Portland seniors Zack Elowitch (24), Ben Levine (54) and Tyler Blazejewski (85) celebrate with the student section following the Bulldogs’ epic 21-14 overtime win over Oxford Hills in Friday night’s Class A North Final. Portland will battle Scarborough or Thornton Academy in the state game next Saturday.
Ben McCanna / Press Herald photos.
More photos below.
OH- 0 7 0 7 0- 14
P- 0 7 0 7 7- 21
OH- Luksza 9 run (Luksza kick)
P- Elowitch 82 run (Vumpa kick)
OH- Turner 25 pass from Carson (Luksza kick)
P- Moriba 63 run (Vumpa kick)
P- Elowitch 7 run (Vumpa kick)
PORTLAND—Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland’s football team accomplished a first in its long and storied history.
Taking part in a postseason overtime game.
And winning it.
And as a result, next Saturday, the Bulldogs will have an opportunity to win a Gold Ball for the first time in 16 years.
The two best teams in Class A North all season, Portland and Oxford Hills, squared off in a regional final for the ages and as the weather worsened, the drama skyrocketed, setting the stage for an unforgettable finish.
Both teams’ defenses had the advantage in a first half that was played under dry conditions.
After a scoreless first period, the Vikings embarked on a nice drive and took a 7-0 lead when senior Janek Luksza scored on a 9-yard run, then added the extra point.
After their long drives and ball control spelled the difference in the teams’ first meetings, this time around, the Bulldogs relied on the big play and an 82-yard touchdown scamper from senior standout Zack Elowitch tied the score and sent the game to the break deadlocked, 7-7.
With the rain falling more heavily, the score remained 7-7 after three quarters and when Oxford Hills’ superb senior quarterback, Colton Carson, found senior Alex Turner for a 25-yard score with 9:56 remaining, the Vikings, playing in their first regional final since 2000, appeared bound for their first state game since 1999, but two plays later, Portland junior Jamal Moriba broke away for a 63-yard TD to tie the game again, 14-14.
Down the stretch, Luksza was short on a 42-yard field goal and the Bulldogs couldn’t score either, meaning that the regional final had to be determined in overtime.
A place Portland had never ventured in a game of this magnitude.
Each team got four untimed downs from the opponent’s 10-yard line and the Bulldogs went first. On third down from the 7, Elowitch bulled his way into the end zone and freshman Cristo Vumpa’s extra point put Portland up by seven.
The Vikings then got their turn and after Carson ran to the 1 on first down, a tying score, or perhaps an opportunity to win it with a two-point conversion, appeared imminent, but instead, Oxford Hills lost five yards due to a false start penalty, then Bulldogs junior Jonah Green made the defensive play of his life, forcing a fumble before falling on it to end the game in breathtaking fashion as Portland survived and advanced, 21-14.
The Bulldogs improved to 9-1, ended the Vikings’ fine season at 7-3 and advanced to the Class A state final next Saturday at a time to be announced against either defending state champion Scarborough (7-1) or undefeated Thornton Academy (9-0).
“This is four straight regional finals, three state games and a .750 winning percentage for these guys,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “We have three four-year starters and six or seven have started for three. They’re a big part of this run, not innocent bystanders.”
Portland stressed all season the importance of earning homefield advantage and the Bulldogs managed to attain it by going 7-1 in the regular season, losing only at Bonny Eagle (see sidebar, below, for links to previous stories).
Portland’s biggest win came Oct. 12 in South Paris, where two lengthy drives and some clutch defense throughout spelled a 17-14 win at Oxford Hills.
The Vikings lost just twice this fall, also falling at Sanford, and finished second in Class A North.
Each squad earned a bye into the semifinal round, then took care of business, as the Bulldogs ousted No. 4 Edward Little, 49-15, while Oxford Hills dispatched third-seeded Cheverus, 35-6.
The teams met twice previously in the playoffs, with Portland taking both meetings: 55-7 in the 2016 regional semifinals and 21-6 in last year’s quarterfinals (see sidebar, below).
Friday, the Bulldogs got pushed to the brink, but ultimately, their championship experience and heart were just enough to keep their championship hopes alive.
Neither team could get the ball in the end zone in the first quarter.
The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss and deferred possession to the second half, then forced an Oxford Hills three-and-out.
The Vikings began inauspiciously, as a fumbled exchange forced Carson to fall on the ball for a six-yard loss. After Carson hit Turner for 10 yards, Carson threw incomplete and Oxford Hills had to punt.
