PORTLAND—For seven games over five seasons, Portland’s football team couldn’t find a way to beat Cheverus.
Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, the Bulldogs were on the verge of another painful loss at the hands of the Stags, but they dug deep into their reservoir of heart, will and skill to at last turn the tables on their rival and nemesis.
In a 48-minute slugfest, Portland again shot itself in the foot with penalties and turnovers, but down the stretch, with the game on the line, the Bulldogs came up huge.
Thanks to the leadership and brilliance of senior Joe Esposito.
Portland jumped to a 3-0 first quarter lead on a 39-yard field goal from senior John Williams, but Cheverus answered and went on top when freshman Tre Fletcher scored on a 36-yard scamper in the second period.
The Bulldogs still trailed by a 7-3 margin in the third quarter, when senior George Chaison-Lapine, who had run wild, was sidelined with an ankle injury.
That forced Esposito to step in as the feature back and he rose to the occasion.
And that’s an epic understatement.
Esposito’s heroic performance over the game’s final quarter-and-a-half proved to be the difference, as his 4-yard touchdown run two minutes into the fourth period put Portland ahead to stay and his 50-yard TD burst with 5:19 to go provided a 16-7 lead.
Cheverus roared back and pulled within two when senior quarterback Isaac Dunn scored on a 4-yard run with 2:09 left, but Bulldogs senior captain Dan Marzilli recovered an onsides kick and Esposito picked up two more first downs, allowing Portland to run out the clock on an inspirational 16-14 victory.
Esposito ran for 161 yards and two TDs (146 after Chaison-Lapine’s injury) and the Bulldogs improved to 5-0, dropping the valiant Stags to 3-2 in the process.
“Finally, a ‘W’ against Cheverus,” Esposito said. “It feels good. No matter the records, it’s always going to be a close game because we’re rivals. We were really hard on ourselves because we weren’t playing up to our capability, but we came out in the second half and swarmed the football and had fun. We had the will to win.”
Cheverus had dominated this rivalry in recent years, winning seven straight by an average of 20 points (see sidebar, below). That streak included victories in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs and a 41-3 drubbing last September at Boulos Stadium.
This fall, both teams were expected to be top contenders in Class A North and with one exception, lived up to billing in the first half of the season.
Cheverus pulled away in the second half of its opener to down visiting Oxford Hills, 42-14, then was humbled at Thornton Academy, 57-0. The Stags got back on track with a 68-16 home drubbing of Lewiston, then last week, dominated visiting Edward Little, 44-7.
Portland enjoyed an impressive Opening Night win at Scarborough (47-26) before downing visiting Edward Little (33-0). Next came a stupendous defensive display in a 10-3 home win over preseason favorite Windham, which was followed by a 41-0 victory at Oxford Hills.
Friday, on the chilliest night of the season so far, which even featured some intermittent rain, Cheverus looked to extend its streak against Portland to eight games, but instead, the Bulldogs beat the Stags for the first time since Sept. 25, 2009 (28-0 at home), needing every one of the game’s 2,880 seconds to do so.
The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.
Cheverus got to go on offense first, but after junior Rylan Benedict gained nothing on first down and senior Justin Johnston picked up five yards on second down, Portland junior defensive back Dylan Bolduc threw Benedict for a one-yard loss, forcing a punt.
The Bulldogs started at their 39 and appeared bound for the game’s first touchdown when Chaison-Lapine, the leading rusher in Class A North entering the contest, rattled off a 52-yard burst to the Stags’ 7, riding nice blocks from Esposito and senior Austin Phillips in the process.
But on first-and-goal, Johnston tackled Chaison-Lapine for no gain and on the play, Portland was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty which backed it up 15 yards. On the next play, the Bulldogs were called for holding, pushing them back to the 31. After junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder threw incomplete, Esposito ran for nine yards to set up Williams with a makeable field goal and the strong-footed senior boomed a 39-yarder through the uprights which would have been good from 50 or more yards for a 3-0 lead with 7:49 to play in the opening quarter.
