Portland handles EL, reaches another regional final

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Portland’s football team celebrates with the student section following Friday night’s 49-15 win over Edward Little in a Class A North semifinal.

Ben McCanna / Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 49 Edward Little 15

EL- 7 0 0 8- 15
P- 7 21 14 7- 49

First quarter
P- Knop 1 run (Vumpa kick)
EL- Cote 80 pass from Giardin (Boulet kick)

Second quarter
P- Elowitch 10 run (Vumpa kick)
P- Elowitch 44 run (Vumpa kick)
P- Elowitch 26 run (Vumpa kick)

Third quarter
P- Carter 6 run (Vumpa kick)
P- Knop 13 run (Vumpa kick)

Fourth quarter
P- Levine 1 run (Vumpa kick)
EL- Girardin 39 run (Girardin rush)

PORTLAND—After taking a week off, playing in the rain and facing a team it beat by five touchdowns earlier this season, it would have been understandable if Portland’s top-ranked football team suffered a letdown in its first playoff test Friday against No. 4 Edward Little in a Class A North semifinal at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

That didn’t come close to happening.

The Bulldogs never trailed, opened things up in the second period and behind the bruising running of senior workhorse back Zack Elowitch, the defensive dominance of senior Nathan Kapongo and strong contributions from myriad sources, they rolled to a 49-15 victory to extend their season at least one more week.

Portland started fast, as senior Ben Stasium intercepted Edward Little senior quarterback Leighton Girardin, setting up the game’s first score, a 1-yard dive by junior Sam Knop for a quick 7-0 lead.

The Bulldogs drove to double their advantage, but Knop was intercepted in the end zone by Red Eddies senior Josh Hamel and two plays later, Girardin found junior Ricky Cote wide open behind the defense for a game-tying 80-yard touchdown pass.

Portland would restore order as the first period gave way to the second and Elowitch scored his first points on a 10-yard run.

Elowitch added TD scampers of 44- and 26-yards and Kapongo’s four sacks, combined with two forced turnovers by the defense, forged a 28-7 halftime advantage.

In the third period, the Bulldogs added two more rushing touchdowns, as freshman Trevaun Carter scored from 6-yards out and Knop kept the ball for a 13-yard score to induce a mercy rule running clock.

In the final stanza, senior Ben Levine, who made a huge defensive play on the first play of the game, scored on a 1-yard run for Portland’s final points and while Girardin scored on a 39-yard scamper and added a two-point conversion rush, the Bulldogs were able to coast to a 49-15 victory.

Portland improved to 8-1, ended Edward Little’s season at 5-5 and advanced to host either No. 2 Oxford Hills (6-2) or third-seeded Cheverus (7-2) in the Class A North Final next Friday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, where the Bulldogs will play in the regional final for the fourth consecutive season and for the fifth time in six years.

“(A championship) is what you play for,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “Nothing else matters. We’re just trying to win that (Gold) Ball and give the kids a chance to hold it up.”

Worth the wait

Portland navigated its regular season with just one hiccup, falling at Bonny Eagle (see sidebar, below, for links to previous stories). As the top seed in Class A North for the third time in four years, the Bulldogs earned a bye into the semifinals.

Edward Little went 4-4 during the regular year, earned the No. 4 seed in the region and held off No. 5 Lewiston, 18-13, in last weekend’s quarterfinal.

On Sept. 28, host Portland rolled to a 42-8 victory over the Red Eddies, racing to a 21-0 halftime lead before scoring 21 points in the third period.

The teams had met just once before in the playoffs, a 41-6 Bulldogs’ win in the 2002 Class A state championship game.

Friday, on 49-degree evening with sporadic rainfall, Portland took care of business and moved on.

Edward Little won the opening coin toss and in a rarity these days, elected to take the ball and began at its 30.

Levine set the tone for the defense on the first snap, sacking Girardin for an eight-yard loss. After Girardin ran for four yards, Girardin threw a pass which Stasium intercepted at the Red Eddies’ 49 and returned it 28 yards.

