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PORTLAND—Portland’s girls’ soccer program has reinvented itself over the past two seasons, but one thing the Bulldogs haven’t been able to do in recent years is beat rival South Portland.
Portland had to get up early and play in drizzly conditions Saturday morning at Fitzpatrick Stadium, but it was worth it and it finally managed to end the Red Riots’ hex.
The Bulldogs got their lone goal of the game and the only tally they would need when sophomore standout Kate Johnson’s shot in the 14th minute slipped through the hands of South Portland senior goalkeeper Emma Russell.
Russell then excelled the rest of the way, keeping Portland off the scoreboard, but her teammates couldn’t generate the equalizer and the Bulldogs prevailed, 1-0.
Portland improved to 6-3 with its fifth successive victory and dropped the Red Riots to 1-7-1, as it beat South Portland for the first time in five tries.
“It feels really good,” Johnson said. “In practice all week, we’ve talked about how we’ve had bad luck with this team for a couple years. It wasn’t pretty, but we came out with it and that’s all that really matters.”
Portland was well aware coming in that South Portland had had its number in recent years. In fact, no current Bulldog had beaten the Red Riots prior to Saturday, as South Portland had taken each of the past four meetings (see sidebar, below), including a 2-1 decision at home in 2013.
The Bulldogs, who made the playoffs last fall for the first time since 2009, opened the 2014 campaign with a 5-1 victory at Sanford. Losses at powerhouses Marshwood (6-1), Scarborough (2-1) and Deering (1-0) followed, but they then turned things around. Portland’s win streak began with a 6-1 victory at Noble and continued against visiting Bonny Eagle (2-0), at Massabsic (3-0) and at home versus Cheverus (3-1).
The Red Riots opened with a strong home effort against Scarborough, but lost, 3-0. After losing at powerhouse Thornton Academy (6-1) and at home versus Gorham (4-0), South Portland got its first victory, when it edged visiting Westbrook, 1-0, in overtime. The Red Riots then played host McAuley to a scoreless tie before losing at Deering (2-0) and at home versus defending Class A champion Windham (8-0) and Biddeford (2-0).
Saturday, South Portland made life challenging for Portland again, but the Bulldogs managed to down the Red Riots for the first time since 2009.
It took less than two minutes for Portland to produce its first golden scoring opportunity, but a shot from Johnson was deflected by a sprawling Russell and a rebound bid from sophomore Maggie Hosmer was denied as well.
After Hosmer shot just wide and junior Isabel Stehli had a shot saved by Russell, South Portland got its first chance, but a shot from senior Abby Young was saved by Portland sophomore goalkeeper Taylor Crosby.
After Red Riots junior Emma Benington broke up a Stehli rush with Russell down, the Bulldogs finally broke through.
With 26:51 to play in the first half, Johnson took a pass from Stehli, took a touch, then fired a shot low and to Russell’s left. The goalie got her hands on the ball, but only managed to slow it, not catch it cleanly, and it got past her and rolled into the goal for a 1-0 Portland lead.
“Anything you can shoot low and fast on the ground is usually a reliable shot,” Johnson said. “I thought she had it, then it kept rolling. Not my prettiest goal, but every goal is a good goal.”
“We’ve got quite a few players who can shoot from distance,” Bulldogs coach Arthur Mosen said. “Whenever they have an opportunity, we encourage them to take it. When the weather’s like this, it helps. When this turf is wet, and it’s fast anyway, the ball slips and slides all over the place.”
That would be the only goal of the game, but there would be ample opportunities for more.
Four minutes after the score, Johnson had another chance, but shot just wide.
With 17:35 remaining before halftime, South Portland almost drew even, but a 35-yard floater from senior Christina Ekholm was barely saved by a backpedaling Crosby.
Three minutes later, Portland freshman Gracie Lagrange had a shot saved by Russell.
At the other end, Red Riots senior Lillian LaRochelle shot wide. The visitors kept the pressure on and LaRochelle delivered a nice through ball in the direction of senior Sam Munson, but Crosby got to the ball first.
Late in the half, Bulldogs senior Madison Bolduc took a pass from sophomore Hayleigh Blanchard, but shot just wide and a rush from Bolduc was broken up by South Portland senior back Claire McHugh.
Portland had a 10-3 shots advantage in the first half, but five Russell saves kept the game within reach.
The second half would be more of the same.
