Capers fall short in Class B Final; Leavitt denies title dream with 35-21 decision
PORTLAND—A final, triumphant chapter wasn't to be for the Cape Elizabeth Capers.
The Capers, having finally vanquished longtime tormentor Mountain Valley, took the Fitzpatrick Stadium turf Saturday night full of confidence and belief that they were a team of destiny, but this time, fate smiled on the Leavitt Hornets and their superb senior running back Josh Strickland.
Strickland carried 37 times for 298 yards and four TDs as the Hornets never trailed and fended off a series of Cape Elizabeth threats to win the Class B Gold Ball, 35-21.
"They were a better football team, it's that simple," lamented Capers coach Aaron Filieo. "They were very, very good. I think the better team won tonight. I'm just extremely proud of our guys and the way they came out and fought right to the end. As a coach and as a community, that's really all you can ask for. I thought we hung with them as long as we could, but having as many penalties and turning the ball over like we did, you're never going to come out on top against a team like that."
When Filieo took over the Cape Elizabeth program in 2004, the Capers were embarking upon their second varsity season and were at best, an afterthought in the Campbell Conference.
Filieo, an all-star standout and state champion at South Portland in the early 90s, quickly made it clear, however, that his goal was simple and non-negotiable, he expected to contend for a state championship right away and every season thereafter.
By Year Three of Filieo's reign, Cape Elizabeth was in the regional final, but couldn't solve perennial contender Mountain Valley. That was the case again in 2007 and again in 2008.
This season would be different.
The Capers opened with a 32-0 win at Poland, rolled 41-12 at contender York, then won their next six games by a composite 236-15 margin, which included four shutouts. Cape Elizabeth then capped its second undefeated regular season in three years with a delicious 34-0 blanking of the Falcons on Oct. 30 to lock up the top seed for the playoffs.
After handling No. 4 Wells 35-14 in the Western B semifinals, the Capers hosted Mountain Valley again in the regional final, but history appeared primed to repeat itself when the Falcons held a late 13-9 lead in the rain. Then, Cape Elizabeth put together the most inspirational drive in program history to go ahead, then added a defensive score to win 23-13 and set up a date with unbeaten and highly touted Leavitt in the state final.
The Hornets, seeking their first Gold Ball since 1998, made it clear early that they were the most formidable foe the Capers had yet seen, but Cape Elizabeth hung tough throughout.
The Capers got the ball first and had to punt after senior quarterback Ezra Wolfinger's third-and-5 pass to junior Jack Barber was stopped a yard shy of the first down marker. Leavitt gained a pair of first downs its initial time with the ball, then had to punt as well, but a sack derailed Cape Elizabeth's next series and the Hornets took over on the Capers' 41 with 4:49 to go in the opening period.
A mere 2 minutes, 33 seconds later, Leavitt got the jump. Three rushes for 18 yards by Strickland got the Hornets close, then, with 2:16 to play in the first, senior quarterback Eric Theiss found senior Jon Leterneau for a 7-yard scoring pass. Senior Nick Urguhartt's extra point put Leavitt on top, 7-0.
Cape Elizabeth, trailing for the just the second time all year, quickly responded with a 3-play, 65-yard drive. After senior Tommy Foden rushed for 16 yards and Wolfinger threw incomplete, senior Kyle Piscopo took a handoff, burst through the line and ran untouched to the end zone to complete a 49-yard score. Senior Matt Donovan's extra point tied the score at 7-7 with 52 seconds to play in the quarter.
The first period was as even as could be, with the Capers holding a 69-68 edge in yardage.
Cape Elizabeth's defense held on Leavitt's next series, but the Capers gave the ball right back when Wolfinger was intercepted by sophomore Jake Ouellette at the Cape Elizabeth 40. Again, the defense stiffened, forcing a turnover on downs, but the Capers went three-and-out again and after avoiding disaster by running down a high snap, junior Patrick Tyler's punt gave the Hornets the ball at their 44 with 7:14 left in the half.
This time, Leavitt found paydirt, driving 56 yards on eight plays. A 23-yard burst by Strickland set the stage and the standout capped the march with a 3-yard TD run with 4:11 remaining before halftime. Urguhartt's point-after made it 14-7 Hornets.
Cape Elizabeth hoped to answer before the break, but after an initial first down, Wolfinger was sacked, forcing a punt. Leavitt didn't have time to take advantage and clung to a 14-7 lead at halftime, thanks in large part to Strickland's 129 yards on 19 carries.
The Hornets got a little breathing room to start the second half, driving 76 yards on six plays. Theiss and Leterneau hooked up for 48 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 8 and two plays later, Strickland barreled in from the 2 for a 21-7 advantage.