Portland marched 39 yards on six plays in 2 minutes, 26 seconds.
Cheverus went three-and-out again on its second possession, as senior Dan Baker was held to no gain, Johnston picked up five and Fletcher, on his first carry, ran for four, but was stopped just short of the first down marker. After a punt, the Bulldogs started in good field position, at their 43, but they couldn’t capitalize.
A 14-yard Chaison-Lapine run moved the chains and set up a first down at the Stags’ 42, but after Chaison-Lapine ran for four more, a false start short-circuited the drive and runs of three yards from Esposito and four from Chaison-Lapine set up fourth-and-4 from the 36. Portland coach Jim Hartman eschewed a 53-yard field goal attempt and punted and junior Nick Archambault pinned Cheverus at its 17.
The Stags took over with 3:43 to play in the first period and proceeded to march 83 yards on nine plays, chewing up 4:08 in the process.
While Fletcher had showed glimpses of greatness early in the season, this drive, against this opponent, was his coming out party as his quickness and elusiveness left several Bulldogs muttering in frustration.
After being stopped for no gain on first down, Fletcher ran for seven yards, then moved the chains with a five-yard burst. After Fletcher ran for five more yards, Dunn hit senior Kenny Drelich for 19 yards and a first down at the Portland 47. Fletcher ran for five yards and Johnston gained one as the first quarter came to a close.
On the first play of the second period, Johnston ran for five yards to pick up a first down and Fletcher took it from there, taking a handoff, running to the right side, breaking a tackle, then outracing the pursuit to the pylon to complete a 36-yard scoring run with 11:35 to play in the first half. Sophomore Jack Casale added the extra point and the Stags had the lead, 7-3.
Chaison-Lapine broke free for 18 yards on the first play of the Bulldogs’ next possession, but Cheverus senior lineman extraordinaire Frankie Curran then turned the tide, by blowing up a handoff, forcing a fumble and completing the trifecta by falling on it at the Portland 41, seemingly setting the Stags up to extend their lead.
Instead, Cheverus gave the ball right back.
After Marzilli threw Fletcher for a two-yard loss on first down and Dunn hit Casale for four yards, the Stags fumbled and Bolduc pounced on it.
The Bulldogs began at their 43 with 9:39 to play before halftime and appeared to move into Stags’ territory when Esposito broke free for 17 yards, but again, Portland was its own worst enemy, as a holding call pushed it back. The Bulldogs did gain a first down on a five yard Chaison-Lapine rush on third-and-5, but after Chaison-Lapine ran for six yards, Esposito picked up two and Chaison-Lapine gained one, on fourth-and-1 from the 38, Chaison-Lapine was thrown for a two-yard loss by Cheverus sophomore Max Coffin, giving the Stags the ball on downs.
When Johnston broke free for 32 yards on the first play of Cheverus’ next series and a facemask penalty on Portland added 15 more yards, to the Bulldogs’ 13, the Stags were on the verge of scoring another touchdown, but after Benedict was tackled by Marzilli for no gain, Johnston ran for seven before being stripped of the ball by Archambault. Senior Joe Fusco recovered the fumble for Portland and the Bulldogs had dodged a bullet.
Portland started at its 26 with 6:07 to play in the half and Chaison-Lapine ran for three yards, ran for six more to set up third-and-inches, then was thrown for a three-yard loss by Johnston to force another punt.
The Stags got the ball back at their 31. After Fletcher ran for three yards, Johnston ran for four, but Fletcher lost two, setting up fourth-and-5 and seemingly forcing a punt. Instead, Portland gave Cheverus a gift, jumping offsides to set up the Stags with a first down. The Stags didn’t capitalize, however, as an eight yard Fletcher run was negated by a hold and after Fletcher ran for seven yards, he lost one, then picked up three, setting up fourth-and-10 and this time, the visitors did punt the ball away.
