Bilderback both his the post, suggesting that perhaps it wasn't going to be the Red Riots' night, they finally kicked the offense into gear.
The tying goal came with 6:45 left in the first period, as Preston scored unassisted.
After Hellier made a save on a shot by Cam Glover, South Portland senior Thomas Leddy sent a backhanded shot wide, Preston had a shot denied by Brunswick senior goalie Chris Mrvichin, then Preston and junior Chris Mitchell both shot high.
Hellier then preserved the tie by robbing Sullivan in transition and at the other end, Fiorini scored his first goal with 2:26 to go in the first to put the Red Riots ahead to stay.
Late in the period, an interference penalty was called on freshman Josh Dorr and South Portland capitalized, as Bilderback set up junior Kam Andrews for a man-up goal and a 3-1 lead after one quarter.
The Red Riots kept the good times rolling in the second period.
After Hellier robbed Dorr, Preston got the ball, raced coast-to-coast, then beat Mrvichin to make it 4-1.
"Coach was on us at practice," Preston said. "He didn't really let us get too high so we wouldn't crash. We accelerated for this game. We got rid of nerves in warmups. We were on each other in warmups more than usual. We stuck together.
"(Brunswick) went zone for awhile. I'm not sure why they came out of it, but I'm sure glad they did. One-on-one, we moved the ball and looked for good matchups and went to goal and passed and scored."
"We talked before the TA game about remembering how it felt to walk off the field after the Kennebunk game last year," Tom Fiorini said. "We had a team breakfast this morning and I could see we were relaxed. We had a shoot-around afterwards and they were relaxed. The guys were relaxed when we showed up. They didn't even get upset when he had to wait for the (girls') overtime. Our philosophy all season is to come out and have fun and grow memories and enjoy ourselves."
South Portland added another man-up goal with 8:20 to go in the half, as Bilderback set up Fiorini.
The Red Riots almost made it 6-1, but Leddy was robbed and Mitchell hit the post.
After Hellier denied Cam Glover and Whipple was robbed by Mrvichin, Fiorini was denied after a spin move.
With 3:41 remaining before halftime, Mitchell was sent to the sidelines for a minute for a slash and Brunswick was able to snap a 19 minute, 14 second drought when Dorr took a pass from Cam Glover and finished man-up.
The Dragons weren't able to carry the momentum, however, and with 1:23 left, Preston fired a shot that Mrvichin got a piece of, but couldn't prevent from rolling into the cage.
South Portland almost scored again in the waning seconds, but Bilderback's shot was saved by Mrvichin and a rebound shot by Leddy went wide, keeping the Red Riots' lead at 6-2 at the break.
South Portland had a commanding 28-15 advantage in shots in the first half and while Hellier made nine clutch saves, Mrvichin kept his team within hailing distance by making a dozen.
Then, in the third period, the Dragons began to creep back.
The rally began just 27 seconds in, when senior Lucas McCue scored unassisted.
As they did on the first two Brunswick goals, the Red Riots quickly answered, as Mitchell set up Bilderback, but Cam Glover scored unassisted, Christian Glover set up Sullivan for a goal in transition after a turnover and with 6:58 left in the third, Sullivan finished a feed from Ginty to make it 7-6.
"We didn't capitalize on a lot of our opportunities and T-Moe came up big in the first half, so we talked at halftime about finishing and winning the ground ball battle," said Dragons coach Don Glover. "We had to get back to basics, get some possession and dodge harder."
Last spring, South Portland let a second half lead slip away against Kennebunk in the playoff loss and this game was taking on the same characteristics, but this year's team is mentally stronger and refused to buckle.
After a slashing penalty to Cam Glover, Andrews and Preston were both denied by Mrvichin, but with 3:04 remaining in the stanza, Whipple made a great move to get free, then shot and scored to push the lead back to 8-6.
It lasted all of 47 seconds, as Cam Glover responded after his own nice move.
"Cam played really, really well," Don Glover said.
With 1:29 left, Brunswick had its chance to draw even, but Glover shot just wide after a dodge.
At the other end, 28 seconds later, Preston struck unassisted for his final goal and South Portland took a 9-7 advantage to the fourth.
Where it made good on its date with destiny.
The Dragons got the ball without a faceoff to start, thanks to a late holding penalty on Red Riots senior captain and defensive stalwart Josh Allen, but Hellier denied Ginty.
After Whipple had a shot saved by Mrvichin, he got another chance and this time finished to make it 10-7 with 10:13 still to play.
"We weren't as veteran last year as we are this year," Hellier said. "We might have folded last year, but we're a lot tougher and older and we knew how to handle the situation."
"Their comeback made me a little nervous, but I had faith in (T-Moe), our offense and our defense," Preston said.
"We were ecstatic to be up 6-2 at halftime, but we knew it wasn't the end of the game," Tom Fiorini added. "Coach Glover is an incredible coach. Brunswick is a great team. We knew they were going to come out in the second half with a game plan that would work. Fortunately for us, we were able to keep the lead. If it went to a tie, it would have been a different game."
While the potent South Portland offense was done scoring, it had done enough to produce victory.
Now, it was up to the defense.
The Red Riots didn't give the Dragons many opportunities and when they got them, Hellier was there, stopping a long shot from Cam Glover and saving a bid from Dorr.
With 2:31 to play, Sullivan cut into the deficit, finishing a feed from senior Ryan Black, but Brunswick would draw no closer.
First a defender blocked a shot from Dragons junior Matt Brooks. Then, the ball was knocked loose and Hellier pounced on the turnover.
South Portland gave the ball back, but Brooks sent a shot way wide and the ball went back to the Red Riots.
