PORTLAND – The team that appeared flawed prior to the season finds itself one win from perfection.
And a repeat Class A championship.
Portland’s boys’ lacrosse squad got a 48-minute battle from Messalonskee in Wednesday’s Eastern A Final, but with the game and the season on the line, two of the biggest of the big-game Bulldogs rose to the occasion.
Junior scoring machine Caleb Kenney scored the eventual winning goal with 2:27 to play and sophomore goalie Ryan Jurgelevich made 13 crucial saves to help Portland improve to 14-0, extend its win streak to 23 games and set up a state final showdown with Scarborough Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
“Going back (to states) is an amazing feeling,” said Kenney, who scored six times. “We lost a lot of guys (to graduation), but these guys take on the one-game-at-a-time mentality. I wouldn’t say we thought it was impossible (to get back), but very unlikely. State championships don’t come around easily.”
Pride and heart
Portland (along with Cheverus, Deering and Windham) was shifted to Eastern A this season to balance the regions and as a result, played an easier schedule than it did in 2009. Regardless, the Bulldogs met every challenge and wound up 12-0 to earn the top seed. Portland had the answers in beating No. 5 Lewiston, 9-5, in the semifinals Saturday night.
On May 15, Portland held off visiting Messalonskee, 14-11, which wound up 9-3 and third in Eastern A. The Eagles ousted No. 6 Cheverus, 9-6, in the quarterfinals, then upset No. 2 Brunswick, the three-time defending regional champ, 6-4, in the semifinals.
Wednesday’s contest was a struggle from start to finish, but once again, the Bulldogs were the last team standing.
Portland got off to a quick start on goals from Kenney (unassisted) 1 minute, 33 seconds in and Kenney again (from junior Bronson Guimond) with 7:15 to go in the first quarter.
The Eagles bounced right back, however, taking a 3-2 lead after one as senior Ryan Bender sandwiched a pair of unassisted goals around an unassisted tally from sophomore Nate DelGiudice.
Just 24 seconds into the second period, senior Gordon Parker set up classmate Kevin Nielsen for the tying goal. With 9:30 left in the half, Kenney scored unassisted to put the Bulldogs back on top, but 50 seconds later, Parker answered to make it 4-4.
Unassisted goals from Kenney and senior Jason Knight put Portland ahead, 6-4, at the break.
Messalonskee dominated possession in the third period and outscored the Bulldogs, 3-1, but could never take the lead.
Unassisted goals from senior Brandon Monroe and Bender tied the score with 5:09 left. After Knight (from Nielsen) put Portland back on top 28 seconds later, senior Brett Glasheen scored with 3:05 to go to make it a 7-7 game entering the fourth.
In the first minute of the final period, Kenney looked to put the Bulldogs ahead, but his shot was denied. With 8:21 left, however, Knight passed to Kenney, who made a great catch and his shot tickled the twine to make it 8-7 Portland.
Again, the Eagles responded, tying the game on senior C.J. Cheevers’ unassisted goal with 5:50 to play.
Off the ensuing faceoff win, Messalonskee junior Luke Vigue raced on and got off a good shot, but Jurgelevich stood tall and made the save. A minute later, Glasheen had a good look, but it went wide.
The Bulldogs then looked for the go ahead goal, but were flustered as both Knight and Nielsen were denied, Kenney hit the post and another Knight shot was saved.
Finally, with 2:27 to go, Portland went ahead to stay.
Following an Eagles turnover, Kenney grabbed the ball, raced in and beat the helpless goaltender to make it 9-8.
“I want the ball in my hands,” Kenney said. “I just scooped it up. Thankfully they missed the pass. I got it, ran and I don’t even know if my eyes were open when I shot. It felt good.”
Messalonskee had chances to pull even, but with 1:56 left, DelGuidice shot wide and with 1:05 to go, junior Kennan Knox’s bid was denied by a sprawling Jurgelevich.
“That’s why I’m a goalie,” Jurgelevich said. “I like the challenge.”
“Ryan doesn’t like being scored on,” added Portland coach Eric Begonia. “He was phenomenal. I’m happy for him.”
After a Bulldogs timeout, the hosts ran 36 seconds off the clock before the Eagles were forced to bring their goalie out of the cage in hopes of forcing a turnover. Instead, Kenney spotted wide-open sophomore Seamus Kilbride, who delivered the coup-de-grace.
“The goalie comes out and you have to find someone,” Kenney said.
Portland celebrated its hard-fought 10-8 win and paid tribute to the Eagles.
“It was pretty nervewracking,” Jurgelevich said. “(Messalonskee) kept it close. We had so many penalties and made some mistakes, but we came out on top.”
“(Messalonskee) played a heck of a game,” Begonia said. “We knew they would. They did the first time. They were riding an emotional high, beating Brunswick. It was two evenly matched team. We made some adjustments. They had the ball a lot and we were in the penalty box, which is uncharacteristic for us. In the end, our leaders like Caleb Kenney got it done. He’s an All-American. That’s what big players do in big-time games.”
Kenney led the offense with six goals and an assist. He also grabbed a team-high nine ground balls. Knight scored twice, Kilbride and Nielsen once each. Guimond, Knight, Nielsen and Parker had assists.
The Eagles, who won 12 of 20 faceoffs and were every bit the Bulldogs’ equal, got four goals from Bender and one each from Cheevers, Glasheen, DelGiudice and Monroe. Senior Chris DelGuidice stopped 15 shots.
Last year, Portland steamrolled all comers in the playoffs, including Scarborough, 14-1, in the regional final. This time, the Bulldogs have been pushed and they figure to be again Saturday against the 10-5 Red Storm, who were ranked third in Western A, but downed No. 6 Bonny Eagle (9-5), second-ranked South Portland (10-4) and No. 4 Thornton Academy (5-3) to advance.
The teams also met in the 2006 (Scarborough, 8-7) and 2007 (Portland, 12-10) regional finals.
“I think we’re both on a magic carpet ride,” Kenney said. “We have to finish. Everybody’s got to give it up and go as hard as they can. We have to put out 100 percent.”
“It’s a crazy feeling,” said Jurgelevich. “It’s pretty nice. We need to come out strong at the beginning and play all four quarters. We have to play strong defense and keep up the possession time.”
“We’re on a very good run,” Begonia added. “So many guys are stepping up. A lot of new faces haven’t been here before. We’re happy where we are.
“It’s going to be difficult from beginning to end. (Scarborough coach Joe Hezlep has) done a great job with those guys. It’s no surprise they’re here. They can run all day. They have swift guys. We’ll have to make adjustments to slow them down. It’ll be a good game.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com