PORTLAND—Portland’s football team has made its share of mistakes so far this autumn, but the Bulldogs have consistently found a way to make the key plays at critical times.
Saturday evening, on the newly christened turf at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland hosted Edward Little in the second game of the season and while the Bulldogs held the Red Eddies at bay throughout, they couldn’t put the game away in the first half.
A 5-yard touchdown run from senior Joe Esposito produced a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but despite ample opportunities, Portland failed to build on it and that remained the score at halftime, due in large part to the Bulldogs committing nine penalties, fumbling the ball away once and missing a field goal.
Portland corrected those mistakes in the second half and finally got the separation it sought.
A 12-yard TD run from senior George Chaison-Lapine produced some breathing room midway through the third period and in the fourth, the Bulldogs ended all doubt.
Chaison-Lapine got the scoring started in the stanza with a great individual effort on a 10-yard run. Junior Jake Knop then returned an interception 85 yards for a TD and Esposito scored for a second time, from the 2, and Portland went on to a 33-0 victory.
The Bulldogs held Edward Little to just 84 yards as they improved to 2-0 on the young season, dropping the Red Eddies to 1-1 in the process.
“We had a choice to make (tonight),” Chaison-Lapine said. “We had to get it together or roll ever and we decided at halftime to get it together and get stronger. They’re a strong team, but we proved ourselves. We weren’t sure what would happen, but we came out and proved a point.”
Portland has played at Fitzpatrick Stadium for decades and was the first high school team to play on artificial turf, but that turf was badly in need of replacing following last season.
In a pregame ceremony, family members of the late James J. Fitzpatrick, the legendary Portland High teacher, coach and administrator, were joined by members of the school administration and other dignitaries in a pregame ceremony which culminated with the “ribbon” for the turf being broken by a pell-mell rush of Bulldogs taking the field.
“It was nice to have everybody here tonight,” said Portland High athletic director Rob O’Leary. “It’s nice to have all this history here. The Fitzpatrick family showed up more than we expected. It was great to see their legacy live on. The city spent a million dollars and should be proud of what they got. We’re excited to be the ones using the facility. It’s going to be an exciting fall that will lead to an exciting spring. It’s a beautiful upgrade.”
Turning to football, the Bulldogs, who were ousted by Windham in last year’s semifinals, started 2015 with an impressive 47-26 victory at Scarborough.
Edward Little views itself as a contender this fall and began with a 22-19 win at Bangor last weekend.
The teams met each of the past two seasons with Portland prevailing, 45-7, at home in 2013 and 22-0 last year in Auburn.
Saturday night, the Bulldogs won by a decisive score, but it wasn’t easy for much of the night.
Portland won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.
The Bulldogs’ defense then set the tone by forcing a three-and-out, sending the Red Eddies backwards 21 yards on three plays.
On the first play from scrimmage, senior quarterback Matt Verrill hit junior C.J. Jipson with a pass at the line. Jipson tried to cut back and get around the defense, but Knop dragged him down for a 10-yard loss. Senior Dan Marzilli then sacked Verrill for a six-yard loss. On third down, a bad pitch led to a five-yard loss and the visitors had to punt.
Portland started at the Edward Little 39, but in a sign of things to come, couldn’t find the end zone.
After junior Nick Archambault was held to no gain, the Red Eddies jumped offsides, but after a three-yard run from Chaison-Lapine, the Bulldogs jumped early and lost five yards, then junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder threw incomplete to force a punt.
After losing 21 yards its first time with the ball, Edward Little was a little more effective the second time, though it had to start from its 8-yard line. Runs of nine-yards and one-yard by sophomore Caden Begos moved the chains, but after Begos picked up four, he was thrown for a two-yard loss by Esposito and after the Bulldogs jumped offsides to set up third-and-3, Esposito pressured Verrill and his pass fell incomplete.
Portland got great field position, at its 46, but couldn’t take advantage.
After an illegal procedure penalty set the Bulldogs back five yards, Chaison-Lapine broke off a 13-yard run to the Red Eddies’ 46. Edward Little then jumped offsides to give Portland a first down. After Bachelder lost a yard, Esposito ran for four, but a sack by Red Eddies’ senior Dillon Hummes produced a three-yard loss and forced a punt.
