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PORTLAND — The Portland boys’ lacrosse team stayed unbeaten Saturday afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium, but it got a reminder that next month’s initial foray into the Eastern A playoff world will be fraught with danger.
The Bulldogs hosted a very talented and dangerous Messalonskee squad and could never shake the Eagles, despite leading by as many as six goals in the second half.
Portland got at least a pair of goals from four different players and was rescued by clutch goalkeeping from sophomore Ryan Jurgelevich (23 saves) as it improved to 7-0 on the season with a 14-11 triumph, the Bulldogs’ 16th in a row dating back to last year.
“It’s a big win,” said Portland coach Eric Begonia. “(Messalonskee’s) first in the east (Heal Points) right now. We knew it would be playoff intensity. We had a good scouting report on them and we were ready.“
After winning the 2009 Class A championship, the program’s first, the Bulldogs faced plenty of question marks as the new season dawned. Portland, which along with Cheverus, Deering and Windham, was shifted into Eastern A for playoff purposes to balance the regions, hasn’t skipped a beat with a relatively new squad in 2010, winning its first six games by a composite 100-36 score.
The Bulldogs pummeled Noble (18-2), Bonny Eagle (17-4), Massabesic (16-4) and Marshwood (19-6) and got scares from host Kennebunk and Lewiston before rallying for 18-10 and 12-10 victories, respectively.
This year’s players had plenty of reminders of past glory Saturday, as members of last year’s state champion (Erik Casparius, K.R. Jurgelevich and Igor Radosavljevic) and former standouts Sam McAdam and Aaron Schuit (along with one-time Cape Elizabeth star Mike DiFusco) were all on the bench.
“It’s good having those guys here,” Begonia said. “I promised to surround the kids with great guys and we’re doing that.”
Messalonskee, which hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves for becoming a contender in recent seasons, also entered the contest 6-0. The Eagles rolled Cony (16-2), Oxford Hills (17-3) and Mt. Blue (10-3), then outlasted Lewiston (8-4), Cheverus (10-7) and Mt. Ararat (9-5) in earlier action.
Saturday, Portland got off to its usual hot start, but never got comfortable and couldn’t exhale until the final horn sounded.
Just 51 seconds in, sophomore Seamus Kilbride flicked home a rebound hockey-style to make it 1-0 Bulldogs. Senior Kevin Nielsen (unassisted, after a great individual effort) and junior Caleb Kenney (from Nielsen) followed with goals and Portland appeared in control, up 3-0, less than nine minutes into the first period.
Messalonskee got on the board with 1:07 to play in the first when junior Josh Smith scored on a rebound. Then, with time about to expire in the quarter, after a Bulldogs turnover, sophomore Nate DelGuidice set up junior Andrew Wilson for a goal and it was very much a game heading into the second stanza.
Portland again threatened to seize control when senior Jason Knight (from Kenney) and junior Gary McDonald (from Knight) scored in a 17-second span, but senior Ryan Bender (on a rebound flick shot) and DelGuidice (from Wilson) answered to pull the Eagles back within one, 5-4, midway through the quarter.
Nielsen set up junior Bronson Guimond for a goal with 4:36 remaining before halftime, but Wilson (from Bender) answered 38 seconds later and it was 6-5 Bulldogs.
Portland would close the half on a 3-0 run as Kibride (from Knight), Knight (from Kenney) and Nilesen (unassisted, on a rebound) tickled the twine to give the hosts a 9-5 advantage at the break.
The Bulldogs had an edge in shots and faceoffs and a big advantage on ground balls in the opening 24 minutes, but hadn’t been able to put the Eagles away.
Things wouldn’t change much in the second half.
An unassisted goal from senior Brett Glasheen pulled Messalonskee to within 9-6 at the 8:05 mark of the third quarter, but Nielsen (from Kilbride) and Knight (from Kenney) answered and Portland appeared in control heading for the fourth, up 11-6.
When Kilbride (from Nielsen) scored 44 seconds into the final period, the Bulldogs had managed to double up Messalonskee, but the visitors refused to die.
After junior Jacob Erskine (from Bender) and Kenney (unassisted) traded goals, the Eagles got unassisted tallies from DelGuidice and senior Cody Ziegenfus to make it 13-9 with 8:03 to play.
Nielsen set up Knight for a goal with 5:55 remaining, but the Eagles got an unassisted strike from Glasheen with 4:05 left and an unassisted goal from Bender with 3:13 to go to pull within 14-11.
Messalonskee had other chances to draw even closer, none better than a shot from junior Cameron Douglas with 38 seconds remaining which hit the post. That, however, was the Eagles’ last hurrah and Portland went on to the 14-11 triumph.
“It was intense,” said Kilbride. “We kept making dumb mistakes and didn’t possess the ball and they got back in it.”
“It was nice to have the lead the whole game,’ Begonia added.
Knight paced the offense with four goals and two assists. Kilbride (one assist) and Nielsen (four assists) both scored three times, while Kenney had two goals and three helpers. Guimond and McDonald added one goal apiece. In all, six different players scored and 10 of the 14 goals were assisted.
“We have a lot more guys who can score than we thought,” Kilbride said.
While Jurgelevich surrendered 11 goals, don’t think for a second that he wasn’t dominant. He made 23 legitimate saves and played a huge role in his team’s victory.
“It was hard, but we have a strong defense,” Jurgelevich said. “There were a lot of shots out there. This gets us ready for the playoffs and shows us how we have to play. Today, we played four quarters.”
“Ryan stops the ball really well,” Begonia added. “We have an inexperienced defense, but we’re coming together as a team.”
Portland won 16 of 29 faceoffs and forced 50 turnovers (while giving it away on 45 occasions). The Bulldogs had a 71-63 edge in ground balls (they were paced by 17 from Nielsen, 13 from Kenney, 10 from Guimond and nine from senior Gordon Parker).
Messalonskee’s offense was also balanced. The Eagles got two goals each from Bender (two assists), DelGuidice (one assist), Glahseen and Wilson (one assist). Erskine, Smith and Ziegenfus had one goal apiece.
Messalonskee is back in action Tuesday at Edward Little. The Eagles also have two games remaining with reigning regional champion Brunswick. They could easily see the Bulldogs again.
Portland (which is third in the latest coaches’ poll) is now first in the Eastern A Heals. The Bulldogs play at Biddeford Monday, then have their final four games at home, capped by a showdown with Scarborough.
Portland feels it has the goods to repeat, but wants desperately to play its June games at Fitzpatrick Stadium (which is also home to the state finals).
“The chemistry’s working well like last year,” Jurgelevich said. “All the kids want to be what last year was. We have the same drive. We want homefield badly.”
“We knew we’d be this good,” Kilbride said. “We’ll be there.”
“We’ve done all we can in the east,” Begonia added. “Now, we come back (to Western A). Getting homefield is big. Not traveling would make a big difference for us. Being here would be in our favor.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
Bulldogs senior Gordon Parker battles a Messalonskee player for a ground ball Saturday. Portland held on to stay unbeaten.
Portland senior Kevin Nielsen prepares to shoot during Saturday’s game. The Bulldogs continued their offensive onslaught and are now the top team in the Eastern Class A Heal Points standings.
Portland junior Caleb Kenney breaks through three defenders during Saturday’s 14-11 home win over Messalonskee.