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Portland senior Ethan Hoyt lifts classmate Jake Knop to the heavens after Knop’s touchdown reception in the third quarter of the Bulldogs’ 55-7 win over Oxford Hills in Friday’s Class A North semifinal. Portland advanced to meet Windham in the regional final next Friday.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
OH- 0 0 0 7- 7
P- 14 7 20 14- 55
P- Pasquali 55 punt return (Clarke kick)
P- Bachelder 3 run (Clarke kick)
P- Knop 20 run (Clarke kick)
P- Knop 28 pass from Bachelder (kick failed)
P- Bolduc 72 run (Clarke kick)
P- Hamilton 30 pass from Bachelder (Clarke kick)
P- Knop 1 run (Clarke kick)
OH- Brown 19 run (Stevens kick)
P- Pasquali 80 kickoff return (Clarke kick)
PORTLAND—Offense sells tickets, defense wins games and if you can excel at both and mix in momentum-changing special teams, the sky’s the limit.
Friday evening, in a Class A North semifinal at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland’s top-ranked football team began what it hopes will be a run to the Gold Ball with a balanced and dominant performance against No. 4 Oxford Hills.
The Bulldogs set the tone early when junior Vinny Pasquali returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown.
Portland’s defense frustrated the run-oriented Vikings all night, holding them to a mere 33 first half yards and once the Bulldogs’ offense kicked into gear, it was lights out.
Late in the first quarter, Portland senior quarterback Issiah Bachelder capped a long drive with a 3 yard run to make it 14-0.
With 2:55 to go before halftime, Bulldogs senior Jake Knop got in on the fun, scoring on a 20 yard burst to push the lead to 21-0 at the break.
Portland quickly ended the competitive phase with 20 third quarter points, as Knop caught a 28 yard TD pass from Bachelder, senior Dylan Bolduc broke free for a 72 yard touchdown scamper and one play after he recovered a fumble, senior Dante Hamilton hauled in a 30 yard score from Bachelder to make it 41-0 and induce a “mercy rule” running clock.
Just eight seconds into the fourth quarter, Knop scored from a yard out and after Oxford Hills got on the board on a 19 yard run from sophomore Emerson Brown, Pasquali delivered the exclamation point with another special teams gem, returning the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to paydirt to bring the curtain down on a 55-7 victory,
Bachelder, Bolduc and Knop all had over 100 total yards, the Bulldogs forced four turnovers and scored twice on special teams as they won their eighth game in a row, improved to 8-1, ended Oxford Hills’ season at 5-5 and advanced to host No. 2 Windham (6-3) in the regional final Friday at 7 p.m.
“I’m a little surprised we weren’t rusty,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “These kids pay more attention than any other team I’ve had. They listen in the film room. They think football all the time. They were ready for this.”
This group of Bulldogs has accomplished plenty the past several seasons, but those who returned this fall have unfinished business and until they win the program’s first Gold Ball since 2002, they won’t be satisfied.
After dropping a 24-14 decision to Thornton Academy in last year’s state game, Portland came into the 2016 season bound and determined to take that final step. The Bulldogs stumbled in their opener, losing at home to what turned out to be a very strong Scarborough team, 14-13. Portland then won its final seven contests by an average margin of 43-13 to earn the top seed in Class A North.
The Bulldogs had a quarterfinal round bye last week.
Oxford Hills, meanwhile, overcame a 1-3 start and finished 4-4 to earn the No. 4 seed. The Vikings then outlasted No. 5 Edward Little, 26-20, in overtime last weekend to make it to the semifinals.
Back on Sept. 24, Portland overcame a slow start to handle Oxford Hills, 36-7, at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Entering play on a chilly Friday night (41 degrees at kickoff), the teams had no playoff history.
The Bulldogs then produced a strong opening postseason act.
The defense set the tone first, as the Vikings, who won the opening coin toss and opted to receive the ball, went three-and-out. On the first play, Knop threw junior Dawson Stevens for a five yard loss. After Bolduc held junior Levi Brett to no gain, Stevens gained two yards, forcing a punt.
Brett’s punt bounced at midfield and appeared primed to be downed, but Pasquali grabbed it at the Portland 45, eluded a tackler, ran left and got a block before racing down the sideline untouched for a 55 yard score.
“I didn’t mean to take the ball, but I had to turn it into something,” Pasquali said. “I found my lane and Jake and (sophomore Ben) Levine gave me great blocks.”
“Special teams and defense win,” Hartman said. “Offense is for show, but those are the two big phases of the game. That return was big a momentum changer. Returning kicks for a touchdown is always big.”
Junior Quinn Clarke added the extra point and 1 minute, 55 seconds into the game, the Bulldogs had a 7-0 lead.
The Vikings’ second possession also featured a three-and-out, as senior Ryland VanDecker gained three yards, Knop and Levine threw Stevens for a one yard loss and senior quarterback Connor Truman threw incomplete.
Portland finally got a chance on offense, but couldn’t score, as Bolduc gained just one yard, sophomore Zach Elowitch picked up four and Bachelder ran for three. Bachelder then dropped back to punt, but after bobbling the snap, he tried to throw deep and it fell incomplete, giving Oxford Hills the ball on downs at its 44.