Archambault pinned Edward Little at its 5 and that paid huge dividends as on first down, Begos fumbled and Bachelder recovered at the Red Eddies’ 12.
The Bulldogs took over with 4:27 to play in the opening stanza and 31 seconds later produced the only touchdown of the first half.
After Esposito ran for seven yards on first down, he got the ball again and bulled in from the 5 to break the ice with 3:56 remaining in the quarter. Senior John Williams booted the extra point and Portland was up, 7-0.
The rest of the first half saw the Bulldogs’ defense put on a show and the offense squander opportunity after opportunity.
Following the touchdown, Edward Little went three-and-out, as Begos was held to no gain, sophomore Maxx Bell caught a pass, but was thrown for a five-yard loss by Knop and although Verrill scrambled for eight, it set up a fourth-and-7 and led to a punt.
Late in the period, Portland started at midfield and began a promising drive with a 14-yard Bachelder-to-senior Jake Hunnewell pass. After Esposito ran for six yards, Chaison-Lapine picked up eight for a first down at the Red Eddies’ 22. Runs of three-yards and one-yard by Chaison-Lapine set up third-and-6 at the 18 as the second quarter commenced.
The first play of the new period saw Bachelder thrown for a four-yard loss. Williams came on to attempt a 35-yard field goal, but it sailed wide left.
Starting from its 20, Edward Little again went nowhere. After Verrill ran for a yard on first down, he threw two incomplete passes, forcing a punt.
The Bulldogs got the ball back at their 42, but also went three-and-out, as Bachelder hit senior Austin Phillips for three-yards, Chaison-Lapine ran for one and Bachelder threw incomplete.
Archambault again showed his punting acumen, pinning the Red Eddies at their 7 and Portland stood tall again. After Verrill ran for six-yards, he was held to no gain and on third-and-4, Archambault held Begos to one-yard, forcing a punt.
The Bulldogs this time took over at Edward Little’s 28, but couldn’t finish.
After Chaison-Lapine ran for three-yards and Esposito gained two, a false start penalty set up third-and-10, but Bachelder hit Archambault for 11-yards and a first down at the 17. Chaison-Lapine ran for three on first down, but Bachelder was sacked by sophomore Tyson Cote for a four-yard loss and after Esposito got six-yards to the 12, Portland coach Jim Hartman went for it on fourth down, but the pitch to Chaison-Lapine was bad and after he scooped it up, he was thrown for a two-yard loss, giving the ball back to the Red Eddies on downs at their 14.
Portland jumped offsides on first down, but Edward Little couldn’t capitalize, as Begos was thrown for a three-yard loss, Begos ran for three, then Verrill ran for three to set up fourth-and-2. Sophomore Grant Hartley’s punt was blocked by Archambault and the Bulldogs took over at the Red Eddies’ 11, with a sure touchdown seemingly to follow.
But Portland again shot itself in the foot.
On first down, Bachelder hit Chaison-Lapine for a short pass to the 1, but it was negated by a holding penalty which backed the Bulldogs up to the 25. An illegal procedure penalty compounded matters. After Bachelder scrambled for five-yards, another illegal procedure penalty moved the ball back to the 30 and on the next play, a fumbled exchange was recovered by Edward Little junior Noah Moreshead.
The Red Eddies started far from the shadow of their goal line for a change, at their 33, and moved the chains on passes of four-yards to Bell and nine-yards to Jipson. The Bulldogs then continued their Keystone Kops routine by jumping offsides, but Verrill threw consecutive incomplete passes and on third-and-5, was held to a one yard run by Portland senior Joe Fusco. With time winding down in the half, after a false start penalty on Edward Little, Fusco sacked Verrill to bring a merciful end to a mistake-filled first half.
The Bulldogs, who held the Red Eddies to just 22 yards in the first two quarters, only managed 52 themselves and were done in by nine penalties for 54 yards.
At halftime, Portland regrouped.
“Give (Edward Little) credit,” Hartman said. “They did something on defense that we didn’t understand. When the boys came in at halftime and explained it to us, we took a different path.”
The Bulldogs got the ball to start the second half, but went three-and-out, as Chaison-Lapine ran for five-yards, Archambault picked up two and Esposito ran for nearly three, but on fourth-and-inches, Hartman elected to punt.