Four plays later, Portland struck first.

Elowitch did the heavy lifting, running for eight-yards, 10-yards and two-yards to set up a second-and-goal at the 1. Knop then kept the ball and snuck it in with 8:38 to play in the opening stanza. Freshman placekicker extraordinaire Cristo Vumpa added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.

Edward Little began its next series at its 33 and began to move the ball, as Girardin found Cote in traffic for 15 yards, then connected with a wide-open Hamel for 24 yards to the Bulldogs’ 28. Kapongo then ensured the visitors got no closer, as he sacked Girardin for a nine-yard loss. After Girardin hit Hamel for six yards, an illegal forward pass penalty backed up the Red Eddies 10 yards and on fourth-and-23, Girardin ran for just 10 yards, giving Portland the ball back at its 31.

Elowitch then marched the Bulldogs into position to extend their lead, but it wasn’t to be.

Elowitch ran for nine yards on first down, then picked up another yard to set up first down at the 41. Elowitch runs of eight- and two-yards moved the ball into Edward Little territory. Elowitch then had a pair of chunk plays, running for 11- and 17-yards to put the ball at the 21. After Elowitch gained seven more yards, senior Kevin Haskell dropped Elowitch for a two-yard loss. After Elowitch picked up six more yards to set up first-and-goal at the 10, Haskell dropped Elowitch for a five-yard loss and on the next play, Knop threw one up for grabs in the end zone and Hamel came down with it for the turnover and touchback.

With 1:20 to play in the opening stanza, the Red Eddies started at their 20 and after sophomore Tyson Green was held to no gain by Levine, Girardin rolled left and heaved the ball down the left sideline to Cote, who hauled it in and outran the defense for an 80-yard score. Junior Misha Boulet’s PAT tied the game, 7-7, with 28 seconds left in the frame.

Portland then fumbled on the ensuing kickoff, but junior Jamal Moriba saved the day by falling on the ball at the 45. Seven plays and 3:25 later, the Bulldogs were on top to stay.

On the final play of the first quarter, Haskell sacked Knop for a five-yard loss.

The second period began much better for the hosts, as Knop hit senior Tyler Blazejewski for 15 yards and while Blazejewski fumbled at the end of the play, senior Chris Vincent fell on it at the Red Eddies’ 37.

From there, Elowitch did the rest, running 11 yards for a first down at the 26, gaining seven-yards, then six for a first down at the 13 and after a three-yard pickup, Elowitch ran to his left, broke through the defense and completed a 10-yard TD run with 9:20 to go in the first half. Vumpa’s extra point gave Portland a 14-7 advantage.

Edward Little hoped to answer when it started at its 20 after a touchback, but after Girardin found senior Caleb Yarnevich for 11 yards, he found senior Jonathan Knight for eight yards, but an illegal procedure penalty backed the Red Eddies up five yards, Kapongo threw Girardin for a nine-yard loss and a seven-yard completion from Girardin to Hamel on third-and-16 wasn’t enough to move the chains. After a 27-yard punt, the Bulldogs got the ball back at their 41 with 6:49 to play in the first half.

Three plays later, Portland doubled its lead.

Elowitch got things started with a 15-yard run which saw him break multiple tackles. After a holding penalty negated a nice Elowitch gain, Elowitch got the ball again, broke free on the left side and broke away for a 44-yard score. Vumpa’s PAT made it 21-7 with 5:59 remaining before halftime.

The Bulldogs’ defense built on that momentum, holding Girardin to a one-yard rush, dropping Green for a six-yard loss on a screen pass and forcing an incompletion.

With 3:53 to go in the half, after a short punt, Portland started at the Red Eddies’ 30, but couldn’t add to its lead.

Elowitch ran for four yards on first down, Knop gained three, then threw incomplete, setting up fourth-and-3. Elowitch got the carry and gained just shy of three yards and Edward Little got the ball back on downs at its 21.

After throwing incomplete, Girardin dropped back again and threw and this time, he was picked off by Bulldogs senior Cillo Magno.