Portland started at its 40 and as was the case in the teams’ last meeting, embarked on a long drive, one of nearly seven minutes, but this time, the Bulldogs couldn’t finish.
Moriba got the ball first for six yards. Elowitch’s six-yard gain moved the chains and put the ball at the Vikings’ 48. After Elowitch ran for two yards, then was dropped for a three-yard loss by junior JJ Worster, Elowitch took a quick pass from junior quarterback Sam Knop and picked up 11 yards for a first down at the 37. After Elowitch ran for two yards, he broke tackles and spun for seven more before Moriba picked up two for a first down at the 26. Moriba ran for four yards and Elowitch picked up two, but a bad snap led to a one-yard loss and on fourth-and-5, Knop couldn’t connect with senior Grant Jacobson and Oxford Hills got the ball back on downs at its 21.
After Carson lost a yard and a false start penalty backed the Vikings up five more yards, Carson hit senior Parker LaFrance for 15 yards and the Bulldogs jumped offsides for a first down at the 35. That’s as far as Oxford Hills would get, as senior Chris Vincent threw senior Parker LaFrance for a three-yard loss, Carson threw incomplete and a two-yard Luksza run wasn’t nearly enough for a first down and the Vikings punted the ball back.
With 1:24 to play in the opening stanza, Portland started at its 48, but again, couldn’t find the end zone. After junior Cade Truman threw Knop for a four-yard loss, Luksza stood Elowitch up for no gain and Elowitch ran for 10 yards to come up four yards short of the sticks.
As the first period (which only featured 62 combined yards) gave way to the second, Elowitch punted and the Vikings got the ball back at their 21 with 11:47 to play in the first half.
Eight plays and 4 minutes, 7 seconds later, Oxford Hills broke the ice.
LaFrance gained a yard on first down, then Carson found Turner, who broke tackles and gained 19 yards to the 41. After Carson kept the ball for eight yards, the quarterback took off down the left side for 30 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 21. After Carson ran for two yards, he hit Luksza for 10 yards, setting up first-and-goal at the 9. After Carson threw incomplete, Luksza took the ball on an option pitch to the right, then broke a tackle and fought his way into the end zone with 7:40 remaining in the first half for the game’s first score. Luksza added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Portland couldn’t answer on its next possession.
Starting at their 22, the Bulldogs got a two-yard run from Elowitch, then they went backwards as Stasium was thrown for a three-yard loss by Truman and while Elowitch got the three yards back, that brought up fourth down and Portland had to punt.
The Bulldogs’ defense then turned momentum.
Oxford Hills took over at its 43, but LaFrance was thrown for a four-yard loss by senior Koa Farnsworth, senior Nate Kapongo pressured Carson into an incompletion and on third-and-14, Carson heaved the ball down the right sideline and it was intercepted by Stasium at the Portland 32.
The Bulldogs eventually found a way to draw even, but not before going backwards first.
After Elowitch was held to no gain, an offensive pass interference put the ball back at the 18, where Elowitch turned the game around by taking a handoff, racing up the middle, then leaving the defense in his wake en route to an 82-yard touchdown run with 3:02 to go in the half.
“We’d run that jet sweep a couple times,” Elowitch said. “We faked it, the linebackers bit and it just opened up.”
Vumpa stayed perfect on the year by drilling the PAT to tie the score, 7-7.
The Vikings hoped to answer before halftime, but came up short.
Starting at its 36, Oxford Hills moved the chains as Carson ran three times for 14 yards. Carson then threw incomplete, barely missed a long connection with Turner, then Kapongo sacked Carson to send the game to the break tied.
In the first 24 minutes, Portland held a 115-110 edge in yardage. Elowitch had 114 yards on 12 carries, while Carson accounted for 102 total yards.
The third period saw the rain pick up and both teams left frustrated.
The Bulldogs got the ball first in the second half, starting at their 29 and after Elowitch picked up a yard, Knop found senior Tyler Blazejewski for 16 yards and a first down at the 46. Knop then hit Moriba for nine yards and Moriba ran for six more and a first down at the Oxford Hills 39. That’s as far as Portland would get, as a holding penalty backed it up nine yards and Knop threw three incomplete passes to force a punt.
