Portland no match for Thornton Academy juggernaut in state final

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Portland senior Zack Elowitch breaks the tackle attempt of junior Jackson Cochrane during the teams’ Class A state final Saturday. Elowitch ran for 243 yards and scored twice, but the Golden Trojans rolled to a 49-14 victory.

Gregory Rec / Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Thornton Academy 49 Portland 14

TA- 21 14 7 7- 49
P- 0 7 0 7- 14

First quarter
TA- Bracamonte 61 pass from Gaudette (Forbes kick)
TA- Bracamonte 35 punt return (Forbes kick)
TA- Dow 1 run (Forbes kick)

Second quarter
P- Elowitch 67 run (Vumpa kick)
TA- Palmer 2 run (Forbes kick)
TA- Madore 22 pass from Gaudette (Forbes kick)

Third quarter
TA- Bracamonte 31 pass from Gaudette (Forbes kick)

Fourth quarter
TA- Bracamonte 8 pass from Gaudette (Forbes kick)
P- Elowitch 66 run (Vumpa kick)

PORTLAND—Facing the daunting task of battling undefeated powerhouse Thornton Academy in the Class A state final Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland’s football team knew it needed to play a perfect game to have a chance.

Instead, the Bulldogs got off to a nightmarish start and that led to a disappointing finish as the Golden Trojans lived up to preseason billing as the best team in the state, while leaving Portland one win shy of the big prize yet again.

Thornton Academy got the ball to start and after the Bulldogs stuffed two running plays, Golden Trojans junior quarterback Kobe Gaudette found senior standout Anthony Bracamonte for a 61-yard touchdown pass and Thornton Academy was ahead to stay just a minute-and-a-half into the contest.

Portland then started from its 1, gained a yard, had to punt and Bracamonte returned the ensuing punt 35 yards for a score and a commanding 14-0 lead less than three minutes in.

After he intercepted a pass on the defensive end, senior Grant Dow scored on a 1-yard dive and the score was 21-0 just over midway through the opening stanza.

The Bulldogs, to their credit, refused to fold, settled down and early in the second period, got on the board when senior standout Zack Elowitch broke away for a 67-yard TD run.

When Thornton Academy fumbled the ball away on the first play of its ensuing possession, Portland had a chance to make things very interesting, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to take advantage and by halftime, the Golden Trojans were able to break it open, as senior Thomas Palmer scored on a 2-yard run and Gaudette hit senior Derek Madore with a 22-yard TD pass to make it 35-7.

With 5:04 to go in the third period, Thornton Academy induced a mercy rule running clock, as Bracamonte caught a slant from Gaudette and turned it into a 31-yard touchdown and a 42-7 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Bracamonte scored for the fourth time, on an 8-yard pass from Gaudette, and while Elowitch broke away for a 66-yard TD run, that’s as close as the Bulldogs would get and the Golden Trojans ran out the clock on their 49-14 victory.

Thornton Academy finished a perfect 11-0, its first undefeated record since 1986, won its fourth Gold Ball in seven years and its ninth championship overall and ended Portland’s season at 9-2 in the process.

“It was a great team effort,” said Golden Trojans coach Kevin Kezal. “I’m proud of how far we came and you couldn’t ask for a better season. The kids answered the bell every time and played great football. I won’t compare teams because they’re all special, but they’re right there with the other teams who won. The kids were locked in.”

“After a 2-6 season, we did pretty well,” said Bulldogs coach Jim Hartman. “We had a good team and I’m proud of them. We just came up short today.”

A mountain too tall

Thornton Academy entered 2018 as the favorite and outscored its eight regular season foes by a whopping 405-48 margin. As the top seed in Class A South, the Golden Trojans earned a bye into the semifinals, where they had no trouble ousting fourth-seeded Sanford, 47-7. Last Saturday, Thornton Academy ended No. 2 Scarborough’s title reign, 53-21, in the Class A South Final.

Portland started strong, easily defeating Windham and Cheverus (see sidebar, below, for links to previous stories) and after falling at Bonny Eagle, the Bulldogs won their final five regular season games to earn the top seed in Class A North and with it, a bye into the semifinals, where Portland eliminated fourth-ranked Edward Little, 49-15. The next round was much tougher, but the Bulldogs outlasted No. 2 Oxford Hills in an overtime thriller, 21-14, to win the region for the third time in four seasons.

