Portland grounds Eagles, one win from Gold

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Seniors George Chaison-Lapine (42) and Jake Hunnewell celebrate Portland’s 24-7 win over Windham in Friday night’s Class A North Final. The Bulldogs advanced to the state final for the first time since 2002.

Mike Strout photos.

Portland raises its championship plaque to the heavens following Friday’s win.

More photos below.


Portland 24 Windham 7

W- 0 7 0 0- 7
P- 3 7 7 7- 24

First quarter
P- Williams 25 FG 

Second quarter
W- Hoffses 16 run (Innis kick)
P- Esposito 80 run (Williams kick)

Third quarter
P- Bachelder 1 run (Williams kick) 

Fourth quarter
P- Archambault 5 run (Williams kick) 

PORTLAND—Doubters, keep on doubting.

My how Portland’s football team thrives on proving the detractors wrong.

Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, in the Class A North Final, the Bulldogs reminded everyone, again, that when they’re predicted to lose, all they do is find multiple ways to win.

Hosting defending regional champion Windham in what was expected to be a defensive struggle, Portland was up to the challenge, allowing the Eagles to score only once, while the Bulldogs’ offense, behind senior standout running back Joe Esposito, came to life when it mattered most and that combined with a nearly error-free performance ,spelled a piece of hardware 13 years in the making.

Portland struck first in the first period on a 25 yard field goal from senior placekicker extraordinaire John Williams, but after Bulldogs junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder threw an interception early in the second quarter, Windham grabbed a 7-3 lead when junior Cam Hoffses scored on a 16 yard touchdown run.

That lead lasted for all of 20 seconds as Esposito, in a season of highlights, produced perhaps the run of the year, breaking from a horde of tacklers for a breathtaking 80 yard TD scamper to put Portland on top to stay.

The Bulldogs clung to a 10-7 lead when the second half began, but they pulled away.

After Portland’s defense forced a Windham three-and-out to start the second half, the hosts took advantage of a short field to extend their lead as a 1 yard sneak by Bachelder made it 17-7.

In the fourth quarter, after junior Nick Archambault recovered a fumble, the Bulldogs broke it open as Archambault scored on a 5-yard run with 6:31 to go and the Eagles couldn’t respond.

Portland got an interception from senior Jake Hunnewell, then slammed the door on a most impressive 24-7 victory.

The Bulldogs improved to 10-0, ended Windham’s season at 7-3 and advanced to meet either defending state champion Thornton Academy (8-1) or 2013 champion Bonny Eagle (7-3) in the Class A state final Saturday at a time to be announced at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

“I’m so glad for these kids and for this school,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “It’s been a long time. People doubted us. We lost a lot of seniors from last year, but we knew we had a lot of important people coming back. This is an exceptionally tough team that answers the bell and won’t back down to anyone.”

Exclamation point

The teams have gotten to know each other well in recent seasons. Friday’s game marked the fourth year in a row Portland and Windham met in the playoffs. The Bulldogs won two of the previous three (see sidebar, below), but the Eagles took the most recent, rallying for a 21-17 victory in last year’s semifinals.

On Sept. 18, the Bulldogs beat the visiting Eagles, 10-3, in a defensive struggle, with the lone touchdown coming on a 97 yard interception return for a touchdown from junior Dylan Bolduc as the first half expired. 

That was part of a magical regular season for Portland, which won all eight games to go undefeated for the first time since 2005. As the top seed in Class A North, the Bulldogs dominated No. 4 Bangor, 56-7, in last week’s semifinals.

Windham, the preseason favorite, stumbled at Portland and Bonny Eagle, but beat everyone else to go 6-2 and finish second in the region. After a quarterfinal round bye, the Eagles beat No. 3 Cheverus with surprising ease, 28-0, in the semifinals.

Friday, points figured to be at a premium and the Bulldogs had little margin for error.

As it turned out, they made very few and returned to the state’s biggest stage for the first time since 2002.

The game began with the mercury reading a very pleasant (for mid-November) 50 degrees. A 13 mile-per-hour wind from the west certainly created challenges, however.

Windham won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.

Portland started at its 20 after a touchback and went three-and-out, as Esposito was held to no gain on first down, ran for three yards on second down, then on third down, Bachelder threw incomplete.

After a punt, the Eagles started at their 39, but they too weren’t able to move the chains, as Hoffses ran for four yards and senior Griffin Jacobson picked up three, but on third-and-3, junior quarterback Desmond Leslie was held to no gain.

The Bulldogs started their next possession at their 30 and drove for the game’s first score.

After Esposito gained six yards on first down, Bachelder threw incomplete, but on third-and-4, Esposito broke free for 15 yards and a first down and on the next play, Esposito ran for 10 more and a personal foul penalty on Windham tacked on 15 yards put the ball at the Eagles’ 24.