With 51.2 seconds remaining, South Portland appeared to turn the ball over the in offensive zone, but in a controversial call, Sullivan was ruled to be offsides and that did it.
At 8 p.m. on the nose, after years in the wilderness and several agonizing close calls, the Red Riots were number one.
South Portland 10 Brunswick 8.
"It feels amazing," said Preston, who will attend Springfield College next year, where he plans to play football and might just go out for lacrosse as well. "It blows my mind, honestly, to think we just won a state championship. I was just watching at the end and saw the clock tick down and it hit me. We've played great all season. This team is just so great. It feels like a big family. It's sad it's our last game, but I couldn't be any happier at the end."
"This is just amazing," Jack Fiorini said. "That's the only word I can think of. Since losing last year to Kennebunk, this is what we've worked for. We're an experienced team. We've played great competition this year and that got us ready for this game. We've been grinding for this since day one. We knew what we had to do to win this game."
"All day we said, 'There's no tomorrow,'" Hellier said. "Our D worked their tails off. Our middies and attack worked hard. We knew there's no practice tomorrow."
"All the kids we counted on all year stepped up and did their jobs," Tom Fiorini added. "We saw a lot of passes against TA and we got a little panicky, but we didn't panic tonight. We play better from ahead, obviously. Our defense, which we haven't leaned on all season, stood tall for us in the second half and I'm very proud of them.
"My brother (John) is helping me coach. He was the first one to hug me. Then I went right to Jack, of course. It's special to share that. I knew this day would come. I thought we had a chance to do it last year. I knew going into this season that this was it and that we'd get over the top. There have been hiccups along the way, but we found a way to fight through anything."
Preston bowed out with a four-goal, one-assist, five-ground ball effort.
Fiorini and Whipple both had two goals, while Andrews and Bilderback each had one. Bilderback set up two goals, while Mitchell had one assist. Hellier and Mitchell had a team-high six ground balls and Hellier made a dozen key saves.
"The defense kept the shots coming from the outside, which was huge for me to make saves," Hellier said. "That's why I love them."
"T-Moe is the best goalie I've ever played with, hands down," Jack Fiorini said. "I've played with him since second grade. I love the kid to death."
The win might have been a little sweeter for Hellier than anyone else, since this year's team was playing for the memory of his father.
"Last year was a crappy feeling after we lost," T-Moe Hellier said. "A little after that was when my Dad passed away. This year we played for him. We knew he was watching every game. To come out and win for him feels really great."
Preston and Tom Fiorini said that the memory of Ted Hellier inspired them as well.
"Last June, when we ended our season, we knew we'd be in the state game this year," Preston said. "After Ted passed, it sunk in even more than we had to do for him."
"We talked about Ted before this game and how he lived because they won and that he'd be so happy if we did today and it's a fantastic feeling," Tom Fiorini said.
The Red Riots finished with a 42-30 edge in shots (28-20 on cage) and committed a respectable 17 turnovers.
Brunswick was paced by three goals apiece from Cam Glover and Sullivan. Dorr and McCue each tickled the twine once. Black, Ginty, Cam Glover and Christian Glover all had assists. Junior Ian Schlosser enjoyed a 14-7 advantage on ground balls and also collected six ground balls, as did Christian Glover. McCue led all players with 12 ground balls. Mrvichin made 18 saves and the Dragons turned the ball over 22 times.
"We couldn't get it to a tie," Don Glover lamented. "If we did, it would have been a battle to the final whistle. We tried to take advantage of some mismatches, but the South Portland defense did a good job cluttering things up and their goalie came up big."
This Brunswick edition reestablished the program as one of the state's elite.
"It was an awesome season," Don Glover said. "It's my 17th year of coaching here and the dynamic of this group is exceptional. We may not have the athletes (the Red Riots) have, but the camaraderie and friendship was the icing on the cake to get here. This tastes good, so we need to work on getting back."
First of many?
Now that South Portland has tasted the joy of ultimate victory, it will want to do it again and again.
The loss of senior captains Allen, Leddy and Preston, along with key contributors like Bilderback, faceoff man Joey DiBiase and Jordan Susi, who helped neutralize Cam Glover at times, will certainly be felt.
"We have 10 great seniors who should be very proud of themselves," Tom Fiorini said.
With that said, offensive threats like Andrews, Eben Babbidge, Jack Fiorini, Mitchell and Whipple return. Junior Trenton Lloyd-Rees and sophomore Nick Mezzanotte have played key roles on defense. And of course, there's Hellier, who will enter the 2015 season as the consensus best goalie in the state.
There's a very good chance we'll see the Red Riots celebrating on the new-and-improved Fitzpatrick Stadium turf this time next year.
"We have a lot of guys coming back," Hellier said. "We're replenishing. It's hard to replace an All-American like Duncan, but we'll see what we can do."
"I can't wait for next year," Jack Fiorini said. "I'm going to keep grinding. I fully expect our young kids will grow and we'll back in this game next year."
"I've got a lot coming back and a lot coming up," Tom Fiorini added. "The countdown has already started. I'd like to think that this is the beginning of South Portland lacrosse being an elite program that can compete every year, be a 1 or 2 seed going into the playoffs and can get to this game. I'm not saying we'll win it every year, but we want to be a team that makes other teams nervous and make them not want to play us."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous South Portland stories
Western A semifinal
South Portland 16 Gorham 3
Western A Final
South Portland 12 Thornton Academy 11
Previous Brunswick story
Previous state games
Scarborough 8 Brunswick 6
Brunswick 12 Portland 9
Cape Elizabeth 15 Brunswick 7