Entering play Saturday, the teams had met four previous times in the postseason (see sidebar, below), with Portland winning in the 1982 Western A semifinals (34-14) and the 2004 Western A quarterfinals (48-6) and Thornton Academy taking the 1994 Western A quarterfinals (27-12) and the Class A state game three years ago (24-14).

The Golden Trojans had won five of six previous state final appearances (see sidebar, below) and were also awarded championships in the pre-title game era in 1954, 1955 and 1962.

The Bulldogs had prevailed in two of their previous five state game appearances, downing Sanford (14-10) in 1982 and Edward Little (41-6) in 2002 and losing to Bangor (20-14) in 2001, Thornton Academy in 2014 and Bonny Eagle (34-14) two years ago. Portland was also awarded the 1952 state title.

Saturday, with snowbanks ringing the field, the teams met for the biggest prize in the state’s biggest class and under pleasant (42-degree) skies, the Bulldogs hoped to shock the world, but it quickly became clear that nothing was going to stand between the Golden Trojans and another championship.

Portland won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half and Thornton Academy needed a mere three plays to go on top for good.

The Golden Trojans began at their 37 and after junior Isaac Ofielu ran twice for one yard apiece, the Bulldogs appeared primed to make an early defensive stand, but on third-and-8, Gaudette dropped back and unleashed a bomb down the left sideline. Gaudette was hit well after releasing the ball, but that penalty proved to be a moot point as Bracamonte reached out and caught the ball, then kept his balance, eluded a defender and ran into the end zone for a 61-yard score.

“They played soft coverage to the left, so I broke down my route,” said Bracamonte. “Kobe threw a dime and that allowed me to catch it in open space and I took off from there.”

“Kobe made a great throw,” Kezal said. “They brought the house and we protected it. Anthony one-on-one is hard to cover and he made a great catch.”

Junior Brady Forbes added the extra point and Thornton Academy had a 7-0 advantage.

After giving up 15 yards due to the roughing the passer penalty, things went from bad to worse for Portland, as senior Ben Stasium received the ensuing kickoff at the goal line and apparently thinking he was in the end zone, Stasium took a knee. He was ruled to be inside the 1 instead and the Bulldogs’ first offensive possession began in the shadow of their goal line.

“I can’t imagine a worse start,” Hartman said. “It was shocking. It was one of our seniors, veteran leaders, and it was just one of those things, what can you do? I think he thought he was in the end zone.”

Portland quarterback Sam Knop tried to pass on first down, but his attempt was knocked down and almost intercepted by sophomore Daniel Tarbox. After Elowitch fought his way out of the end zone for a yard, Knop threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

Elowitch, stationed in the end zone, punted the ball away, but he sent it right to Bracamonte at the Bulldogs’ 35 and Bracamonte did the rest, bringing it back for a 35-yard score with 9:16 to play in the first period.

“I didn’t think they’d punt it to me, but they did,” said Bracamonte. “There was a perfect wall there. My punt return team was on-point today. I thought special teams would play a big role today and they did.”

“We’ve made plays on special teams all year and that got us off to a great start,” Kezal said.

“We specifically had a play in, but it didn’t happen,” said Hartman. “We didn’t execute.”

Forbes’ PAT extended the lead to 14-0.

Portland’s next possession began at its 20 and after Knop kept the ball for a yard, he attempted to throw down the field, but Dow dove and intercepted the ball at the Bulldogs’ 26.

The Golden Trojans would need six plays to extend their lead.

After Bracamonte and Ofielu each gained five yards for a first down at the 16, Bracamonte ran for five yards and Ofielu picked up five for a first-and-goal at the 6. After Bracamonte fought his way to the 1, Dow did the honors, scoring on a 1-yard run with 5:44 remaining in the opening stanza. Forbes added the extra point to make it 21-0 Thornton Academy with the game just over six minutes old.

Portland promptly went three-and-out, as Elowitch was held to no gain, Elowitch picked up four yards, then Knop threw incomplete. On the ensuing punt, Elowitch fielded the ball and booted it away, but the whistle blew and Elowitch was called for catching the ball while on one knee and that gave the Golden Trojans the ball in optimal position again, at the Bulldogs’ 20.

This time, Portland’s defense held the fort.

