PORTLAND—The hottest boys’ soccer team around found itself on the brink of elimination Saturday night.
The Portland Bulldogs, riding a 12-game win streak, surrendered a first half goal to Cape Elizabeth in the teams’ Western Class A semifinal at Fitzpatrick Stadium and after senior standout Fazal Nabi was robbed by Capers’ senior goalkeeper Cam Brown on a penalty kick with just over 20 minutes go, appeared on the road to elimination.
Instead the Bulldogs would save their best for last and advanced to their first regional final this century courtesy Nabi’s tying goal with 13:46 to play and sophomore Tim Rovnak’s winner 11 minutes, 11 seconds into overtime.
Portland (now 14-1-1) advanced to meet Gorham Wednesday night with a berth in next Saturday’s Class A state game on the line. Cape Elizabeth (10-4-2) goes home.
“We hung together,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Rocky Frenzilli. “We wouldn’t be denied. I couldn’t be prouder of a bunch of kids. It all starts with Fazal’s leadership.”
80 minutes and then some
Portland started 1-1-1 this fall, then caught fire, winning its last 11 to finish 12-1-1, second behind Scarborough in Western A. Wednesday, in the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs scored early and often, getting two goals from junior Alan Tuyishime and a goal and two assists from Nabi, and rolled, 6-0, over visiting No. 7 Cheverus.
Cape Elizabeth, despite dropping two of its last three, wound up 9-3-2, good for the third seed in Western A, as it qualified for the playoffs for the 25th year in a row. The Capers hosted No. 6 Marshwood in Wednesday’s quarterfinal and managed to get the job done and advance, scoring an early goal, then pulling away behind a second half flurry to triumph, 5-0. Senior Timmy Takach and junior Tim Lavallee both scored twice.
Portland and Cape Elizabeth don’t play in the regular season. The Capers held a 4-2 all-time edge versus the Bulldogs, but Portland won the most recent playoff meeting, 3-0, in the 2003 quarterfinals.
Saturday night, amid chilly but dry conditions, the Bulldogs somehow found a way to triumph again.
There wasn’t much action in the early going, but it was clear that both teams featured plenty of athleticism and skill.
Cape Elizabeth broke the ice with 14:24 to play in the 40-minute first half when senior Jack Queeney got his head on a long kick and directed the ball to Takach, who sent it past Bulldogs’ senior goalkeeper Taylor Mannix for a 1-0 lead.
“We had a great goal,” said Capers’ coach Ben Raymond, who led the school’s boys’ lacrosse team to a surprise state title on Fitzpatrick Stadium’s turf back in June. “Jack flicked it on and Timmy was there on the back post.”
Portland (which had a 12-4 advantage in shots) picked up its intensity in the second half as it looked for the equalizer.
Just four minutes in, Rovnak had a great look, but hit the post. Less than a minute later, senior Feliks Cobanovic unleashed a long drive that Brown saved. In the 53rd minute, a Rovnak rush was broken up by Brown. Five minutes later, senior Ralph Houanche fired a long shot that handcuffed Brown before the keeper was able to corral it.
With 20:20 to play, the hosts appeared to get the break they needed when a Capers defender touched the ball in the box, giving Portland a penalty kick.
To no one’s surprise, Nabi was selected to have the opportunity to pull his team even, but despite a hard, low shot toward the left corner, it didn’t result in a goal as Brown guessed right and dove to tip the ball away at the last second.
“It’s the first time I’ve missed a PK,” Nabi said. “Give the goalie credit. He guessed right. Nothing you can do about that.”
“I’ve got to be honest with you, to me it was an anomaly, but he made a great save,” said Frenzilli. “(Brown) picked a corner and got out.”
“Cam was outstanding all game long, as he has been all season long,” added Raymond. “That was a great save.”
Deflated, the Bulldogs could have packed it in, but instead, kept working and were soon rewarded.
Shortly after Portland failed to convert on back-to-back corners, Nabi took a pass in the middle of the field at the top of the box, got just a little bit of room, turned, then fired a left-footed rocket through a screen and past Brown to tie the score at 1-1 with 13:46 remaining.
“We kept working hard,” said Nabi. “We knew we had the game. We gave it everything we had. The ball came to me and I had space, so I turned and launched it with the left foot and hoped it went in.”
“The tying goal was a great goal,” Raymond said. “Fazal had one scoring opportunity and he made the most of it. He’s an outstanding player. He got free one time, with his back to the goal, turned and hit a shot Cam couldn’t see through a crowd.”
Portland almost went ahead a minute later when Nabi’s free kick appeared ticketed for the net, but again Brown (seven saves) robbed him with a diving stop. Freshman Tony Yekah raced in and kicked home the rebound, but the officials determined that Brown had possession and Yekah not only had his goal wiped away, but had to serve 10 minutes after being given a yellow card.