With 80 seconds to play before halftime, the Bulldogs started at their 28. On first down, Bachelder was sacked by sophomore Zeb Leavitt for a four-yard loss. Chaison-Lapine then rushed for seven, 18 and six yards, but the clock ran out with the ball at the Stags’ 45 and Cheverus took a 7-3 lead to halftime.
In the first 24 minutes, Fletcher rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown on a dozen carries, but Cheverus’ two turnovers prevented it from adding to its lead.
Chaison-Lapine was the workhorse for Portland, gaining 148 yards on 18 rushes, but the Bulldogs were doomed by six penalties for 57 yards and one turnover.
Heading into the second half, Portland’s recipe for victory was simple.
The Bulldogs had to stop committing penalties, finish scoring opportunities and continue to play strong defense.
Despite losing one of its best players, Portland would manage to do so.
The second half began inauspiciously, as Chaison-Lapine fumbled after a six yard rush and Johnston recovered at the Cheverus 47.
The Stags couldn’t take advantage, as Johnston lost a yard, Dunn just overthrew Drelich, who was open behind the secondary, and Fletcher’s nine yard run left Cheverus two yards short of the marker and forced a punt.
The Bulldogs got the ball back at their 30 and got a first down thanks to runs of three and eight yards by Chaison-Lapine. On the next play, Chaison-Lapine gained eight more, but after being tackled, he remained on the field in pain. Eventually, Chaison-Lapine got to his feet and was helped off the field, but an ankle injury kept him sidelined the rest of the contest.
Junior Jake Knop came in as Chaison-Lapine’s replacement and after being held to no gain, Knop broke free for 17 yards to the Stags’ 34, but on the next play, Knop fumbled and Cheverus junior Kieran Conley recovered to end the threat.
“Frankie Curran is a matchup problem for us,” Hartman said. “He took away a lot of what we do in the middle of the field. We had to run off-tackle. We have aggressive kids who are trying to do a little too much. It’s a matter of calming down. Some teams you have to motivate them, not this team. We had to put (the fumbles) behind us.”
Portland’s defense remained strong, forcing a three-and-out (three rushes gained four yards) and with 5:25 to go in quarter number three, the Bulldogs started at their 33.
Where they promptly produced their best drive of the season, thanks in large part to the insertion of Esposito into the feature back role and Archambault into the fullback position.
Esposito’s first carry on the drive resulted in 13 yards and set the tone. After Esposito gained one yard, then was tackled by sophomore Bob Holzhacker for no gain, Esposito ran for eight, setting up fourth-and-1. Hartman rolled the dice and went for it and Esposito, thanks to a terrific second effort, got the necessary yard to keep the drive going. After running for seven yards, Esposito picked up three more for a first down at the Stags’ 34. Esposito continued to put his team on his shoulders, gaining a yard, four yards, then on third-and-five, seven more, thanks to a terrific second effort, putting the ball at the 22. On the final play of third period, Bachelder was sacked by Coffin for a six yard loss, but Esposito wasn’t going to let the drive end without a touchdown.
On the first play of the final stanza, Esposito ran for five yards. He picked up five more to set up fourth-and-6 at the 18 and instead of kicking the field goal, Hartman opted to put the ball in Esposito’s hands and was rewarded when Esposito burst through a hole for 14 yards and a first down at the 4. On the next play, Esposito completed the 15 play, 67 yard, 7 minute, 25 second drive with a 4-yard TD run over left tackle.
On the drive, Esposito ran 14 times for 73 yards.
“I was open to running the ball,” Esposito said. “Someone had to step up. It’s always a different player. Tonight it was me. Nick’s blocking helped. He’s a versatile player. It’s good to have players who can go anywhere.”
“Knop ran well, but when he fumbled, I didn’t want the pressure on him, so it was time to give it to the big guy,” Hartman said. “I don’t think there’s a better football player in the state of Maine. He put us on his back. That was all heart. He’s a smart, smart football player.”
Williams’ extra point gave Portland a 10-7 lead with exactly 10 minutes remaining.
Cheverus looked to answer and would drive into Bulldogs’ territory before stalling.