A minute-and-a-half in, Johnson had a good look, but Russell made the stop.
Six minutes later, Blanchard served a nice ball on a corner kick, but Russell kicked it away.
After Benington broke up a Johnson rush and Stehli shot wide left, the visitors earned their lone corner kick of the day with 9:25 to play, but the Bulldogs managed to clear the ball.
Johnson almost iced it with 3:30 remaining, but her header went just wide.
A minute later, Lagrange got her head on a corner kick, but Russell made the save.
South Portland’s last chance to draw even came with 1:41 to play, but senior Colleen Fleming sent her shot high and Portland held on to triumph, 1-0.
“Our defense was strong today,” Johnson said. “They did a good job containing. We couldn’t find the net. It was very frustrating. We’ll have to work on getting more shots and improving.”
“It was a close call,” Mosen said. “I thought we were organized and we battled hard. With the conditions and against a tough opponent, I thought we deserved it.”
Portland outshot South Portland, 18-4 (9-2 on frame), and had eight corners to the Red Riots’ one. Crosby made two saves. Russell finished with eight stops.
“We were so close,” said South Portland first-year coach Jeff Selser. “Every game, we play really, really well. We’re competitive. Right now, it’s just that final third of the field. We’re getting more chances and we’re taking more shots than we were earlier in the season. We’re running out of time, but it’s hard to be unhappy with a performance like that. We controlled a lot of play in the middle of the field. Emma had an outstanding game, especially under these conditions. She had some excellent saves and our defense was strong. Portland’s very fast in the back and in the front. I thought we controlled the middle of the field more.”
South Portland finds itself 15th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings at press time, but only 12 teams qualify for the playoffs, meaning the Red Riots need some wins in the final two weeks.
South Portland hosts Cheverus Wednesday, then goes to Massabesic Saturday. After hosting Sanford, the Red Riots close at Bonny Eagle and Marshwood.
“A few wins mght get us in,” said Selser. “We have our eye on Marshwood, that’s a lot of Heal Points. We’re starting to really click. It’s going to happen.”
Portland appears playoff-bound, but the Bulldogs want more than just to play in a postseason game this fall. Portland (ninth in the Heals) can help its cause Tuesday when it hosts talented Gorham. After playing at McAuley Friday, the Bulldogs visit Westbrook, host Windham and close at home versus Biddeford.
“Gorham and Windham will be big ones,” Johnson said. “We have to be ready to compete. We’d like to get a home playoff game. Getting up to fifth or sixth place is our goal. Hopefully we have time to do that. Last year was a big turning-point year for us. This year we’ve made more progress. We hope there’s more in store.”
“We’re coming together,” Mosen said. “We’ve been together for three or four years and we’re seeing the benefits of that. The girls enjoy playing with each other. They believe they can win now more than they did in the past. I think we can be as good as we want to be. As long as we’re focused and don’t look too far ahead, we can beat anybody. The battle against Scarborough is an example of how far we’ve come. Gorham will be another good test for us. That will be our focus starting now. I think we’re ready for that.”
South Portland senior Aimee LaPlante fights off Portland sophomore Kate Johnson, who scored the game’s lone goal.
Portland junior Chessa Hoekstra gets her head on the ball.
South Portland senior Christian Ekholm knocks the ball away from Portland junior Isabel Stehli.
South Portland junior Mary Cronin and Portland junior Chessa Hoekstra chase the ball.
South Portland junior Baleigh Burns fights Portland junior Isabel Stehli for a 50-50 ball.
Portland senior Madison Bolduc kicks the ball away from South Portland senior Claire McHugh.
@ South Portland 2 Portland 1
@ South Portland 1 Portland 0
South Portland 2 @ Portland 0
South Portland 2 @ Portland 1
Portland 1 @ South Portland 0
@ Portland 4 South Portland 0
Western A quarterfinals
@ Portland 2 South Portland 0
Portland 4 @ South Portland 0
@ Portland 1 South Portland 0
@ South Portland 0 Portland 0 (tie)
@ South Portland 4 Portland 1
@ Portland 2 South Portland 1
Portland 1 @ South Portland 0
South Portland 3 @ Portland 1
Portland junior Isabel Stehli turns the corner on South Portland freshman Juliana Selser.
South Portland senior goalkeeper Emma Russell slides to make a save as Portland sophomore Kate Johnson closes in during the Bulldogs’ 1-0 victory Saturday afternoon.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.