PORTLAND—Portland junior Tim Rovnak has produced his share of thrills on the pitch.
Tuesday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, he delivered a command performance.
Rovnak scored twice in five minutes in the first half to give the defending Western Class A champion Bulldogs the lead, but visiting rival Cheverus roared back to tie the score at 2-2 with two corner kick tallies from senior Nick Melville in just over a minute’s time.
The game would remain deadlocked for the final 48-plus minutes of regulation, a five-minute first overtime period and nearly five minutes more of a second before Rovnak struck once more, taking a long pass from senior Brett O’Kelly, beating the defense, then finding the net to give Portland a stirring 3-2 victory.
The win lifts the Bulldogs to 6-1-1 on the year and dropped the Stags to 5-2.
“It means a lot,” said Rovnak. “It’s definitely an emotional boost and we hope to build off it the rest of the year.”
There’s never much love lost when Cheverus and Portland do battle. Adding spice to this year’s lone regular season showdown, both teams are top contenders and the Stags were still stinging and seeking revenge for last year’s 6-0 quarterfinal round loss to the Bulldogs.
That decision was Portland’s fifth straight victory over Cheverus and included a 1-0 regular season triumph in 2010. The teams also met in the 2007 preliminary round (1-0 Cheverus, the Stags’ lone victory in the past six years) and 2009 quarterfinals (1-0 Portland).
So far in 2011, both teams have played very well.
Cheverus opened with wins at Sanford (4-1), Biddeford (5-0) and Noble (8-3) came home to battle powerhouse Scarborough and suffered a 4-0 loss, then bounced back with victories at Windham (2-0) and at home over Kennebunk (5-0).
The Bulldogs have remained a top power this fall even after the graduation of standout Fazal Nabi (now playing at Providence College). Portland did stumble in its opener, falling, 3-2, to visiting Windham, but then won at Noble (4-2) and at home over Deering (2-0). After playing host Scarborough to a scoreless draw, the Bulldogs downed visiting Gorham (3-1, in a rematch of last year’s regional final), visiting Biddeford (8-0) and host Westbrook (4-2).
Tuesday, fans were treated to a nearly 90-minute show of high-level soccer.
In the 10th minute, the hosts struck first when senior Ben Day sent a long ball toward the Cheverus goal. It took a high hop and Stags sophomore goalkeeper Charlie Mull went up to get it, but from nowhere soared Rovnak and he headed the ball past Mull and into the goal for a 1-0 lead.
In the 15th minute, Rovnak did it again, this time beating Mull to a pass from a defender and tucking the ball home to make it a 2-0 game.
“I try to pressure the defense so they make mistakes so our team can take advantage,” Rovnak said. “I might have surprised them, but I got lucky and took advantage.”
“Rovnak’s got a nice pace and he’s a goal scorer,” lamented Cheverus coach Bill LeBlanc.
Portland almost made it 3-0 in the 17th minute on a low shot from sophomore Tony Yekeh, but Mull made a diving stop.
Cheverus then began to pressure and with 9:58 to go in the first half, cut the deficit in half.
Sophomore Sterling Weatherbie served a corner kick that skipped into the box and past several players right to Melville, who booted it home to give the visitors life.
With 8:36 remaining before halftime, the Stags did it again as Weatherbie this time served up a higher kick from the corner and this time, Melville went skyward to head the ball past Bulldogs junior goalkeeper Chip Weber to tie the score.
“I think we just had a couple defensive lapses with marking,” said Rovnak. “The second goal was a perfect placement of the header.”
“We were a little tentative at first,” said LeBlanc. “We have freshmen and sophomores in the back. A couple mental mistakes, but we showed some resiliency and came back with goals from my senior. We’ve been working a lot on set pieces. We did well with those.”
One common denominator with the goals was that senior midfielder Paley Burlin was on the bench for both. Normally his big and active frame would have been right in the middle of the action.
“If nothing else, it was coincidental,” said longtime Portland coach Rocky Frenzilli. “(Senior) Hunter (Andreason) played really well. Paley needs a break now and then. It was two dead balls and Nick hit two great shots.”
The Bulldogs had a couple chances late in the first half to retake the lead, but freshman Guled Hussain-Ali shot high and wide after the Stags failed to clear the ball from the box and senior Alain Tuyishime’s feed to Rovnak was broken up at the last second by a defender.
The scoring came to a halt in the second half, but both squads had chances.
In the 42nd minute, Cheverus senior Elliot Maker had a bid in front broken up at the last second.
In the 55th minute, Mull broke up Yekeh’s rush and Yekeh ran into Mell, leading to some harsh words and a yellow card (which requires the player to sit for 10 minutes) issued to Yekeh.
With 25:10 left in regulation, Rovnak’s throw from the side was headed on goal by Burlin, but easily handled by Mull.