Starting at their 20 after a Williams touchback, the Stags got a three yard run from Fletcher and after Dunn threw incomplete, he hooked up with Johnston for 27 yards on a screen pass to move the ball to midfield. Dunn then connected with Casale for nine more yards. Fusco held Fletcher to no gain on second-and-1 and on third-and-one, Archambault held Fletcher to no gain, setting up fourth down.
“We didn’t let (Fletcher) use his feet (in the second half),” Marzilli said. “We tried to get to him as fast as possible.”
Cheverus coach John Wolfgram went for it and had Dunn roll out to his right. Initially, Dunn had Drelich wide open behind the defense, but by the time he saw him it was too late and pressure forced Dunn to throw incomplete, giving Portland the ball back at its 41 with 6:45 left.
“I think our defense gives our offense momentum,” Esposito said. “We thrive on our defense. We’re confident in our defense.”
After a long, time-consuming drive, this time, the Bulldogs scored on just three plays, needing only 86 seconds to do so.
Esposito ran for four yards on first down and gained five more on second down. Then, on third down, he got the ball again, broke up the middle and twice made cutbacks to his left, getting a nice block from Bolduc in the process, en route to a 50-yard insurance touchdown. The snap on the PAT was low and Phillips, the holder, was stopped from running the ball into the end zone, so with 5:19 to play, Portland’s lead was a tenuous 16-7.
Cheverus didn’t roll over and instead made things very interesting.
Starting at their 32, the Stags needed nine plays and 3:10 to march 68 yards.
Dunn started airing it out, hitting Casale for 13 yards along the left sideline, connecting with senior Owen Gorman for nine yards and finding Casale for 12 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 34. After Dunn scrambled for a yard, he connected with Gorman again for 11 and a first down at the 22. Dunn spiked the ball, then connected with Johnston for 18 more yards on a screen to the 4.
“We played prevent defense, but we gave up yardage on screens,” Hartman said. “We had an inexperienced defensive back out there.”
An incomplete pass was followed by Dunn scrambling, then cutting back before falling over the goal line for a 4-yard scoring run with 2:09 to play. Casale added the extra point to cut the deficit to 16-14.
With only one timeout left, Cheverus had to attempt an onsides kick to get the ball back, but the ball bounced directly into the hands of Marzilli, who cradled it at the Bulldogs’ 49.
“I saw the kicker aiming for me, so I knew it was coming my way,” Marzilli said. “I was trying to be a catcher. I was nervous, but it felt good when I caught it.”
“I don’t think we knew how to handle what would happen, but thank goodness it went to the right guy,” Hartman said.
Portland needed just one first down to ice the victory and to no one’s surprise, Esposito got the ball.
Esposito gained two yards on first down and the Stags were called for a facemask penalty, moving the ball to the Cheverus 34. After Esposito gained five yards, then ran for two, the Stags used their last timeout. Bachelder was held to a yard on a keeper, setting up fourth-and-2 with 15.6 seconds to go. After the Bulldogs called their final timeout, the ball came to Esposito, who burst for five yards and a first down which allowed time to run out on the 16-14 victory.
“I’ve never beaten Cheverus,” Marzilli said. “It feels really good to finally beat them.”
“The guys have a lot of character,” Hartman said. “They’ve had it all season. I’m really proud of them. I have to give Cheverus credit. That’s one heck of a team. John’s a great coach. He found what he needed to find and exploited it. It’s good to get the monkey off our backs. The guys want to win. They’re together as a team. They’re a classy bunch of kids. I’ve coached a bunch of years, but I don’t think I’ve been around a classier bunch of kids. They’re disciplined. Most of these kids are honor students. They’re bright, a great group.”
Portland finished with 322 yards of offense.
Esposito ran for 15 yards on four carries in the first half, then picked up 146 on 21 attempts in the second half, giving him 161 yards and two scores on 25 rushes in total. He also caught a pass for seven yards and returned a punt for 14 more.