The game would go to overtime.
In Maine high school playoff soccer, teams play two “sudden victory” 15-minute overtime sessions and if the game remains tied, settle the contest on penalty kicks.
They wouldn’t be necessary on this night.
The visitors actually carried the majority of play in overtime and even had a great look 2:30 in when junior Forest Hewitt shot just high.
Nearly nine minutes later, the game winning sequence began innocuously when Nabi prepared a free kick from about 40-yards out. With the Cape Elizabeth defense primed for him to send a blistering shot on goal, Nabi instead flicked the ball to junior Brett O’Kelly on the right wing and O’Kelly ran up the sideline before crossing it into the box where Rovnak awaited.
The sophomore did the rest, heading the ball toward the far post. Brown had no chance, but it was unclear whether the shot would hit the post and bounce back on to the field or ricochet in.
It was the latter and pandemonium broke out as the Bulldogs celebrated Rovnak’s strike and their palpitating 2-1 win.
“Fazal passed it to Brett off the dead ball and Brett just found me at the right place,” said Rovnak. “I headed it because of instinct. I watched it the rest of the way. When it went in, it was a great feeling. It was nice that we pulled it out at the end and got the win. It’s fun to be a part of this team. We have great chemistry and love each other to death. It’s a great feeling to know people care about you.”
“We had momentum, but give Cape credit,” said Nabi. “They had the early goal, but at the end, we gave it everything we had and we got the result. It’s exciting.”
“Our pregame speech was think about the people who have given everything they have to get you guys to a point where you can make a difference,” Frenzilli added. “I knew Cape would be tough. They’re physically very powerful. They’re well skilled tactically. Ben’s got them where he wants them. It was a great game all the way.
“(Assistant coach) Bobby Brittingham sent Brett up on that cross. I thought he wanted to send him up for a header. Instead, Fazal gave him the ball and he crossed it. It was a great game.”
Not to be
Cape Elizabeth could only lament what if and pay tribute to its opponent.
“I don’t necessarily think it was a breakdown on our part, but a good goal on their part,” Raymond said, of Rovnak’s winner. “They played a short ball. I don’t think we reacted that well to it. He was open and scored. It was great service and he was in the right place. A good goal.
“We had much better scoring opportunities in the overtime. We had more possession. They have more possession in the second half. We kind of panicked a little bit and were just holding on. That’s not how we play our best.”
An uncertainty entering the year, the Capers won 10 games and had great success against some of the best teams in the state.
“It’s been a good season,” said Raymond. “We had the highest seed we’ve had in quite awhile. We had a great record against our rivals. We beat Falmouth twice, Greely once, tied Yarmouth once. That’s a good season. We only had one or two games where we didn’t come out and play our best. Every other night, we were at our best. Last year, we didn’t play our best, but tonight we played hard and lost to a team that was equal to us. No one played poorly. That makes it a little more acceptable.”
Cape Elizabeth will have a hard time matching their success in 2011, but never write this program off.
“We take a big graduation hit,” Raymond said. “We lose 12 kids, Cam, Jack Queeney, Andy Lynch, Timmy Takach, Pat Kelly, Wes Richards, Alex Diaz, kids who play a lot of minutes. Eight starters. We have some work to do.”
Portland has never won a state championship (Cape Elizabeth, conversely, has eight). The Bulldogs made it to the 1994 Class A Final (losing, 1-0, to Mt. Ararat), then got to the regional final the next year (falling, 1-0, to the Capers). Prior to this year, Portland hasn’t been back since.
Now, the Bulldogs have a chance to make history as they host red-hot No. 4 Gorham (11-3-2), which has downed No. 5 South Portland (2-1) and No. 8 Kennebunk (3-1) in impressive fashion in its two playoff tests.
Portland won, 1-0, at the Rams on Sept. 23. The teams’ lone prior playoff meeting came in the 2005 quarterfinals (a 3-0 Gorham victory).
The Bulldogs are up for the challenge.
“Gorham’s a great team,” Rovnak said. “They played hard last time. We’ll have to play our game and hope things turn out our way.”
“We had goals at the start of the season to make it to the Western Maine championship,” Nabi said. “It’s really exciting. After the Scarborough game, we knew we were good, so we worked hard in practice and we went on from there. Gorham’s a good team. It’ll be a tough game. We played them at their place and scored in the last minute. We like our chances.”
“For these kids, I was just hoping we could make it,” Frenzilli added. “They made the difference. This earned us another game. We’re looking forward to our opponent. Gorham’s playing very well. It’ll make for a good one. We’re excited.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com