An illegal block penalty forced Portland to start at the Red Eddies’ 31, but three plays later, the hosts were in the end zone again. 

Knop threw incomplete on first down and Elowitch ran for five yards on second down. Elowitch got the call again on third down and this time broke free on the right side and didn’t stop until crossing the goal line 26-yards away. Vumpa’s PAT stretched the advantage to 28-7 with 1:11 remaining before the break.

Edward Little hoped to answer before halftime, but Kapongo sacked Girardin for a six-yard loss. After Girardin found Hamel for 10-yards and 11-yards, Kapongo registered another sack for a 12-yard loss, his fourth sack of the half.

“We had guys do a good job and it just happened for me,” Kapongo said. “We had a defensive mindset.”

“(Nate’s) smashed the school record for sacks,” Hartman said. “That’s 15 sacks on the year. That’s unbelievable for a nine-game season. He’s a stud and he’s got a full boat to (the University of) Maine and he played like it tonight.”

On the final play of the half, Girardin hit Yarnevich for seven yards and Yarnevich pitched to Hamel for 10 more, but he was tackled and the horn sounded with the Bulldogs holding a three-score lead.

In the first half, Portland had a 202-118 edge in yardage. Elowitch ran for 207 yards and three TDs on 25 attempts.

The Bulldogs got the ball at their 37 to start the second half and quickly added to their lead.

Carter got things started with a six-yard run, then Elowitch ran for seven and a first down at the 50. After Moriba ran for three yards, Elowitch picked up one, then 14 for a first down at the Red Eddies’ 32. After Haskell dropped Carter for a two-yard loss, Elowitch gained 14, then picked up 11 for a first-and-goal at the 9. Elowitch gained three more yards before Carter completed the drive by bulling his way in from the 6 with 7:02 left in the third quarter. Vumpa’s extra point made it 35-7.

Portland’s defense picked up where it left off on Edward Little’s first play of its next drive, as junior Jonah Green sacked Girardin for a 14-yard loss. Girardin found Knight for 11 yards, then, on third-and-13, Girardin connected with Yarnevich, but only for four yards, and Girardin then threw incomplete to give the Bulldogs the ball back on downs at the Red Eddies’ 46 with 5:01 left in the frame.

Six plays at 2:17 later, Portland induced a running clock.

After Knop gained five yards, Elowitch ran for three and seven yards for a first down at the 31. After a false start penalty, Knop kept the ball for 23 yards to the 13 and on the next snap, Knop kept the ball again and scored on a 13-yard run with 2:44 to go in the period. Vumpa’s PAT made it 42-7.

At the end of the frame, Edward Little started at its 26, but three straight Girardin incompletions and a punt gave the Bulldogs the ball back at their 44 to start the fourth quarter.

Portland would drive 56 yards in 5:19 to score its final touchdown.

Moriba got things started by running for five-yards, three, three and 15 for a first down at the Red Eddies’ 30. Levine ran for 14 yards, then Moriba gained seven and Levine’s eight-yard burst set up first-and-goal at the 1. After a fumbled exchange, Levine capped the march with a one-yard dive with 6:41 to go. Vumpa added the extra point for a 49-7 advantage.

Edward Little’s final drive of the season resulted in a touchdown.

The Red Eddies began at their 45 and after an incomplete pass, Girardin hit Hamel for 16 yards, then with 2:31 to play, Girardin kept the ball, tiptoed down the left sideline, then broke free and completed a 39-yard touchdown run. Girardin kept the ball again on the two-point conversion rush and scored to cut the deficit to 49-15.

Portland got the ball back with 2:03 remaining and after Knop took a knee three times, the final horn sounded and the Bulldogs celebrated their victory.

“It’s the playoffs and you lose and you go home,” Kapongo said. “We don’t want go home. We practiced hard and we played hard tonight.”

“We had to keep pounding it and adjust to how they played our toss,” Hartman said. “Once we figured it out, we were fine. We wanted the (bye), but at the same time it (wasn’t fun). The kids put up a lot from me driving them. We ran the same plays over and over again and we got to play tonight and it was good.”