After the Capers were forced to punt, Leavitt had a chance to break the game open, but Cape Elizabeth's defense rose to the occasion, forcing a Hornets' punt. Another sack sent the Capers offense backwards, forcing yet another punt, but this time, Cape Elizabeth got a huge break when the kick bounced off a Leavitt player and was recovered by junior Leandre Some at the Hornets' 33.
Four plays later, the Capers were right back in it. Foden ran three times for 26 yards, then Wolfinger dropped back to pass, rolled right and outraced the defense to the pylon to make it a 21-14 game with 1:41 to play in the third quarter.
As the fourth period began, Leavitt had to punt the ball back to Cape Elizabeth, giving the Capers a chance to tie, but on the second play after the punt, Wolfinger's pass was intercepted by Leterneau at Cape Elizabeth's 46.
The Hornets took advantage as Strickland ran for 13 yards, after a holding penalty, Leterneau gained 4, then, after a 1-yard Strickland loss, Strickland broke free for a 36-yard TD to make it 28-14 with just 9:15 to play.
"(Strickland) brought his 'A' game today and had a couple nice runs," Filieo said, of Strickland. "He's a good back."
Cape Elizabeth's next series was foiled by another sack and a punt gave the Hornets the ball at their 42 with just under 7 minutes to go. Leavitt drove to the Capers 20, but a fumbled snap ultimately led to a loss of downs, keeping Cape Elizabeth's hopes alive.
The Capers would drive 70 yards on six plays to make things interesting. The big play featured Wolfinger at his best, retreiving a bad snap, eluding a defender, then flinging a 45-yard strike to Foden at the 3. Two plays later, Foden ran in from the 3 to make it 28-21 with 1:10 to go.
Cape Elizabeth's last hope was to recover an onsides kick, but even though the ball was struck well and low, Leavitt junior Lucas Whitham grabbed it.
"We practiced that all year, but they got it," Filieo said.
Strickland then iced matters with a 51-yard TD run down the left sideline, essentially bringing the curtain down on the Hornets' 35-21 championship victory.
"We fully expected to win this football game," said Filieo. "That's been our attitude since Day 1. Our goal every year is to win a state championship. These guys believed this was their year. There were flashes during the game tonight where I thought destiny was on our side, but we just couldn't put it away."
In addition to Strickland's dominance, Leavitt (which had 366 yards of offense) got strong performances from Theiss (22 yards rushing, 2 completions for 55 yards and a score) and Leterneau (55 receiving yards, including a TD). Four different players had sacks and the Hornets forced two turnovers.
"We've faced some physical teams like York and Mountain Valley, but we've never faced a physical team that can combo it with the quickness they have," said Filieo. "That's what makes them a championship team."
For Cape Elizabeth (201 offensive yards), Foden capped his stellar career with 88 yards and a TD on 19 carries and 46 yards on three receptions. Piscopo gained 55 yards (with a score) on four carries. Wolfinger completed 6-of-14 passes for 66 yards, but was picked twice. Senior standout receiver Finn Melanson only caught one ball for 9 yards. Defensively, junior Kyle Danielson had a sack. The Capers recovered the one Leavitt fumble. They were also penalized five times for 50 yards.
"Ezra didn't get a lot of time," Filieo said. "(Leavitt's) physical up front. They have great athletes. It's a tough combination. I thought we had some things there, but offensively we could never get into a rhythm and string together a couple first downs. We also shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit. Penalties killed us. We talked all year about the only team that could beat us is ourselves. I thought that was a big part of tonight. We kept putting ourselves back. We were undisciplined. That's on the coaches."
While the pain of this loss was acute, it won't be long until the achievement of this special group is hailed. A still relatively young program came within a couple plays of winning a state title and it's probable the Capers will be back knocking on (and down) the door in no time.
"These kids are great," Filieo said. "Aside from their obvious skills and talents, we love coaching them. They're lots of fun. They enjoy playing the game. It's been an absolute blast. Their combination of skill and attitude got them here today. They just ran into a superior opponent.
"Getting to this game in particular has been a long time coming. We've faced Mountain Valley for four years and finally got over that hump. I thought that was an emotional win. I don't think the guys let down today. I think they were ready. It's been great. The community has really embraced us. We had great support tonight. When a town wants football and you have a lot of people invested in it, things will ascend quickly.
"It seems like every senior class has left something for the group coming up. I thought last year's senior group did a great job going up to Mountain Valley and competing and leaving a taste in these seniors' mouths. This group took it to the next level. I believe the momentum is still with the program."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org