The Red Eddies started at their 11 and got a first down on an 11-yard Begos run. Runs of five- and six-yards by Begos moved the chains again and set up a first down at the 33, but after an incomplete pass, Bell caught a pass for four-yards and on third-and-6, Hunnewell sacked Verrill to force a punt.
Portland began its next drive at its 48 and finally rediscovered the end zone.
After Chaison-Lapine was thrown for a three-yard loss on first down, Bachelder hit Hunnewell for seven and Esposito ran for eight to set up a first down at the Edward Little 40. After a six-yard Chaison-Lapine run, he broke free for 22 to the 12, then capped the six-play, 52-yard, 2 minute, 52 second drive with a 12-yard burst untouched up the gut.
“We made a new game plan and tried to figure it out,” Chaison-Lapine said. “We ran those plays and they obviously worked better than the plays we had in the first half.”
Williams’ PAT with 5:17 to go in the frame made it 14-0 Bulldogs.
After a Red Eddies’ three-and-out, Portland got the ball back at its 34 and Chaison-Lapine ran for 15-yards on the first play, but the visitors stiffened, as Chaison-Lapine lost two yards, Esposito ran for seven, then Esposito was held for no gain, forcing a punt.
Starting from its 17, Edward Little got runs of three-, four- and two-yards from Begos, but on fourth-and-1, Verrill was thrown for a one-yard loss by Chaison-Lapine and senior Charlie Kovarik, giving the Bulldogs the ball at the Red Eddies’ 25.
After Knop was held to no gain, Esposito ran for three yards on the final play of the third quarter.
At the start of the fourth, Bachelder hooked up with Fusco for 12 yards and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Red Eddies set up a first-and-goal at the 10. After an incomplete pass, Chaison-Lapine got the ball, bulled ahead and appeared stopped at the five, but in a breathtaking individual effort, he kept his legs churning, spun so he was facing backwards, then thrust the ball over the goal line for a backbreaking touchdown, capping a five-play, 25-yard, 1:33 drive.
“I honestly think I was just so sweaty, they couldn’t hold on to me,” Chaison-Lapine said.
“We had a little chat and George responded like we knew he could respond,” Hartman said. “He’s a strong kid. He has a tendency to overthink things. This is his first year being the premier guy. That’s what he’s capable of. He doesn’t realize that every play has to be like that.”
After a breakdown on the snap, Williams never even got to kick the extra point, but with 11:28 remaining, Portland was up, 20-0, and was very much in control.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the TD was assessed on the kickoff and as a result, the Red Eddies started at their 49. On first down, Verrill hit Jipson for 15 yards and an illegal hit penalty tacked on 15 more yards to the Bulldogs’ 21.
Just when it appeared Edward Little was poised to break through, however, Portland’s defense came up with its biggest play.
Hunnewell raced in on Verrill and almost registered the sack, but even better, he forced the quarterback to rush his throw to the right sideline. It was underthrown and Knop, who dropped a sure interception and likely a touchdown earlier in the game, was sure-handed this time and after catching the ball, he raced down the sideline with Fusco and junior Dylan Bolduc serving as escorts. Fusco delivered a key block and Knop completed an 85-yard interception return for a score.
“I knew I had six points if I caught (the first one), but I took my eyes off it,” Knop said. “I’m glad I made up for it. (The pass) was underthrown. We had a lot of pressure on the quarterback. It was thrown low and I didn’t know if I could catch it, but I reached out. Running down the sideline, I thought I might have to cut back, but Fusco made a great block. We’re just hungry for the ball. It’s a great feeling getting an interception.”
“Jake’s another kid who’s learning,” Hartman said. “That was a great play. A good job by him.”
Williams had his PAT blocked, but with just under 11 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were up, 26-0.
Edward Little went three-and-out on its next series, as Jipson caught a pass, but was thrown for a one-yard loss by Esposito, and Verrill threw two straight incompletions.
The visitors got a break on their punt, however, as it glanced off Bulldogs’ senior Nehemiah Perez-Hughes and was recovered by junior Tyler Blanchard at the Portland 29.
The Bulldogs weren’t about to let their shutout slip away, however.