Portland finished with 363 yards of offense.

Elowitch finished with 267 yards and scored three touchdowns on 33 carries.

“I like getting the ball a lot,” Elowitch said. “I knew it was raining and we wouldn’t be throwing the ball a lot, so I knew I’d have to carry the load. We rallied together and knew we had to play better. Everybody was in sync and holes opened up. I hit them pretty well.”

“Elowitch sure runs hard,” Hartman said. “If he’s tackled in the backfield, it doesn’t matter. You need three, four guys to bring him down. He’s just tough.”

Knop ran eight times for 41 yards and two touchdowns and went 1-of-4 passing for 15 yards and an interception.

Moriba ran six times for 36 yards, Carter carried three times for 10 yards and a score and Levine had 23 yards and a TD on three attempts.

Blazejewski had the lone reception, good for 15 yards.

Portland was penalized four times for 37 yards and committed one turnover.

“We’ve had 20-penalty games this year, so it’s a matter of focus and attention span,” Hartman said. “Hopefully we’ll keep it up next week. We have to play clean on our homefield.” 

Defensively, the Bulldogs registered six sacks, four by Kapongo, and produced two interceptions.

Edward Little, meanwhile, mustered 174 yards.

Girardin completed 14 of 22 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He ran four times for 54 yards and a score.

Hamel had six catches for 74 yards.

Cote had three catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Yarnevich caught three passes for 22 yards. 

Knight had two receptions for 19 yards.

The Red Eddies turned the ball over twice and were penalized five times for 40 yards.

“We’re playing down the stretch with a lot of underclassmen and we’ve had injuries and our leadership has had to take a backseat because they can’t play anymore,” said Edward Little coach Dave Sterling. “We stopped (Elowitch) a couple times, but they have a very good offensive line. It’s hard to beat a team like that. We’re completely undersized. That’s hard about Class A. We play with a lot of heart and speed, but if we don’t play at a high speed level, it’s hard to stay in a game. They played ground-and-pound and it was hard to keep up.”

Final four

The Bulldogs have history with either potential regional final foe.

Portland and Oxford Hills produced a memorable game Oct. 12, as the Bulldogs controlled the clock for big swaths of the contest en route to a 17-14 victory.

The teams have played in the past two postseasons, with Portland taking the 2016 Class A North semifinals by a whopping 55-7 margin and winning last year’s Class A North quarterfinals, 21-6.

Portland handled visiting Cheverus, 37-7, back on Sept. 7. The teams have met three previous times in the playoffs with the Stags taking two of those meetings. The most recent came in the 2013 Eastern Class A Final, where Cheverus eked out a 22-19 victory.

The Bulldogs will be ready for whoever they see next week.

“I want to get to states,” Kapongo said. “That’s the goal.”

“We have to focus in practice and come out ready to play and limit penalties next week,” Elowitch said. “We have to keep up what we’re doing on offense and limit turnovers.”

“They’re two great programs with two great coaches, so whoever comes here, it’ll be a tough battle,” Hartman added. “They’ll be ready for us and they’ll coach it up and we’ll have to play. Getting to states three out of four years would be phenomenal. How many schools can say that? We have a lot of three-year starters who have been part of our run. They’re not riding coattails. They can play.”

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

Portland senior Zack Elowitch breaks free as Edward Little senior Leighton Girardin gives chase. Elowitch finished with 267 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Edward Little junior Ricky Cote makes a one-handed catch in front of Portland senior Cillo Magno.

Portland senior Zack Elowitch tries to drag down Edward Little senior Josh Hamel.

Edward Little junior Ricky Cote looks for running room.

Portland senior Zack Elowitch reaches the end zone for one of his three second quarter touchdowns.

Previous Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 49 Windham 0

Portland 37 Cheverus 7

Portland 42 Edward Little 8

Portland 17 Oxford Hills 14

Previous Portland-Edward Little playoff result

2002 Class A state final
Portland 41 Edward Little 6

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