After Esposito ran for four yards, Esposito lost two and a two-yard Esposito run on third-and-8 set up fourth-and-6 from the 20.

Williams came on to attempt a 37-yard field goal, which he missed wide right, but Windham was offsides, setting up fourth-and-1 from the 15. Esposito then ran for two yards to move the chains. After Archambault was held to no gain, Esposito picked up five, then one, bringing Williams back on to the field for a 25-yard field goal and this time, he drilled it down the middle for a 3-0 lead with 3:42 to go in the opening quarter.

Portland’s 63 yard drive took 13 plays and 5 minutes, 8 seconds.

The Eagles managed their initial first down when Jacobson ran for six yards and Leslie gained five, but after Jacobson ran for three yards, Windham jumped early, pushing the ball back five yards. A one-yard run from junior Kyle Houser was followed by another false start penalty and even though Leslie hit junior Griffin Hebert for 11 yards on the final play of the quarter (the Bulldogs had a 53-23 edge in yardage), Windham faced fourth-and-5 and had to punt on the first play of the second period.

Portland started at its 42 and looked to drive to add to its lead, but after Esposito was thrown for a two-yard loss by Eagles senior Kyle Kilfoil and Esposito ran for four yards, Bachelder rolled right and threw toward the right sideline where only Houser was located and Houser made a nice play to come down with the interception before returning the ball to the Windham 42.

The Eagles took advantage, marching 58 yards in seven plays and 2:54 to take the lead.

After Leslie ran for six yards, he hit Hebert for two, then found Houser for seven and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 43. Leslie then had his best run of the night, gaining 22 yards to the 21. After Jacobson had runs of three and two yards, on third-and-5, Hoffses ran to the left side, broke a tackle, then bounced outside and outran the pursuit to the pylon for a 16-yard TD. Senior Robert Innis added the extra point and with 7:35 to go before halftime, Windham had a 7-3 lead.

But the Eagles’ momentum didn’t last.

Portland started its next drive at its 20 and Esposito appeared to be going nowhere when he was mobbed at the line of scrimmage, but somehow he squirted free and the next thing you saw, he was running free with Windham looking on in disbelief. One Eagle did race after Esposito and cut off his angle around the Windham 25, but first Bolduc, then Hunnewell made blocks that freed Esposito to complete a jawdropping 80 yard run which put the Bulldogs ahead for good.

“A lot of us didn’t give up (on that play),” Esposito said. “I didn’t stop running and two people came down and blocked. That was the difference right there. We just had to compete. I can’t rush if people don’t block. It’s different aspects of the game where people are going 100 percent.”

“(Espo) just bulled right through there,” Hartman said. “He’s an amazing athlete.”

With 7:15 left in the half, Williams added the PAT to make it 10-7.

Portland’s defense carried on the momentum by forcing a three-and-out (Houser caught a five-yard pass and Leslie ran twice for four yards, necessitating a punt), but after taking over at their 25, the Bulldogs gave the ball right back, as Esposito ran for six yards, then fumbled, and Kilfoil recovered.

Windham started at the Portland 31 and appeared primed to retake the lead, but after Houser ran for a yard, the Eagles were flagged for a hold, Leslie threw incomplete and after Jacobson ran for nine yards, on fourth-and-10, Leslie threw incomplete and the Bulldogs got the ball back on downs.

Portland couldn’t add to the lead, going three-and-out as Esposito ran three times for four yards and with 1:07 remaining in the half, Windham started at its 32.

Jacobson ran for three yards, then gained a dozen for a first down at the 47. After the Bulldogs jumped offsides, for what proved to be their lone penalty of the night, Jacobson ran for 11 more yards to the Portland 37. Leslie spiked the ball to stop the clock, then Jacobson ran for four yards, but time ran out and the Bulldogs took a 10-7 advantage to halftime.

In the first half, the Bulldogs had a 145-125 edge in yardage, but turned the ball over twice. Esposito ran 18 times for 138 yards and a touchdown. The Eagles were paced by 56 yards on 10 carries by Jacobson, but were hindered by four penalties for 30 yards.

The game hung in the balance as the teams returned to the field for the second half, but Portland played like the champion it hopes to become and pulled away.

Windham started at its 20 after a touchback, but after Hoffses gained two yards, Leslie was sacked by seniors Joe Fusco and Dan Marzilli for a four-yard loss and Leslie ran for just two yards on third-and-12, forcing a punt. Jacobson’s punt was returned 16 yards by Bulldogs junior Jake Knop and the hosts took over in great field position at the Eagles’ 34.

In seven plays and 3:25, Portland drove for a little breathing room.

