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PORTLAND—They say two goals is the worst lead you can have in soccer.
Yet the Portland girls sure didn’t mind playing with such an advantage Friday afternoon in their regular season opener at rival Cheverus.
The Bulldogs, playing with a lot of confidence on the heels of their stirring playoff run a year ago, got off to a fast start against the Stags, thanks to a pair of young, unheralded players.
In the game’s 24th minute, sophomore Gracie LaGrange finished a feed form senior captain Chessa Hoekstra to get Portland going in the right direction as the Bulldogs took the lead for good.
Seven minutes later, freshman Inez Braceras tickled the twine for the first time, as she banged home a ball on which senior Isabel Stehli assisted.
Portland learned it couldn’t get comfortable, however, as with 8:34 to play before halftime, Cheverus junior Katie Gordon beat Bulldogs junior goalkeeper Taylor Crosby with a perfectly placed shot.
Portland regained momentum with 3:41 to go in the half, when Stehli took a pass from Hoekstra and launched a perfectly placed shot from 30 yards out, over Stags senior goalkeeper Hannah Tyson for a more comfortable 3-1 lead at the break.
Cheverus had some chances in the second half, but Crosby and the Bulldogs defense held the hosts at bay and with 2:36 to go, another highlight reel tally, this one from junior standout Kate Johnson, slammed the door and Portland went on to a 4-1 victory.
Four goals from four different players spelled a 1-0 start to the season for the Bulldogs and put the Stags in an early 0-1 hole.
“It was great to beat a city rival,” said Hoekstra. “It’s really good for our confidence. It’s always intense and physical when we play Cheverus. We matched that.”
Both teams made the playoffs a year ago and both squads have high hopes this fall.
Cheverus lost to Falmouth in the Western A preliminary round in 2014, while Portland edged Deering in a penalty kick thriller in its prelim, before taking top-ranked Windham to the wire in a 3-2 loss in the quarterfinals.
“Last year was great in terms of building the program,” Stehli said. “We lost a fair amount of seniors, but we’ve been able to fill those positions.”
Entering Friday’s contest, the Stags held an 8-5 lead in the all-time series, with one tie (see sidebar, below).
Last year, the Bulldogs won, 3-1, at home.
This time around, Portland prevailed in impressive fashion.
Cheverus had the game’s first good chance, as just 37 seconds in, Gordon unleashed a shot that Crosby had to stop.
Johnson had a couple bids for the Bulldogs, but Tyson made a save on the first and the second sailed high.
After Stehli had a shot saved by Tyson, Crosby denied Gordon. Hoekstra then shot wide and Tyson got to a Johnson cross.
With 16:31 to go before halftime, Portland struck.
Hoekstra beat a defender down the right flank and served the ball on the ground toward the goal. LaGrange got to the pass first and tucked a shot past Tyson for a 1-0 lead.
“Gracie has looked really good in the preseason,” said Bulldogs coach Arthur Mosen. “I’m really happy she scored today. She’s done a nice job transitioning to the midfield. She’s more confident and showed it.”
The Bulldogs weren’t done, as after Crosby denied a Gordon shot, with 9:32 remaining in the half, on a similar play, Stehli played the ball in from the wing and Braceras was there in front to finish and the score was 2-0.
“Inez is a great story,” said Mosen. “A freshmen scoring in the first couple minutes of a game. It didn’t look like much was coming from that play, but she got on the end of one and scored.”
The lead didn’t last, as Cheverus bounced right back.
Just 58 seconds later, Gordon got the ball with some room and she lofted a shot that Crosby had no chance to save and just like that, it was a 2-1 game.
The Stags could have taken momentum into the half, but with 3:41 left, Hoekstra played the ball ahead to Stehli up the right side. Stehli was pressured by a defender, but she one-timed a gorgeous 30-yard blast that sailed over Tyson and into the goal to make it 3-1.
“We talk about getting back into it after giving up a goal,” Stehli said. “Chessa passed me the ball exactly where I needed to be. That was an important goal. I knew I hit it well. It felt good.”
“That was a big moment for us,” Mosen said. “Being up 2-1 was a little edgy, but Isabel popped up as she has so many times. She has a knack for scoring big goals.”