After Elowitch knocked down a Gaudette pass attempt, Ofielu gained a dozen yards for a first-and-goal at the 8. Ofielu then appeared to score, but a holding penalty moved the ball back to the 18. After Bracamonte was stuffed for no gain by Bulldogs senior Ben Trefethen and junior Jonah Green, Gaudette hit senior Athan Gikas with a swing pass, but it went for no gain, and Gaudette threw incomplete on the next down, setting up fourth-and-goal from the 18. Kezal had his charges go for it and Gaudette dropped back to throw, but he was sacked by Portland senior Koa Farnsworth for an 11-yard loss, giving the Bulldogs the ball on downs at their 29.

A false start penalty proved to be an inauspicious beginning, and Portland again went three-and-out, as junior Cole Paulin held Elowitch to no gain and after Elowitch replaced Knop behind center, took a direct snap and picked up eight yards, Elowitch ran for six yards on third-and-7, forcing a punt.

With time about to expire in their dominant first quarter, the Golden Trojans started at their 21, but on the final play of the period, Trefethen threw Bracamonte for a six-yard loss.

Regardless, Thornton Academy, which held a 74-5 edge in yardage, had a commanding 21-0 advantage after 12 minutes.

The Golden Trojans weren’t able to add to their lead as the second period began, as Ofielu ran for two yards and Gaudette threw incomplete, necessitating a punt. After a delay of game penalty, Portland got the ball back at its 38.

The Bulldogs went backwards to start, with an illegal procedure penalty and a bad snap, which Knop recovered, moving the ball back to the 32. After Elowitch ran for a yard, he got the direct snap again on third-and-15, followed the bruising blocking of senior Nathan Kapongo and broke free down the right sideline. Elowitch then turned on the jets and outran the pursuit for a 67-yard score with 9:28 to play in the half.

“We put (the Wildcat) in this week for this game and it got positive yards, so we stuck with it,” said Elowitch.

Freshman kicking sensation Cristo Vumpa added the PAT to cut the deficit to 21-7.

Portland then got a golden opportunity when on the first play of the ensuing Thornton Academy drive, a fumbled exchange put the ball on the ground and Bulldogs senior Chris Vincent fell on it at the Golden Trojans’ 31.

A Portland touchdown might have made things interesting, but instead, Thornton Academy’s defense came up huge.

After Portland shot itself in the foot with an illegal procedure penalty, Elowitch ran for a yard, picked up two yards, then was held to no gain, forcing a punt.

“Our defense has been key all year,” Bracamonte said. “When the offense screws up, the defense saves us. Our defense drives the offense and makes us want to work harder.”

“We tell the kids, bad things happen, we can’t change it, so turn the page and how will we respond?” Kezal said. “The kids responded the right way and we got them to punt to us and we took control of the game.”

Sure enough, having dodged that bullet, the Golden Trojans returned to their scoring ways.

Starting at its 14 with 7:14 remaining in the half, Thornton Academy needed six plays and 2 minutes, 3 seconds to march for the score.

Ofielu got things started with a five-yard run and Bracamonte broke free for 36 more and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 45. Bracamonte gained 16 yards before Ofielu ran for five yards. After Ofielu bulled his way down to the Portland 2, setting up first-and-goal. Palmer did the rest, scoring on a 2-yard run on his lone carry of the game. Forbes’ extra point made it 28-7 Golden Trojans with 5:11 remaining before halftime.

The Bulldogs started their next drive at the 20, but Knop threw incomplete, a fumbled snap set up third-and-10 and after a delay of game penalty, junior Jamal Moriba gained three yards, forcing a punt.

After an illegal shift penalty moved the ball back five yards, Elowitch was run into by Madore on a punt. Elowitch punted again, the ball bounced and Bracamonte tried to scoop it up, but he muffed the ball and Knop recovered.

Initially, the officials didn’t rule a fumble and as a result, Portland’s frustration got the best of it, as two different players were called for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Ultimately, the Bulldogs were allowed to keep the ball, but they were backed up all the way to their 14.

Elowitch got the ball on first down and gained eight yards, but he was hit and fumbled and junior Colby Bolduc recovered for Thornton Academy at the Portland 22.

“(The Bulldogs) were undisciplined and tried to get in our heads, but we didn’t let that happen,” said Bracamonte .”We played smart and kept our cool.”

On the next snap, Gaudette play-actioned beautifully and launched a pass to Madore, who was wide open behind the Bulldogs’ secondary, and Madore completed the 22-yard touchdown reception with 2:57 to go in the half. Forbes’ PAT stretched the lead to 35-7.