The drive started with more Esposito, who ran twice for three yards, but on third-and-7, Bachelder rolled right and hit Archambault for nine yards and a first down at the 22.

“Coach had big confidence in me by calling that play,” said Bachelder, about his lone completion of the night. “Our line has been spectacular. Nick’s a great receiver. I trust him. When I threw to him, I knew we’d have it.”

After Esposito ran for seven yards, he gained eight more to set up first-and-goal at the 7. Esposito carried again and brought the ball to the 1. On the next snap, with Windham expecting Esposito one more time, Bachelder kept it and executed a quarterback sneak Tom Brady would be proud of, breaking the plane for the touchdown. Williams added the extra point and with 6:35 to play in the third quarter, Portland had a 17-7 lead.

Bachelder showed he could play a little defense too three plays later.

After Hoffses ran for four yards and Leslie was held to no gain, Leslie threw toward the near sideline, but Bachelder jumped the route and came up with an interception at the Eagles’ 22.

“All week, we studied them,” Bachelder said. “I read it right and the line had good pressure on them and I got it.”

The Bulldogs had a chance to deliver the dagger, but after Esposito ran three times for seven yards, Williams’ 32 yard field goal was blocked and Windham got the ball back at its 28.

The Eagles couldn’t take advantage of their good fortune, however, as Leslie threw incomplete and after Jacobson ran for a yard, Leslie was pressured by junior Ethan Hoyt and threw incomplete again, forcing a punt.

Late in the third, Portland started at the Windham 48, but after Esposito ran for three yards, Bachelder just overthrew a wide open Knop on a post pattern and Esposito’s two-yard run forced a punt.

Archambault then made the unheralded play of the night as he somehow kept a high snap from going over his head and even more impressively, he handled the ball and managed to get off a 25-yard punt.

“(Nick’s) just a tremendous athlete,” Hartman said. “He’s like Zuk (former Portland standout Justin Zukowski) and Espo. He saved us there.”

The Eagles started at their 21 and on the final play of the third quarter, Kilfoil ran for three yards (giving Windham a grand total of eight yards for the period). After Leslie threw incomplete on the first play of the final stanza, Leslie hit senior Mitchell Eskilson for nine yards and a first down at the 30, but on the next play, Jacobson fumbled and Archambault recovered at the Eagles’ 38.

“I was downfield covering my man and I saw (the ball) pop loose,” Archambault said. “I pounced on it, I don’t know if I got it, but it was a big momentum swing for sure.” 

This time, Portland drove for the clinching score. moving 38 yards in eight plays, chewing up 4:54.

After Esposito ran for nine yards on first down, he was tackled for no gain, but on third-and-1, Bachelder ran another sneak for a first down at the 25. Esposito then ran for three more yards and Archambault bulled his way for 14 more, setting up a first-and-goal at the 8. Two Esposito runs gained three more yards and on third-and-goal from the 5, Archambault got the call again, roared through a big hole and found paydirt with 6:31 to play.

“We’re a second half team and we did a good job coming out after halftime,” Archambault said. “The coaches saw something. They knew it would be open and it was. The line did a great job clearing space. I just wanted to run hard.”

Williams’ PAT made it 24-7 and essentially put the game out of reach.

Windham looked to answer and started moving the ball through the air, as Leslie hit Eskilson for four yards, Kilfoil for seven and Eskilson for nine more. After Leslie ran for five yards, he dropped back to pass again, but was dragged down by Marzilli for a sack and a loss of five yards.

“I just found an opening, went for it and I was lucky to get in there,” Marzilli said. 

After Kilfoil caught a pass, but lost three yards, Leslie hit Houser for 21 yards. He fumbled at the end of the play, but the Eagles were allowed to keep the ball as Houser’s helmet came off before he was hit.

After a holding penalty, Leslie ran for 10 yards, then hit Houser for 22 and a first down at the Portland 20. Leslie scrambled for five yards, then threw incomplete and on the following play, he was threw the ball right into the hands of Hunnewell and that made it a formality.

The Bulldogs took over at their 14 with 2:08 to go and after Esposito gained five yards, Archambault moved the chains and Bachelder took a knee to make it official.

At 9:02 p.m., Portland was able to celebrate its 24-7 victory and great jubilation reigned on the turf at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

“It feels amazing,” Marzilli said. “I’ve never felt anything like this. It’s really exciting. We just had to stop their run. That’s what they’re really good at. We played hard and filled every gap we needed to and stopped them all game long. We use the doubters as fuel. We know we’re a good team. We knew we could compete. We thought it would be a close game and we pulled it out. We knew we had to play tough all game long.”

