Portland senior Vinnie Pasquali raises the ball in triumph after his second quarter touchdown put the Bulldogs ahead to stay in Friday’s 27-13 Class A North semifinal round victory at Lewiston. Portland advanced to meet Windham in the regional final again.
Andree Kehn / Sun Journal photos.
More photos below.
P- 0 7 6 14- 27
L- 0 0 0 13- 13
P- Pasquali 7 pass from Moss (Clarke kick)
P- Moss 1 run (pass failed)
L- Poussard 9 run (kick failed)
P- Moss 24 run (Clarke kick)
L- Poussard 5 run (Whiting kick)
P- Moss 50 run (Clarke kick)
LEWISTON—A month ago, the prospect of Portland’s football team playing in a third straight regional final was virtually inconceivable.
Friday evening, at Garcelon Field on the campus of Bates College, the Bulldogs, who started the 2017 season 0-5, continued their dizzying late-season run which some how, some way has them two victories from the most improbable Gold Ball in state annals.
Portland, ranked sixth in Class A North, went to second-seeded Lewiston in a game that began as a defensive struggle, but turned wide open in the second half and the Bulldogs, on both sides of the ball, proved to have the answers.
A punt- and penalty-filled first half appeared destined to go to the break scoreless, but a late interception from senior Vinnie Pasquali set Portland’s offense up in Blue Devils’ territory and with just 30 seconds remaining, senior quarterback Terion Moss found Pasquali for a 7-yard scoring pass and a 7-0 advantage at halftime.
The temperature plummeted and the wind picked up in the third period and the Bulldogs, sparked by a sensational one-handed interception from junior Ben Stasium, added to their lead on a 1-yard dive from Moss, which made it 13-0 heading for an explosive fourth quarter.
There, Lewiston’s offense finally found life, but Portland matched it score for score.
The hosts got on the board with 11:06 left, as senior Garrett Poussard, the region’s leading rusher in the regular season, scored on a 9-yard run, but the Blue Devils missed the extra point.
The Bulldogs then promptly answered, as seconds after Moss tripped over a teammate’s leg to prevent a 51-yard scoring run, Moss ran in from 24-yards out on the next snap for a 20-6 advantage with 8:38 left on the clock.
Lewiston kept hope alive with a lengthy drive which was culminated on a 5-yard Poussard scoring run with 3:30 remaining, but Moss ended all doubt with 1:55 to play, when he broke free for a 50-yard score and Portland slammed the door from there, prevailing, 27-13.
The Bulldogs improved to 4-6, ended the Blue Devils’ season at 4-5 and for the third year in a row, advanced to the Class A North Final, where once again, they will meet rival Windham, this time in Windham, Friday at 6 p.m., with a trip to the state final on the line.
“I’m exhausted, it’s been a lot of work, but I’m really happy for the kids,” Portland coach Jim Hartman said. “I’m happy for Portland High School. It’s a great place to coach.”
Portland, which got to the Class A state final in both 2015 and 2016 before being decimated by graduated last spring, is accustomed to playing in November, but for most of the 2017 season, it didn’t appear the Bulldogs would have many, if any, meaningful postseason contests.
Portland lost its first five games (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories), with several of those setbacks coming in painful fashion. The Bulldogs then earned a pair of victories and while they fell at South Portland in the finale, they earned the No. 6 seed in Class A North and upset third-ranked Oxford Hills, 21-6, in the quarterfinals.
Lewiston has played its share of interesting games this autumn, winding up 4-4 after closing with a decisive win over rival Edward Little. As the No. 2 seed in the region, the Blue Devils earned a bye into the semifinal round.
On Oct. 13, at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland eked out a 17-14 overtime decision.
The teams had split two prior playoff meetings (see sidebar, below), but the most recent came in 1995.
Friday, on a chilly (54 degree) evening, which got only colder or more windy as the game progressed, the Bulldogs made yet another powerful statement.
Portland won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.
The Bulldogs’ defense set the tone on the first play of the game, as junior Nathan Kapongo threw Poussard for a three-yard loss.
“(Kapongo’s) only been in America for two years now,” Hartman said. “He’s a strong kid learning how to play football.”
After junior quarterback Tanner Cortes hit senior Jason Willis for seven yards, Cortes threw incomplete.