Portland began to drive late in the half, but couldn’t answer.

Starting at their 14, the Bulldogs got runs of one-, four- and 10-yards from Elowitch for a first down at the 29. Elowitch ran two more times for seven yards apiece and that brought the curtain down on a first half which was dominated by Thornton Academy, which led, 35-7, at the break.

In the first 24 minutes, the Golden Trojans held a 184-100 advantage in yardage. Bracamonte ran for 56 yards, caught a pass for 61 and also had a punt return for a score. Elowitch ran for 117 yards and a TD on 18 carries, but seven penalties for 65 yards hindered Portland’s hopes.

The second half proved to be more of the same.

The Bulldogs got the ball at their 28 to start the third period and runs of five- and 18-yards by Elowitch set up first down at the Thornton Academy 49. Elowitch then ran for five-yards, two-yards and three-yards for a first down at the 39. After Elowitch was stuffed for no gain, he picked up three yards, but then the penalty-fest resumed.

Consecutive false starts, followed by a delay of game transgression, turned a third-and-7 into third-and-22. Elowitch ran for five yards, forcing a punt. After successive illegal shifts moved the ball back 10 more yards, Elowitch punted and the Golden Trojans started at their 33 with 6:06 left in the frame.

Six plays and 62 seconds later, Thornton Academy induced the running clock.

Bracamonte broke away for 11 yards on the first play. After an incomplete pass and a holding penalty, Ofielu ran for seven yards and Gaudette hit Bracamonte for 10 more and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 42. After Bracamonte ran for 11 yards, Gaudette hit a wide open Bracamonte on a slant at the 15 and Bracamonte did the rest, racing in untouched to complete the 31-yard touchdown with 5:04 to go in the frame. Forbes’ PAT made it 42-7.

Portland began its next drive at its 17 and after Moriba ran for a yard, Elowitch picked up five yards and Elowitch picked up four for a first down at the 27, Elowitch gained four yards, Knop threw incomplete and Moriba’s one-yard pickup on third-and-6 forced a punt.

With just seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Golden Trojans got the ball at their 36. Gaudette kept the ball for four yards and a 15-yard hitting with the crown of the helmet penalty was tacked on, giving Thornton Academy a first down at the Portland 40. After Ofielu lost a yard on the final snap of the third period, Gaudette lofted a 34-yard pass to Bracamonte on a post pattern on the first play of the fourth for a first down at the 12. Moriba dropped Bracamonte for a four-yard loss and Green dropped Ofielu for a one-yard loss, but after Ofielu gained seven yards, Gaudette and Bracamonte hooked up for an 8-yard scoring pass on fourth down and with 8:47 to go, Forbes added the PAT for the Golden Trojans’ final point, making the score, 49-7.

The Bulldogs got the ball one more time and scored their final touchdown of the year.

Starting at its 28, Portland got a pair of four-yard runs by Elowitch, sandwiched around a two-yard loss by Elowitch (senior Ean Patry made the tackle). Then, on fourth-and-4, with the Thornton Academy defense stacked at the line to stop him, Elowitch broke free, broke loose and ran all the way to the end zone 66-yards away. That run didn’t just give the Bulldogs six more points, it also gave Elowitch the all-time, single-season rushing mark for the program.

Vumpa’s PAT cut the deficit to 49-14 with 5:35 to play.

Thornton Academy got the ball back at its 35 with 4:47 to go and proceeded to run out the clock.

After Kapongo dropped Ofielu for a one-yard loss, Bracamonte had a 13-yard rush negated by a holding penalty, then an apparent 64-yard Bracamonte TD dash was also wiped out by holding. Ofielu moved the chains to the Portland 28 with a 29-yard run.

All that was left was for the Golden Trojans to run out the clock and while they didn’t take a knee, much to the Bulldogs’ disapproval, Ofielu was held to no gain by senior Grant Jacobson, Bracamonte picked up two yards, then was held to no gain.

At 1:17 p.m., the final horn sounded and Thornton Academy celebrated its 49-14 victory and another state championship.

“I knew it would be an emotional game,” Bracamonte said. “I’m so happy. We deserve this. We’ve worked so hard all season long. We lost C.J. Labreck (to injury) and we lost (quarterback) Will (Mitchell to transfer) and there were doubters. We knew we just needed to work hard and prove everyone wrong and we did.

