Tuesday night, at a rainy Fitzpatrick Stadium, the Portland girls’ lacrosse team found itself on the brink of letting a big second half lead slip away, but the Bulldogs were resilient, turned to their season long motto and figured out a way to hold on for a 9-8 Western Class A preliminary round win over South Portland to advance to Thursday’s quarterfinal round at unbeaten and top-ranked Gorham (12-0).
The Red Riots finished 4-9.
The victory was just the third in program history and marked the first time that the Bulldogs had won playoff games in consecutive seasons.
“Our whole season has been figuring it out,” said Portland’s standout junior Nancy McAdam, who scored four goals. “We’ve had so many times where we had to start over. Our motto has been, ‘figure it out.’ It’s something we had to get used to. It’s kind of a theme nowadays.”
Portland went 6-6 during the regular season for the second year in a row and wound up ranked eighth in the region. One of the Bulldogs’ victories was an 7-6 home decision over the visiting Red Riots May 19.
South Portland wound up 4-8, but earned the No. 9 seed, thanks in large part to a season-ending 7-6 home win over Noble. The Red Riots were making their first postseason appearance since 2004.
The rivals had no prior playoff history.
The Red Riots got the jump and grabbed their only lead, 1-0, when senior Anna Rerrick scored unassisted just 2 minutes, 16 seconds in.
McAdam then made her presence felt, scoring three unassisted goals in a 3 minute, 17 second span to put Portland ahead to stay, 3-1. With 5:58 left in the first half, Portland’s promising freshman, Rachel Allen, got on the scoreboard (assisted by McAdam) to make it 4-1, but with 2:08 to go before halftime, South Portland made it a 4-2 game when junior Kate Lagios scored unassisted.
The visitors started strong again in the second half when Lagios (from Rerrick) scored just 27 seconds in to make it 4-3, but again the Bulldogs got three straight goals tallies as Allen (on a free position), senior Kristin O’Kelly (from McAdam) and senior Heather Lipps (unassisted) all tickled the twine for a 7-3 advantage.
An unassisted goal by South Portland senior Erika Waterhouse was answered by an unassisted tally from McAdam and it was 8-4 with 12:14 to play.
With 8:30 left, senior Cassie Lyons scored on a free position and the Red Riots were back within three, 8-5. Just 38 seconds later, however, Allen scored unassisted to make it 9-5 and the hosts appeared home free.
Not so fast.
Rerrick sparked the late surge with an unassisted goal with 4:41 to play. Just 21 seconds later, Rerrick scored again and it was 9-7. When senior Kim Loeffel scored with 1:26 remaining, South Portland was suddenly within a goal, 9-8.
The Red Riots would get a final possession with a chance to force overtime, but Portland junior Mariah Callender came up big, stealing the ball with 17.4 seconds to go. The Bulldogs then ran out the clock and celebrated their 9-8 win.
“Sometimes you have to let the girls figure it out,” said Portland coach Eric Wales. “We got a little overconfident at the end and took for granted that we had a four-goal lead, but I had to let them work it out. We got some big stops and got a big turnover from Mariah. That was huge.
“That’s the only way to learn how to win. We lost 12 girls from last year. It’s a rebuilding year, but we’re back to the quarterfinals. It’s a big step to do this two years in a row. The girls are working hard.”
The Bulldogs got four goals and two assists from McAdam and three goals from Allen.
“We went into the game thinking I’ll probably get doubled at some point,” McAdam said. “I took (Rachel) aside and told her she’d come up big in this game. She did more than I could have asked for. She’s really come into her own and stepped it up.”
Portland lost 12-6 at home to Gorham back on May 15. The teams have never before played in the postseason. The Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs Thursday, but you can’t count them out.
“We had a tough regular season game with them, but it’s playoffs and anything can happen,” McAdam said. “If we play with heart, I think we have a chance. I really do. Nobody expected us to get as far as we did, but we did it. We made it this far last year. I’m hoping we can one-up ourselves this year just to prove everybody wrong.”
“It’s a big task at Gorham Thursday, but anything can happen,” Wales added. “They’re good. They’re No. 1 for a reason. They’re quick and they shoot, but the Lady Bulldogs should be happy.”
South Portland (which was led by three goals and an assist from Rerrick) took pride from its valiant effort down the stretch.
“We almost pulled it out,” said first-year Red Riots coach Bill Fenton. “We ran out of time. These girls never quit. They stuck it out and they did it all year. They kept raising the bar. They got better and better. I’m really proud of what they’ve done and how they came together as a team. It’s the first time in five years that we made the playoffs. I’m very happy with our year.
“In the first half I think we might have been a little congested. In the second half, we spread it out a little bit and that helped. Portland has a good team. McAdam’s phenomenal. She takes the ball to the net and knows what to do when she gets there.”
The Red Riots will be hard hit by graduation, but hope to make a return trip to the postseason in 2010.
“We’re losing seven to graduation,” Fenton said. “I’ll only have three seniors next year. We’ll have a young team, but we’ll be ready.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com.