Portland got the ball for the first time at its 39, but a holding penalty backed it up and after junior Zack Elowitch ran for a yard, Moss twice lost a yard, necessitating a punt.
The Blue Devils got the ball back in good position at their 44, but Kapongo sacked Cortes for a two-yard loss and after Poussard ran for eight yards, Cortes threw incomplete.
With 7:03 to go in the first quarter, the Bulldogs started at their 8 and went nowhere, as Elowitch and Moss were both held to no gain and Elowitch gained just three yards on third-and-10. Elowitch’s punt only went 15 yards and Lewiston started at the Portland 26.
With senior Brock Belanger in at quarterback, the Blue Devils appeared to take the lead, but were short-circuited by an ill-timed penalty.
After Belanger kept the ball for seven yards, Poussard was held for no gain and a hold backed Lewiston up to the 29. Belanger then hit Willis in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown, but Willis was ruled to have committed offensive interference and the Blue Devils were backed up to the Bulldogs’ 44. After two Belanger incompletions, Lewiston had to punt again.
Portland started its next possession at its 19, but Moss threw incomplete, Moss ran for four yards and Elowitch gained three and again, the visitors had to punt.
The Blue Devils got the ball back at their 44 and after Poussard lost a yard, a holding penalty set up second-and-22 and after junior Hunter Landry ran for three yards, Cortes picked up five and yet another punt followed.
With 42 seconds to go in the first period, the Bulldogs started at their 35, but couldn’t move the chains, as Stasium lost three yards, Moss threw incomplete and Moss ran for eight yards on the final play of the frame.
In the first 12 minutes, Portland mustered five yards, while Lewiston wound up with negative-12.
The Blue Devils got the ball back at their 30 nine seconds into the second period and again a penalty, this time blocking in the back, backed them up. After Poussard ran for eight yards, Cortes threw incomplete, but on third-and-9, Cortes found Willis for 32 yards down the right sideline for a first down at the Bulldogs’ 37. After Poussard ran for two yards, Landry gained 10 for a first down at the 25, but Kapongo threw Poussard for a one-yard loss and as Landry was held to no gain, he fumbled and Elowitch recovered at the Portland 26.
The Bulldogs got their initial first down, as Moss ran for four yards, scrambled for three, then ran for three more, but after Moss was held to no gain, he threw incomplete and on third-and-7, he was held to three yards, forcing another punt.
With 5:55 to play before halftime, the Blue Devils started at their 25 and after Poussard gained a yard, Landry was held to no gain and Cortes scrambled for four, another punt appeared imminent, but Cortes ran on a fake and gained eight yards for a first down at the 38. After Cortes found Poussard for seven yards, he threw again and this time, was intercepted by Pasquali at the 39 and Pasquali returned the ball 20 yards before fumbling (Stasium fell on the loose ball to keep possession).
The Bulldogs began at the Lewiston 41 with 2:52 to go before halftime and eight plays and 2 minutes, 22 seconds later, finally found the end zone.
The drive started with Pasquali losing a yard, but Moss hit Elowitch out of the backfield for 12 yards and a first down at the 30. After Moss scrambled for eight yards, he ran for two to move the chains again, then hit Pasquali out of the backfield for 15 yards, setting up first-and-goal at the 5. Elowitch lost two yards and after Moss just missed hooking up with senior Griffin Foley in the end zone, Moss rolled right, couldn’t find a receiver, rolled left, got out of a tackle, then spotted a wide open Pasquali in the end zone and hit him for a 7-yard score with 30 seconds on the clock. Senior Quinn Clarke added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
The Blue Devils tried to answer, as after Poussard ran for eight yards, Landry picked up eight, Poussard ran for seven more and the half stayed alive on a Portland roughing the passer penalty, but Cortes’ pass fell incomplete near the end zone after the horn to send the game to the break.
In the first half, the Bulldogs mustered just 59 yards to Lewiston’s 86, but held the lead.
The wind picked up noticeably in the second half and Portland’s offense did the same.