With 9:06 left in the third, the Vikings started at the 20 and immediately threatened, as Carson found Worster for 60 yards (Elowitch caught him from behind to deny the touchdown) to set up first down at the Bulldogs’ 20. After Carson ran for a yard, he hit Luksza for six, but on third down, Carson threw incomplete. Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren then chose to attempt a 30-yard field goal for the lead, but a high snap affected Luksza’s kick and it sailed wide left to keep the game tied.
The Bulldogs then got themselves in trouble with a false start and after Elowitch ran for 11 yards, he gained two more, but fumbled and Vikings’ sophomore Ashton Child recovered at the Portland 34.
The Bulldogs’ defense came up huge again to preserve the tie, as senior Ben Trefethen threw Luksza for an eight-yard loss, Luksza was held to no gain and Carson threw incomplete, forcing a punt.
With 4:10 to play in the third period, Portland took over at its 15 and after an illegal procedure penalty, Moriba ran for two yards, Elowitch ran for 11, then Elowitch gained six for a first down at the 29. After a four-yard run by Moriba, Elowitch ran for seven more to move the chains to the 40. Elowitch ran for 10 yards to midfield, then picked up six more, but on the next play, the Bulldogs had Elowitch throw a halfback option and under pressure by LaFrance, Elowitch was intercepted by Turner, who returned the ball to the Portland 45.
Oxford Hills went backwards 18 yards on the final snap of the frame, due to a chop block penalty. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Carson was sacked for a two-yard loss by Green and a holding penalty set up second-and-29 from the Vikings’ 36. Carson rectified the problem by keeping the ball for 39 yards to the Bulldogs’ 25. After Carson was held to no gain, he dropped back and found Turner wide open over the middle and Turner caught the ball for the touchdown with 9:56 left in regulation. Luksza’s PAT made it 14-7 Oxford Hills.
But just as soon as the Vikings could enjoy their lead, it was gone.
Portland started at its next drive at its 35 after a 20-yard kickoff return from Stasium and after Elowitch picked up two yards, Moriba got the call, burst up the middle and raced untouched into the end zone for a 63-yard score with 8:59 on the clock. Vumpa added the extra point to make it 14-14.
The Bulldogs’ defense then forced a three-and-out, as Luksza lost a yard, Carson threw incomplete and on third-and-11, Carson ran for seven yards, forcing a punt, which Luksza booted 49 yards.
With 6:50 to play, Portland took over at its 8 and moved the chains as Moriba ran for four yards and Elowitch picked up 10 more. After Moriba gained a yard, a bad snap led to a three-yard loss and Elowitch was held to no gain, forcing a punt, which only went 22 yards.
With 3:44 left, the Vikings started at the Bulldogs’ 42, but they couldn’t take advantage of their good field position.
Carson moved the chains with a 14-yard run, but after Carson ran for three more yards, he was held to no gain, then threw incomplete. Luksza then attempted a 42-yard field goal, but it came up short.
With 1:29 to play, Portland started at its 20 and Elowitch broke off a 25-yard run, but a fumbled exchange lost a yard, Elowitch ran for five yards, then an incomplete pass forced the Bulldogs to punt again.
With 30.5 seconds on the clock, Oxford Hills took over at its 36, but the Vikings played it safe, took a knee and the game went to overtime.
High school football overtime features each team getting four cracks from the opponent’s 10-yard line.
Portland went first and took the lead for the first time.
Dunham dropped Elowitch for a two-yard loss on first down, but Elowitch picked up five yards, then got the ball again and pushed the pile into the end zone for a 7-yard score.
“It was third down and if we got stopped, we’d have to kick a field goal,” Elowitch said. “I knew we had to get it in and get the touchdown.”
“(Zack) just bulled his way into the end zone,” Hartman said. “He’s a senior and a Fitzpatrick (Trophy) candidate, I’m sure. He’s been a tough runner all season for us.”
Vumpa’s PAT put the Bulldogs on top, 21-14.
Oxford Hills then got its turn and immediately knocked on the door, as Carson kept the ball and got down to the 1 before Moriba knocked him out of bounds.
But just when it appeared the Vikings were going to get in the end zone, they moved early and were backed up five yards.
The next snap was the final one of the game.
Carson got the ball, collided with Luksza, then Green managed to knock the ball free and at 9:13 p.m., Green fell on the fumble and Portland had a 21-14 victory.