“It’s unbelievable. If you told me at the beginning of the season we’d go undefeated and win states, I wouldn’t have believed it. We came became one and couldn’t be stopped.”

“This never gets old,” said Kezal. “I’m really proud of the seniors. The past two years, we came up a little short. For them to get an opportunity to play on this field and win one, it’s great. The seniors did a great job leading the program and the underclassmen did a great job following their lead.”

The Golden Trojans finished with a 354-203 edge in yardage.

Bracamonte rushed 13 times for 97 yards, caught five passes for 144 yards and three scores, returned a punt 35 yards for a fourth touchdown and had two other scores and multiple other long runs negated by penalties.

“(Anthony’s) body of work the past three weeks, 200 yards in the semifinals, almost 400 last week and what he did today, means there’s no question who the best player in the state of Maine is,” Kezal said.

Gaudette completed 7 of 12 passes for 166 yards and four TDs.

Ofielu rushed for 105 yards on 17 carries.

Thornton Academy turned the ball over once and was penalized seven times for 23 yards.

Uncertain future

Portland was doomed in part by two turnovers and a whopping 14 yellow flags, good for 120 yards.

“If we didn’t have the penalties, we would have been good,” Hartman said. “They hurt us big-time today. You can’t have that. We had two straight good games of discipline, but we didn’t get it done today. (Thornton’s) a halfway-decent, respectable team and they’re disciplined. Take the penalties away and it’s an even game.”

Elowitch capped his sensational season by rushing for 243 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, giving him 1,959 yards for the season, eclipsing by 55 the previous mark set by Justin Zukowski (Class of 2015).

“Right now, (the record) doesn’t seem to matter at all, but I’ll be happier about it tomorrow,” said Elowitch.

“(Zack) had 1,716 (yards) coming in and ‘Zuk’ was at 1,904 and he smashed it,” Hartman said. “With all the great rushers at this school in 125 years of history, that’s a pretty damn good record.”

“(Elowitch is) the guy we focused on stopping, but to his credit, he had a couple great runs,” Kezal said. “We bent a couple times, but we managed to stop him.”

Knop went 0 for 6 passing with an interception.

“(Thornton Academy) came out ready to play and executed and they earned it,” said Elowitch. “Through and through, they don’t have weak links at all. They have a lot of great players.

“We came up short, but coming back from last year when we didn’t have a lot of success, to get to the state game, it’s special.”

Looking ahead, Portland graduates the core of this regional champion and with few middle school players arriving, the complexion of the Bulldogs’ team, as well as the Maine high school football landscape, is uncertain.

Of more immediate concern, Portland has four days to get ready for its annual Thanksgiving Day showdown versus Deering.

“I can’t think about next year,” Hartman said. “Thursday is the only thing on my agenda right now.”

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

Thornton Academy senior Anthony Bracamonte hauls in the game’s first touchdown in front of Portland senior Cillo Magno.

Portland senior Ben Stasium tries to bring down Thornton Academy junior Isaac Ofielu.

Portland senior Zack Elowitch is corralled by Thornton Academy junior Jackson Cochrane, left, and senior Ethan Logan.

Thornton Academy senior Anthony Bracamonte exults after the final horn.

Thornton Academy receives the Gold Ball.

Previous Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 49 Windham 0

Portland 37 Cheverus 7

Portland 42 Edward Little 8

Portland 17 Oxford Hills 14

Portland 49 Edward Little 15

Portland 21 Oxford Hills 14 (OT)

Previous Thornton Academy stories

Thornton Academy 35 Scarborough 13

Thornton Academy 53 Scarborough 21

Previous Portland state game results (2-3)

2016 Class A
Bonny Eagle 34 Portland 14

2015 Class A
Thornton Academy 24 Portland 14

2002 Class A
Portland 41 Edward Little 6

2001 Class A
Bangor 20 Portland 14

1982 Class A
Portland 14 Sanford 10

Previous Thornton Academy state game results (5-1)

2015 Class A
Thornton Academy 24 Portland 14

2014 Class A
Thornton Academy 35 Windham 14

2012 Class A
Thornton Academy 37 Lawrence 23

1988 Class A 
Thornton Academy 47 Lawrence 13

1986 Class A
Thornton Academy 28 Bangor 6

1974 Class A
Waterville 23 Thornton Academy 8

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