The Bulldogs got possession to open the third quarter at their 40 and Moss immediately gained 13 yards into Blue Devils’ territory. After Elowitch pushed the pile on a 10-yard run, Elowitch ran for two yards and Moss scrambled for 19, but a holding penalty negated it. After Moss ran for 17 yards, he gained one more and on fourth-and-3, Moss hit Pasquali, who gained 10 yards, but at the end of the play, he fumbled. Cortes appeared to touch the ball while his foot was out of bounds, which would have allowed Portland to keep possession, but that wasn’t called and instead, senior Connor Kaplinger recovered for the hosts at their 17.
The Bulldogs then turned the tide with a spectacular defensive play.
After Landry ran for four yards, a false start backed Lewiston up five yards and Belanger lost six yards after a botched handoff. Belanger then tried to lob a pass over the defense, only to see Stasium rise up and snare it with one hand for an interception at the Blue Devils 10.
“The quarterback rolled out, I was standing behind the receiver and the ball came up,” Stasium said. “I wasn’t expecting to catch it, but it stuck.”
It took Portland just two plays and 34 seconds to extend its lead, as after Elowitch was taken down inches short of the end zone, Moss bulled in from the 1 with 5:58 left in the stanza. The PAT snap was off and Foley had to throw the ball into the end zone, but it fell incomplete, keeping the score, 13-0.
Lewiston then started at its 31 with 5:50 remaining in the third quarter and embarked on a 15-play touchdown drive, which used up 6:44, to get back in the game.
After Poussard ran for a yard and Belanger threw incomplete, Belanger hit Kaplinger for 18 yards and a first down at midfield. Belanger scrambled for four yards, Landry gained two and Poussard’s second effort picked up four yards for a first down at the Bulldogs’ 40. After a block in the back penalty on the hosts, Portland jumped offsides and Belanger ran for 11 yards, moving the pile at the end, to set up first down at the 27. Poussard ran for two yards, Belanger kept the ball for three yards, then threw incomplete and after a delay of game penalty set up fourth-and-10, Belanger scrambled for 11 yards and a first down at the 16. On the final play of the third, sophomore Jaheim Whiting ran for six yards and on the first snap of the fourth quarter, Poussard was thrown for a one-yard loss by junior Koa Farnsworth. After Belanger got two yards back, on fourth-and-3, Poussard got the ball and found a hole on the right side of the line. He ran through it and crossed the goal line for a 9-yard TD with 11:06 to play. Whiting’s extra point was wide left, but Lewiston had cut the deficit to 13-6.
The Bulldogs promptly answered, driving 71 yards on five plays in 2:20.
Starting at its 29, Portland got runs of nine- and seven-yards from Elowitch and Moss picked up four more. On second-and-7 from the Portland 49, Moss broke free and appeared en route for a touchdown, but he stumbled and fell at the Blue Devils’ 24.
“I don’t know what happened,” Moss said. “I heard Vinnie say to bounce it outside, then I fell. I think he tripped me.”
One play later, Moss kept the ball again and again broke free and this time, he didn’t stop until scoring from 24-yards out. Clarke added the PAT with 8:38 on the clock for a 20-6 advantage.
Again, Lewiston would answer and again, it took the Blue Devils awhile (14 plays, 5:01).
Lewiston started at its 45 after a 26-yard kickoff return from Poussard and after Belanger found junior Lucas Nichols for nine yards and Kaplinger for seven, Poussard ran for eight yards. After an incomplete pass, Belanger kept the ball for five yards and a first down at the Portland 26. After an incomplete pass, Belanger found Whiting for eight yards and Poussard moved the chains with a three-yard run. After Belanger gained three yards and Poussard picked up six, Belanger ran for three more for a first-and-goal from the 3. Kapongo then threw Poussard for a one-yard loss and on the next snap, Poussard was thrown for another one-yard loss by Elowitch, but on third-and-goal, Poussard got the ball again and scored on a 5-yard scamper up the middle with 3:30 remaining. Whiting added the PAT to cut the deficit to 20-13.
The Blue Devils still had a chance to pull out the victory if they could get a stop and the ball back, but the Bulldogs refused to let it happen.
After Lewiston’s kickoff went out of bounds, giving Portland the ball at its 35, it took the Bulldogs just five plays and 1:35 to march for another score.
