For the first time, the Portland field hockey team is learning what all the regional final fuss is about.
In an absolutely wild and woolly and unpredictable playoff season, the upstart Bulldogs were one of the last two teams standing after stirring victories at Sanford and Westbrook. Portland faced Marshwood in the Western A Final Tuesday night.
Cheverus was hoping to match last year’s success, when it made an unexpected run to the state final, but the Stags were one of the top seeds toppled in the quarterfinals.
In Western C, Waynflete made it to the quarterfinals for the second year in a row for the first time this century, but bowed out in its first game.
Entering this season, over the past 35 years, Portland had only posted a winning record eight times. From 1980-82, the Bulldogs made it to the semifinals, but hadn’t returned until this fall. A preliminary round setback at Westbrook in 2005 marked the last playoff appearance.
Since then, the program struggled, winning just nine times over the next four years, bottoming out two years ago with a 1-13 mark. Portland made great strides in 2010 with a 6-8 mark, but just missed out on qualifying for the playoffs.
Everything changed this fall, but it took some time. Not only did these Bulldogs feature an experienced coach in Beth Arsenault and a solid returning core, led by 2010 Fall Female Athlete of the Year Raechel Allen, but the squad was enhanced by the addition of seniors Rachel Waterhouse (the goalie, who came to the team from soccer) and Kylie Dalbec (who helped lead North Yarmouth Academy to Class C championships in 2008 and 2010) and junior Gabi Cardona (who was part of Cheverus’ regional title squad a year ago).
Facing expectations for the first time in years, Portland struggled early and was 2-4 before everything came together and the Bulldogs went 7-0-1 to finish the regular year to go 9-4-1 and earn the No. 7 seed. The road to the semifinals was fraught with danger and the Bulldogs were almost knocked out in the preliminary round when they couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead against No. 10 Thornton Academy and wound up going to penalty corners before Dalbec won it.
Few gave Portland a chance at No. 2 Sanford in last Tuesday’s quarterfinal round, but goals from Allen, senior Natalie Anderson and junior Carissa Porcaro spelled a 3-1 victory.
Saturday, at a sixth-ranked Westbrook squad the Bulldogs edged, 2-1, on Oct. 6, Portland was sluggish early and fell behind on a goal in the 17th minute. With 9:45 remaining before halftime, Arsenault called timeout and less than a minute later, Portland drew even when senior Alex Thompson’s shot was tipped home by senior Cat Flaherty.
“I called a timeout after they scored to say, ‘Listen, this is how our last game here started and we came back,'” Arsenault said. “We haven’t been behind a lot. The only other time the last five weeks was against Westbrook and we came back.”
The Bulldogs had chances to go on top in the second half, none better than with 13:40 remaining when Allen broke free down the left side only to be denied.
Then, with 8:05 left, the winning goal came.
Off a penalty corner, the ball came to Allen, who shot. The ball was stopped, but sat free and Porcaro pounced and banged it home for the biggest goal in program history and a 2-1 lead.
“The goalie stepped out and the ball was right there and I knew I had to go for it,” said Porcaro. “If I missed, who cares? I had to go for it. I knew I had it. It was a good feeling.”
“I was pretty confident that if we could get it down there, we would score, since we’ve done it all season,” Arsenault added. “To have Carissa step up and do what she’s done is amazing.”
Portland still had an interminable 8:05 to kill and as expected, the Blue Blazes didn’t go quietly, but the Bulldogs were able to hold on and improve to 12-4-1 with the stirring 2-1 decision.
“This is crazy,” said Allen, who spent the final seconds of the game waiting to sub in and wondering why the clock was moving so slowly. “It’s great because freshman year, I looked at the varsity players and I wanted to be in playoffs senior year. We’ve improved so much. This senior class is great. Our defense was so good at the end. Our goalie was so good. We’ve improved so much as a team.”
“I’m definitely very excited,” Waterhouse (12 saves) said. “It feels good. It went by very slow, especially the last minute. It felt like forever. I like the pressure. It doesn’t bother me much. I knew we could hold them off. The defense helped me out a lot.”
Arsenault, who took over in 2000 and has presided over a lot of lean years, knew her team had the ability to get this far.
“From the beginning, we all said we have the potential and the league looked like it had more parity then ever,” she said. “We knew what our start looked like on paper. The reality is, we haven’t lost in five weeks.
“It’s a huge shock to me after 12 years of what looked like futility, at least in the ledger. I’m so thrilled for these girls. They’ve worked so hard. We don’t make cuts. Everyone gets a chance. We’re very workmanlike. We go out and get it done. It’s very satisfying. To have a chance to represent Western Maine is huge. We’ve always struggled to be relevant. I think we achieved that last year. These seniors, many of them played as sophomores and they were 1-13 two years ago, in the basement. For them, I think it’s gratifying. For the younger kids, to see what you can do if you never give up, I think it’s really big.”
Fifth-ranked Marshwood (13-3) was the last team standing in Portland’s way. The Hawks had the better of the Bulldogs way back on Sept. 6, but you can throw that result out the window in light of how much Portland has improved.
“I think we can beat Marshwood,” Allen said. “We lost to them in the beginning of the season, but we were a different team.”
“This time, we’re a better team,” Porcaro said. “No excuses. We want to get to the big game.”
If the Bulldogs win Tuesday, they go to their first Class A state championship game Saturday at Yarmouth High School (start time to be announced) to face 10-time defending regional (and nine-time state) champion Skowhegan or Messalonskee.
Cheverus went 12-2 this regular season and was third behind Scarborough and Sanford in Western A, but like the Red Storm and Redskins, was quickly sent packing in the playoffs.
The Stags hosted Westbrook last Tuesday and despite 21 penalty corner opportunities in regulation and overtime and a territorial advantage for most of the afternoon, simply couldn’t put the ball in the cage. The game would be decided by alternating penalty corners and in the fourth round, Westbrook sophomore Katie Berry banged home a cross from senior Courtney Brown and the Blue Blazes moved on with a 1-0 triumph, ending Cheverus’ year at 12-3.
“We have some inexperienced kids and you could tell today,” said Stags coach Amy McMullin. “I told them the longer the scored remained tied, the more momentum (Westbrook) would get. It was upsetting we couldn’t go out there and do it. I think some of the girls were overlooking them. We tried not to.
“It’s not the corners that killed us. We had our opportunities all day. It’s upsetting because we practiced yesterday on corners and we just lost our heads out there. In this game, sometimes you can lose even when you carry the play. We don’t sometimes know how in these situations because we haven’t been there. To make it as far as we did, I have to give the girls credit.”
Cheverus loses six seniors, including captains Sarah LaQuerre and Ali Saxton.
“Sarah played her heart out,” McMullin said. “It’s hard to lose her. She’s more than just a player. The majority of our team is juniors. The sophomores that played all these minutes will be a year older, a year more mature and hopefully, we can do some damage next year.”
After posting its best record in over three decades a year ago, Waynflete had another solid year in Western Class C under new coach Kelly Hoffman, finishing 6-8 to go into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. The Flyers drew No. 3 Lisbon and went down to a 5-0 quarterfinal round defeat as their season ended at 6-9.
Look for this team to continue to contend in 2012.
Portland senior Kylie Dalbec appears to have the field to herself as she rushes forward during Saturday’s 2-1 regional semifinal win at Westbrook.
Portland senior Natalie Anderson plays the ball during the first half of Saturday’s win.