“Hannah was in good position, but the shot just had the right arc,” lamented Cheverus coach Craig Roberts. “(The Bulldogs) have good players.”
Gordon was just wide a minute later and Portland took a two-goal advantage to the break.
Cheverus hoped to answer in the second half and with 38:39 to go in regulation, a high blast off the foot of sophomore Mackenzie Johnston deflected off the fingertips of Crosby and appeared goal-bound, but deflected off the post and the keeper was able to prevent a rebound.
Gordon had a couple looks as the half progressed and sophomore Michaela Jordan was just high on a corner kick.
With 4:01 to go, Hoekstra almost iced it, but after leaving a defender in her wake with a terrific move, she shot high.
Johnson then delivered the coup de grace with 2:36 remaining, as she buried a 30-yard bomb.
The Bulldogs ran out the clock from there and celebrated their 4-1 triumph.
“I think we’re ready to fulfill the expectations,” said Hoekstra. “It’s really exciting to see how the team has built. Our defense was great. They’ve come a long way. They know how to connect to the offense.”
“I’m happy,” Mosen said. “Anytime you can get a win on opening day, it’s great. It settles everybody down. I’m particularly happy with my fullbacks today, (sophomore) Ella Altidor and (junior) Maggie Hosmer. Maggie has made the transition from being an attacker to the fullback spot. They did a nice job shutting down the wings. We were tight in the back today.”
Braceras, Johnson, LaGrange and Stehli had the goals. Hoekstra ran the offense with aplomb and ended up with two assists.
“Chessa’s a really special player,” Mosen said. “She’s had those attributes since she was a freshman. Every season she strings things together even more. I think she’ll hit her peak this season. She’s ready to take control of games.”
Cheverus had a 7-1 edge in corner kicks and actually outshot Portland, 9-8, but the Bulldogs scored on half their bids. Crosby made five saves to Tyson’s three.
“I thought we could put some pressure on them coming out in the second half,” Roberts said. “We had some chances. We’re young. I thought we were nervous and tentative defensively, which we hadn’t been all preseason. They took advantage and counter-attacked. We have to play like we did in the second half for 80 minutes and continue on working the ball in the attacking third and finishing.”
Cheverus is back in action Wednesday at Marshwood. The Stags are at Massabesic Friday.
“I think it will take a little while to get the girls to jell,” Roberts said. “We’ve done a lot of team building. The girls like each other and play hard. We have to take that final step and capitalize on our chances. I think you’ll see that we’ll play a lot better as the season goes on.”
Portland plays its first game at Fitzpatrick Stadium Wednesday when Noble pays a visit. Two-time defending Class A champion Windham, the team which vanquished the Bulldogs a year ago, is in town Friday.
“We’re working on connecting,” said Stehli. “Hopefully things will continue in a good way. We’re coming together. We’re all really looking forward to Windham. We know what we can do. We know what happened last year. We’ll keep practicing hard.”
“It’s still really early,” Mosen said. “I think having a bullseye this year could be good. I think each season we’ve become a little more confident. The new players are coming onto a team with expectations. When Chessa, Isabel and (senior defender) Merritt (Ryan) started, we didn’t have playoff experience. We’ve set that tone and it’s only making us more competitive. We just need to play more games together. It can always be cleaner. We’ll try to keep sharpening it up.”
@ Portland 3 Cheverus 1
Cheverus 3 @ Portland 0
@ Cheverus 5 Portland 0
Cheverus 6 @ Portland 0
Portland 1 @ Cheverus 0
Cheverus 1 @ Portland 0
@ Cheverus 1 Portland 0
@ Portland 2 Cheverus 1
Western A quarterfinals
Cheverus 1 @ Portland 0
@ Cheverus 2 Portland 1
@ Cheverus 2 Portland 0
Portland 3 Cheverus 1
Portland 6 Cheverus 0
Portland senior Chessa Hoekstra and Cheverus junior Katie Gordon fight for possession during the Bulldogs’ 4-1 win Friday afternoon. Hoekstra had two assists.
Bruce Feeley photos.
Cheverus junior Katie Gordon gets a step on a defender.