After junior Noah Yarnevich gained a yard on first down, Verrill had to fall on a bad snap for an eight-yard loss. After Verrill threw incomplete, he hit senior Isaac Cote for 12 yards, but that left the Red Eddies five yards short of the first down, giving Portland the ball at its 24 with 8:18 to play.
Ten-plays, 76-yards and 4:23 later, the Bulldogs scored one final touchdown.
A 30-yard burst by Esposito got things started. Esposito then ran for six-, nine-, three- and eight-yards to set up a first down at the Edward Little 20. Then, it was Chaison-Lapine’s turn, as he bulldozed his way for 14-yards to the 6. Esposito gained a yard, Chaison-Lapine picked up three and after Bachelder was held for no gain, on fourth-and-goal from the 2, Esposito did the honors, scoring on a 2-yard run.
Portland showed its depth at the running back position on that march.
“Espo and I have incredible chemistry,” said Chaison-Lapine. “We’ve played together since fifth grade. We just play.”
This time, Williams converted the PAT and with 3:55 left, the Bulldogs were up, 33-0.
The Red Eddies picked up a pair of first downs behind the running of Begos and another on a 10-yard pass from Verrill to sophomore Terrell Thomas, but they only got as far as the Portland 45 before time ran out on the Bulldogs’ 33-0 triumph.
“(Defensive) Coach (Mike) Rutherford put together a great defensive game plan,” Knop said. “We knew what they would do almost every time and we were in the right place at the right time. We did much better this time around. The effort’s there, but we have to communicate better. There were a few times we weren’t on the same page.”
Portland was flagged a dozen times for 99 yards and also turned the ball over once.
The Bulldogs did muster 235 yards of offense, as both backs exceeded the century mark.
Chaison-Lapine had 115 yards and scored two touchdowns on 19 carries.
Esposito ran 17 times for 110 yards and two scores.
Bachelder, in his second week as starter, went 5-of-7 for 47 yards.
Hunnewell caught two balls for 21 yards, Fusco finished with one catch for 12 yards, Archambault had one for 11 and Phillips’ lone reception went for 3.
For Edward Little, which mustered just 84 yards, Begos had 66 yards on 20 carries. Verrill completed 9-of-21 passes for 37 yards with an interception. Jipson (4 catches, 12 yards) was the top receiver.
The Red Eddies committed three penalties for 15 yards and turned the ball over twice.
While Edward Little hosts Oxford Hills Friday, Portland will also be at home against Windham, the team it’s been thinking about since losing a 21-17 heartbreaker in last year’s semifinals, a game the Bulldogs could have won.
The Eagles come to Portland with a 2-0 record, believing they have what it takes to not only win another regional title, but also dethrone Thornton Academy.
Rest assured, the Bulldogs won’t need much prodding to get fired up for Friday night.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Chaison-Lapine said. “We have to come together as a team. It’s going to be a big game. We love playing Windham. We’ll see if we can cut the penalties down.”
“I’m so excited to play them and get revenge,” said Knop. “We were so close last time. Windham’s playing really well and we’re doing great. It’s going to be a war.”
“The core players, Esposito, (Archambault), Bolduc, understand that Windham’s really good and we’ll have our hands full,” Hartman added. “These guys how to handle (the big games) and understand what it takes.”
Portland juniors Jake Knop (22) and Nick Archambault celebrate after a key defensive play during the Bulldogs’ 33-0 home win over Edward Little Saturday night.
Mike Strout photos.
Dignitaries gather during a pregame ceremony to dedicate the new turf field at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Portland junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder is pressured by Edward Little senior Dillon Hummes.
Portland senior Joe Fusco rushes the throw of Edward Little senior quarterback Matt Verrill.
Portland senior Joe Esposito looks to get past Edward Little senior Corey Gillespie.
Portland junior Jake Knop tackles Edward Little sophomore Maxx Bell.
Portland senior Jake Hunnewell and Edward Little junior Noah Yarnevich look to pounce on a blocked punt.
Portland senior Austin Phillips stretches for a pass.
EL- 0 0 0 0- 0
P- 7 0 7 19- 33
P- Esposito 5 run (Williams kick)
P- Chaison-Lapine 12 run (Williams kick)
P- Chaison-Lapine 10 run (kick failed)
P- Knop 85 interception return (kick blocked)
P- Esposito 2 run (Williams kick)