Elowitch got things started with a seven-yard run. After Moss moved the chains with a five-yard run, Elowitch was held to no gain and Moss picked up three yards, setting up a pivotal third-and-7. After the Blue Devils used up their final timeout, Moss kept the ball, again eluded the defense and found a big hole and this time, he outran the pursuit for a 50-yard touchdown with 1:55 to play. Clarke added the extra point to again make it a two-score game.
Lewiston got a 25-yard pass from Belanger to Poussard and a 1-yard pass from Belanger to Kaplinger, but with 1:02 left, Belanger threw a pass up for grabs and Stasium came down with it for the clinching interception.
“The same thing happened last year against Windham in the regional final to close it out,” Stasium said. “It was deja vu.”
Two Moss kneel-downs later, the final horn sounded and Portland celebrated its 27-13 victory.
“The line started blocking so it opened up for us and it was easy to run,” Moss said. “We didn’t get our blocks in the first half, but we got them in the second half. All week, we’ve talked about defense and what we needed to do. That worked well for us. We’ve been picking it up.”
“We’ve been practicing harder and we’ve realized our potential,” Stasium said. “We’re bringing intensity. It was rough being 0-5. We lost good players and knew we had big shoes to fill. We knew the potential we had. It’s good to see it come full circle. ‘Rudy’ (assistant coach Mike Rutherford) is the best defensive coordinator around. We always focus extra-hard in defensive practices. We owe it to Rudy honestly.”
“We’re just getting better and better and better,” Hartman added. “Last week, we played with three seniors and tonight, we only had four out there with Foley back. There’s a lot of learning going on with sophomores and juniors. They’re now football players. We weren’t blocking the blitz well in the first half. We couldn’t stop it. We tightened it up in the second half.”
The Bulldogs finished with 239 yards and overcame one turnover and four penalties for 41 yards.
Moss ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries and threw seven times, completing three, for 34 yards and a TD.
“Terion is obviously a terrific athlete,” Stasium said. “We knew he was a nice addition to the team.”
“Terion’s better than I thought he’d be,” Hartman said.
“He’s unbelievable,” Lewiston coach Bruce Nicholas said. “We know he’s going to get the ball, you know you’ve got to wrap him up, you know you got to break down, but still, he finds a way. Little crease, little seam, you think, you have him, and you don’t.”
Elowitch gained 47 yards on 12 rushes.
Pasquali had three receptions for 34 yards and a score.
Lewiston had 218 yards, but turned the ball over three times and was penalized eight times for 67 yards.
Poussard was held to 59 yards (and two TDs) on 20 carries. He caught two passes for 32 yards.
Belanger completed 6-of-13 passes for 48 yards and threw a pair of interceptions. He also gained 48 yards on 11 carries.
Cortes was 3-of-9 passing for 46 yards with an interception and ran twice for 12 yards.
Kaplinger had three catches for 26 yards and Willis caught two balls for 39 yards.
Portland will play in its third straight regional final and its fourth (and by far most improbable) in five years Friday.
Windham improved to 6-4 by upsetting top-ranked Edward Little, 21-12, in its semifinal.
The Bulldogs suffered a painful and controversial 7-6 home loss to Windham Sept. 23 on a late missed field goal that many on hand thought was good. The teams have met regularly in the playoffs in recent years. Portland holds a 4-1 all-time postseason edge, with last year’s 27-14 triumph in the regional final the most recent.
If the Bulldogs can spring one more upset, they’ll not only play in the Class A state final for the third consecutive season, but they’ll get to do so on their home field.
“We know Windham’s a good team,” Moss said. “We lost to them when we thought we had that field goal. We’ll come with a lot of intensity and energy and we’ll just play football.”
“(Windham’s) a really well-coached team,” Stasium said. “It’s always a good game. Losing in the regular season was tough. We’re excited to play them again.”
“We’ll see what happens,” Hartman added. “They have a great coach (Matt Perkins), great players and they’re playing well. I think it will be a tough matchup for us.”
Sun Journal assistant sports editor Lee Horton contributed to this story.
Portland senior quarterback Terion Moss picks up big yardage in the second half. Moss had three touchdown runs.
Portland juniors Lewis Gaddas (40) and Zack Elowitch chase Lewiston senior Garrett Poussard.
1995 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 42 Lewiston 8
1987 Western A semifinals
Lewiston 29 Portland 6