“I was supposed to go C-gap, instead of my usual D-gap, and I hit the quarterback and he fumbled it and I recovered,” Green said. “My teammates jumped on me. I’m speechless. Oxford Hills is a very physical team. I want to give them a lot of credit. Their line is outstanding. We needed some big plays.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Elowitch said. “I was just covering my guy and I saw the ball come out and I saw Jonah fall on it. Next thing I heard was, ‘Blue ball. Game over.'”
“Jonah has played hard all year,” Hartman added. “He took some lumps tonight, but he came through in the end. He’s a great player.”
The Bulldogs had 309 yards of offense.
Elowitch finished with 220 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. He caught a pass for 11 yards and was intercepted on his one pass attempt.
Moriba gained 92 yards and had a touchdown on nine attempts. He also caught a pass for nine yards.
Knop went 3-of-9 passing for 36 yards.
Blazejewski caught one pass for 16 yards.
Portland committed two turnovers and was penalized five times for 38 yards.
“They came out ready to play, we came out ready to play, they’re a great football team and we had to fight for it,” Elowitch said. “We knew we had to come out and give it everything we’ve got on offense and defense, 100 percent.”
“It was like a yo-yo, going up and down, but for us, it’s just about the next play,” Hartman said. “I’ve preached it since day one. We had to stay positive and not quit and know good things will happen. The message going into overtime was to not panic. The kids are usually cocky and arrogant, but that was gone by overtime.”
Oxford Hills finished with 187 yards.
Carson completed 7 of 18 passes for 145 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also ran 18 times for 121 yards.
Luksza ran five times for two yards with a score and caught two balls for 16 yards.
Turner had three receptions for 54 yards and a TD.
LaFrance had one catch for 15 yards and rushed once for negative-four yards.
Worster had one reception for 60 yards.
The Vikings were penalized four times for 27 yards and committed two costly turnovers.
“We had an opportunity to get in there and we just didn’t,” Soehren lamented. “I think we played really well. (Portland) just did a good job in overtime. Credit to them.
“I told the kids I’m proud of them and that they had a great run. I’m not sad because we lost, but because I’ll miss coaching a great group of kids. We knew we had a good team. Our goal was to play in the state championship game and we believed we could. It’s been 18 years since we’ve been here and it’s hard to get to this point when you don’t have that history and tradition. Those (Portland) kids have played in this game on their homefield.
“I can’t say enough about our senior leadership this year and the focus they had. They wanted to play Portland and it’s a testament to these kids and their competitiveness.”
Next Saturday, for the third time in four years, Portland will get to play on its home field in the state final and the Bulldogs hope that the third time is the charm, after falling to Thornton Academy (24-14) in 2015 and to Bonny Eagle (34-14) in 2016.
The Bulldogs didn’t meet either Scarborough or Thornton Academy this fall.
Portland has no playoff history with the Red Storm. The Bulldogs and Golden Trojans have split four prior meetings with the 2015 state game the most recent.
“We have to work really hard,” Green said. “Scarborough and Thornton are outstanding teams. They have big lines and great running backs. We have to have a great week of practice. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in a state game and I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Doing this as a senior, last season playing football, is incredible,” Elowitch said. “They’re both awesome teams. We have to have five great practices this week. Everyone just has to be focused and ready to go. Three state games in four years. I don’t think any Portland High team has ever done that. It’s incredible.”
“We don’t have to sit now for that week before Thanksgiving,” Hartman added. “We’ll have to be extremely physical with either (team we play). They’re both very well coached.”
Portland senior Zack Elowitch gets a block from senior Chris Vincent and breaks the tackle attempt of Oxford Hills junior Cole Dunham en route to a big gain. Elowitch finished with 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Portland senior Cam Connolly tries to tackle Oxford Hills senior Janek Luksza as Bulldogs senior Max Valmond gives chase.
Portland senior Ben Stasium dives in vain as Oxford Hills senior Alex Turner hauls in a go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Oxford Hills senior quarterback Colton Carson weaves through the Portland defense.
Oxford Hills sophomore Addison Brown goes all out to attempt to catch a pass as Portland senior Zack Elowitch looks on.
Portland senior Ben Stasium hauls in an interception.
Oxford Hills senior quarterback Colton Carson falls forward for extra yardage as Portland senior Zack Elowitch brings him down.
2017 Class A North quarterfinals
Portland 21 Oxford Hills 6
2016 Class A North semifinals
Portland 55 Oxford Hills 7