“We locked it in at halftime, came out and had a lot of fun,” Esposito said. “We just came out and played ball. We see how people say we can’t win. We don’t care what people say. We know we can win and we just go and play. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”

“We were underdogs coming in,” Archambault said. “We were undefeated, but people didn’t think we could keep it up in the playoffs, especially against a team we’d barely beaten last time. We didn’t want any letdowns. We talked all week about how it wouldn’t be easy. We knew it would be a defensive battle. We knew we had to do our jobs and we really executed. We made a couple adjustments at halftime that I think helped. They had some motion we weren’t expecting. Coach did a good job to counter that. The way our defense has been playing, we knew we would shut them down.”

“I was actually more worried about Bangor last week,” Hartman added. “They had so many seniors. That first playoff game is tough. We knew we would be in a bloodbath tonight. The kids are locked right in. We had to change the offense a little bit. I got out of my game plan. The key to this team is they’re tough kids and they’re best friends on and off the field. They play for each other. We didn’t have that in the past. We came into the season knowing defense would be our strength. ‘Rudy’ (Mike Rutherford) is one of the brightest defensive coaches I’ve ever worked with. Our kids are so fast and tough and coachable.”

Esposito, who has already been named the MVP of Class A North (likely with more accolades to come), had another sensational contest, gaining 194 yards and scoring a TD on 34 carries.

Archambault ran just four times, but gained 23 yards and scored a touchdown. He also had one key reception for nine yards.

Bachelder completed one pass in five attempts for 9 yards. He ran twice for 5 yards and a TD.

“We have great running backs and a great line,” said Bachelder.

“Our line came to play,” Hartman said. “They figured it out.”

Portland finished with 239 yards of offense, overcame its two first half turnovers and took a mere one penalty for five yards.

Windham managed 213 yards of offense, but turned the ball over three times in the second half and was flagged six times for 54 yards.

The Eagles were led by Jacobson, who had 62 yards on a dozen carries. Hoffses rushed four times for 26 yards and his team’s lone touchdown. Leslie ran 11 times for 59 yards and completed 11 of 19 passes for 94 yards and two interceptions. Houser had four catches for 55 yards, Eskilson caught three balls for 22 yards, Hebert had two receptions for 13 yards and Kilfoil had two catches for 4 yards.

The big stage

Next up for Portland is its biggest game since the Bulldogs won the 2002 state title.

Portland didn’t play either Bonny Eagle or Thornton Academy this fall. The Bulldogs are 1-3 all-time against the Scots in the playoffs (with a 25-19 loss in the 2009 quarterfinals the most recent) and have won two of three previous postseason encounters against the Golden Trojans (with a 48-6 win in the 2004 quarterfinals the most recent).

If, as expected, Portland draws Thornton Academy next weekend, the Bulldogs will be decided underdogs, meaning they’ll have the defending champs right where they want them.

“This is just amazing for our confidence,” said Archambault. “We have to be more focused than we’ve ever been. I think we’ll be ready.”

“We have to pay attention, work hard in practice and in the film room,” Bachelder said. “This is a dream come true. I can’t wait until Saturday.”

“We’ll have a hard, competitive week and get ready,” Esposito said. “People think we’ll lose by a lot, but I think we’ll keep it close and win.” 

“I believe it’ll be a tough game,” Marzilli said. “It will come down to who has more will to win and I think it could come down to one play.” 

“We have to be focused,” Hartman added. “(If it’s TA), we’ll study them and see what they do. They’re a multi-faceted team. They do have some weaknesses, we have to find them. We have to get after them. (Bonny Eagle’s Kevin) Cooper’s one heck of a coach. Either way, we’re happy to be there.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Portland senior John Williams, who had three extra points and a field goal, booms a kickoff.

Portland junior Jake Knop looks for running room during a punt return.

Portland senior Joe Esposito, left, and junior Jake Knop send Windham senior Griffin Jacobson flying.

Portland junior Issiah Bachelder comes up with a clutch interception.

Portland senior Joe Esposito, who had another transcendent game, finds some operating room.

Portland junior Nick Archambault breaks free for a second half touchdown.

Portland senior captain Dan Marzilli tries to bring down Windham junior quarterback Desmond Leslie.

Sidebar Elements

Previous Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 47 Scarborough 26

Portland 33 Edward Little 0

Portland 10 Windham 3

Portland 16 Cheverus 14

Previous Windham stories

Portland 10 Windham 3

Windham 19 Cheverus 15 

Windham 28 Cheverus 0 (Class A North semifinal)

Previous Portland-Windham playoff results

2014 Eastern A semifinal
Windham 21 Portland 17 

2013 Eastern A semifinal
Portland 55 Windham 7

2012 Western A quarterfinal
Portland 35 Windham 21 

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.