With 19:43 to play, Melville’s low bid from the side off a corner kick was saved by Weber.
A minute later, Hussain-Ali appeared to have a great chance after the ball got behind Mull, but a Stags defender cleared it away.
With 11:55 remaining, Weber denied Stags senior Evan Stewart’s shot on goal. A minute later, Weatherie set up Maker for a header, but it was wide.
With 5:15 to go, Mull punched away a corner kick off the foot of O’Kelly. Two minutes later, senior Ralph Houanche shot wide and it was on to overtime.
Just 57 seconds into the first “sudden victory” five-minute OT session, Houanche fed Tuyishime and Tuyishime got past a defender, but his shot was turned aside by Mull. In the final minute, the ball was loose in the Cheverus box, but cleared away.
Early in the second overtime, O’Kelly broke up a Maker rush. With 2:20 to go, Portland senior Liam McNeil shot wide.
With roughly a minute left and a tie a distinct possibility, the Stags had the ball in the Bulldogs’ zone. Portland was able to win possession, however, and quickly transitioned to settle matters once and for all.
O’Kelly played a long pass up the right sideline to Rovnak, who appeared to be closely watched by a defender, but when he got the ball on his foot, he found another gear, streaked past the defender, turned the corner and raced in on Mull alone. Rovnak then booted a shot into the net to give the Bulldogs the 3-2 victory.
“Brett crossed it to me from the defensive end,” Rovnak said. “I was looking to get past the defender and finish. It seems like time slows down. When the goalie makes a move, you make yours. I thought I struck it well.”
“We just asked the boys to show us another gear,” said Frenzilli. “To keep working hard. After the first overtime, I said, ‘Guys, we have another gear left. Let’s see what can happen.’ When Brett put the ball on Timmy’s foot and he turned the corner, you wanted to think good things because he’s done it for us time in and time out. This time was no different.
“I looked with a minute left and the ball was (in our defensive zone) and I was just hoping we could weather this and get the ball out. Then I saw the pass and that was it. When I saw it twirl around the back of the net, I knew something special had happened. Tim’s engine never stops. He’s got gear after gear after gear. Just when you think he’s done all he can do, he steps it up a notch. He has a will and he has heart. He’s a pleasure to be around because he’s the same in practice and he’s a wonderful kid.
“I told my assistant coach, I don’t know if I can go through many more of these. Obviously, it was a great game played between two excellent teams. The two goals early felt good, but you know a team like Cheverus can come back on you and they did. Our defense played incredibly well tonight. Cheverus built and built and built and pushed and pushed and we bent, but didn’t break. Our back four and our defensive mids really spelled the difference in thwarting Cheverus and giving us chances.”
Portland, which was expected to perhaps take a step back this fall, is once again showing its mettle and getting more confident by the day.
“I was expecting us to be pretty good,” Rovnak said. “I knew we had talent even after Fazal left and we wanted to show that.”
“I told the boys that it was another signature game for us,” Frenzilli said. “(Cheverus) had a great record and they’re a good team. We wanted to keep our positive vibe going.”
Considering what happened in the last meeting, the Stags were pretty pleased with their effort.
“We competed on 50-50 balls and played them straight up in the second half,” LeBlanc said. “In overtime, we were going for it. We have some bad memories here, but mentally, that didn’t bother them at all. It showed a lot of character for my seniors, Melville and Maker and (Alexander) Hoglund, to pull everyone together. They stepped up and got us back in the game. Portland’s a nice team. Rocky does a nice job with them. We hope we play them again.
“I like this team. If we clean up some of our mental mistakes in the back, we’ll be fine.”
Cheverus was seventh in the Western Class A Heal Points standings entering the game and is certainly a top contender.
The Stags have their next three games at home, versus Westbrook, Thornton Academy and South Portland. Cheverus also meets Deering and Gorham to end the regular season.
“I like our chances,” LeBlanc said. “I’m not worried about (Heal Points). We’ll fall where we fall and we’ll play anyone.”
Portland entered the game fourth and hopes to follow last year’s script when the Bulldogs soared from a 1-1-1 start to win 14 in a row. They play at Massabesic Thursday and host Marshwood Tuesday of next week.
“I want to think that we’re going to be playing our best in mid- and late-October, but it’s up to the guys,” Frenzilli said. “All we can do is get them ready. They have to make it happen and tonight, they made it happen.”
Portland 1 @ Cheverus 0
@ Portland 6 Cheverus 0 (Western A quarterfinals)
Portland 3 @ Cheverus 1
@ Portland 1 Cheverus 1
@ Cheverus 1 Portland 0 (Western Class A preliminary round)
Portland 2 @ Cheverus 1
@ Portland 1 Cheverus 1
@ Cheverus 4 Portland 1