“‘Espo’s’ a big leader on this team,” Marzilli said. “He has a voice in every play and every game. He works hard in practice and it shows in games.”
Chaison-Lapine was superb prior to leaving with injury, gaining a game-high 173 yards on 23 attempts.
Knop ran for 17 yards on three tries.
Bachelder completed 1 of 2 passes for 7 yards and ran once for a yard.
Portland turned the ball over three times and overcame seven penalties for 76 yards (just one came in the second half, a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct celebration penalty after Esposito’s second touchdown).
For Cheverus, which had 271 yards of offense, Fletcher had his most impactful game to date, gaining 82 yards and scoring a TD on 18 carries.
“He’s coming along,” Wolfgram said, of Fletcher. “He’s part and parcel of our offense.”
Johnston picked up 62 yards on nine attempts and caught two passes for 45 passes. Dunn completed 9 of 14 attempts for 124 yards. Casale had four catches for 40 yards, Gorman caught two balls for 20 and Drelich had one reception for 19.
The Stags committed two turnovers and were flagged twice for 24 yards.
“It was a battle,” Wolfgram said. “It’s a tough one to lose. They’re a good team. They’re physical with a couple good running backs. Obviously when (Chaison-Lapine) went down, they gave the ball to their other stud and he was the difference. (Esposito’s) a very good player. He made the plays at the end. In big games, your best players step up and he did. I thought at times we executed very well. We had certain plays we had a chance to make that we didn’t make. We just didn’t get it done, but I was impressed with our kids and how well we played. We stayed with it. Our kids have a lot of grit.”
Cheverus (second in the Class A North Crabtree Points standings) looks to bounce back Friday at Bangor. After hosting dangerous Scarborough, the Stags close at Windham.
“I think we’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go,” Wolfgram said.
Portland (first in the region) travels to Lewiston Friday, then goes to Bangor before closing at home against South Portland in the “Battle of the Bridge.”
The Bulldogs have the inside track for the top seed in the region and homefield advantage for the playoffs, but they know they can’t rest on their laurels.
“We want homefield advantage,” Marzilli said. “That would be a big advantage for us. We have to work more as a team, communicate better.”
“We have to make sure we work hard in practice.,” Esposito said. “We can’t fool around or think we’re the team to beat.”
“This is enormous, but we’re still on a mission,” Hartman added. “We hope to have seven more games. We have to get better. We have to run the ball better, throw the ball better, pass block better. We don’t want to go to Cheverus or Windham (in the playoffs). It’s still one week at a time. We won’t look ahead. We can’t afford to look ahead.”
Cheverus senior Isaac Dunn throws a pass.
Cheverus freshman Tre Fletcher fights off the tackle attempt of Portland senior Dylan Bolduc.
Portland senior George Chaison-Lapine is dragged down by Cheverus senior Dan Baker.
Portland junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder throws over Cheverus senior Justin Johnston to complete a pass to senior Joe Fusco.
Portland senior Justin Johnston rides a block from sophomore Nate Dunn on Portland senior Nehemiah Perez-Hughes for positive yardage.
Portland senior George Chaison-Lapine, who rushed for 173 yards, eludes Cheverus junior Rylan Benedict.
Portland senior Joe Esposito drags Cheverus senior Isaac Dunn for a few extra yards during the Bulldogs’ 16-14 victory Friday night. Esposito stepped into the lead back role after senior George Chaison-Lapine was injured and rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
Mike Strout photos.
Cheverus senior Kenny Drelich looks upfield after catching a pass.
Cheverus 26 @ Portland 7
@ Cheverus 35 Portland 0
@ Portland 27 Cheverus 14
Portland 40 @ Cheverus 7
Portland 42 @ Cheverus 7
C- 0 7 0 7- 14
P- 3 0 0 13- 16
P- Williams 39 FG
C- Fletcher 36 run (Casale kick)
P- Esposito 4 run (Williams kick)
P- Esposito 50 run (kick failed)
C- Dunn 4 run (Casale kick)