The Vikings couldn’t take advantage, but did get a first down on a 10 yard pass from Truman to senior Connor Bickford. The Bulldogs buckled down and held VanDecker to no gain and after Stevens gained four yards, Truman threw incomplete, forcing a punt.
Portland got the ball back at its 24 with 3:50 to play in the first quarter and 2 minutes, 16 seconds later, doubled its lead.
The drive was sparked by Bachelder, as after Bolduc ran twice for 10 yards to move the chains, the quarterback gained 11 yards for a first down at the 45. After Bolduc gained five yards to midfield, Bachelder kept the ball for seven yards down the right sideline, then was hit out of bounds for 15 more yards to the Oxford Hills 28. After Knop swept left for 16 yards, Bachelder gained nine, then took it in from the 3 with 1:34 to go in the first quarter.
“I’m fine with whatever works for the team,” Bachelder said. “We have an amazing line and so many players who can carry the ball.”
Clarke’s PAT pushed the lead to 14-0.
The Vikings got the ball back at their 33, but Truman threw incomplete, Stevens ran for four yards, then another incomplete pass forced another punt.
Portland took over at its 28 with 30 seconds to go in the first quarter and two Bachelder runs, good for five yards, sent the game to the second period (the Bulldogs had an 89-18 edge in yardage in the first 12 minutes).
On the first play of the second quarter, Bachelder hit Knop, but the play only went for a yard and Portland had to punt.
Oxford Hills again was stymied by strong defense, as after it moved the chains on a four yard run by VanDecker and an eight yard pickup by Stevens, Truman threw incomplete, sophomore Nicholas Leavitt threw Stevens for an six yard loss and a sack by sophomore Koa Farnsworth resulted in a loss of two more yards, forcing a punt.
With 8:20 to play in the half, the Bulldogs started at their 14 and in a drive that chewed up 5:25, marched 86 yards in 10 plays to extend their lead.
Bolduc ran for two yards on first down, then Knop swept right, got a nice block from Bolduc and ran for 19 yards and a first down at the 35. Bachelder gained seven yards and after an illegal procedure backed Portland up five yards, Bachelder found Hamilton for 18 yards and a first down at the Vikings’ 45.
After Bachelder ran for eight yards, then for five more and a first down at the 32, Bolduc gained two and Bachelder ran for seven, setting up third-and-1 from the 23. Bachelder kept the ball on a sneak for a first down at the 20 and on the next snap, Knop got the ball, found a big hole up the middle and ran untouched into the end zone for a 20 yard score with 2:55 to to go in the half.
“I attribute (our success on offense) to spreading their defense out and using our speed to our advantage,” Knop said. “They had big players and we were struggling up the middle, but we spread them out and got good yards. We hit them with a counter. They were obviously keying on Bolduc all game. He went one way and the flow went one way and I had it and scored.”
“Jake’s a special player,” Hartman said. “He’s a stud. A top five player. The great thing about this group of kids is not only are they bright, but I have so many talented kids. If one’s not working, the defense has to give us something else. The last time we played them, we ran all slot and destroyed them. Tonight, they took the slot away and we went all spread. I don’t think they saw that coming.”
Clarke added the extra point for a 21-0 lead.
Oxford Hills tried to answer before halftime and after Brett ran for two yards and a five yard facemask penalty was tacked on, Knop threw Stevens for a three yard loss, but VanDecker ran for seven for a first down at the 36. VanDecker gained two more yards, but with 53.8 seconds remaining, Truman was intercepted by sophomore Ben Stasium at the Portland 34.
The Bulldogs were content to take their 21-0 lead to halftime.
In the first half, Portland had a commanding 166-33 edge in yardage, got 83 rushing yards and a TD on 11 attempts from Bachelder and 55 yards and a score on three rushes from Knop.
It didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to end all doubt in the second half,.
Portland started at its 35 after a 20 yard Knop kickoff return. Bolduc started a scoring drive by rushing for 18 yards on first down to eclipse the 1,000 yard plateau for the season. After Bachelder ran for a yard and Bolduc gained five, Bachelder kept the ball for 10 yards to the Oxford Hills 31. Bolduc picked up three yards, then Bachelder dropped back to pass and launched a perfectly thrown ball to Knop in the back left corner of the end zone for a 28 yard touchdown with 9:13 to go in the third period.
“They weren’t keying pass at all and I caught their corner sleeping,” Knop said.
“Me and ‘Knopy’ have a great connection,” Bachelder said. “When I need a big play, I go to him.”
Clarke’s PAT hit the left upright, but the Bulldogs had a 27-0 lead.
The Vikings went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, as Truman ran for four yards, then threw incomplete twice.
The Bulldogs got the ball back at their 21 and after Knop gained 19 yards on an option, senior Ethan Hoyt got the ball, but after gaining four yards, he fumbled and Oxford Hills’ senior Jonathan Blake recovered at the Portland 44.
The visitors weren’t able to capitalize, however, as after Bolduc threw VanDecker for a two yard loss, Stasium intercepted Truman again and the hosts got the ball back at their 28 with 7:11 left in the third.
Twelve seconds later, Bolduc was in the end zone.
Bolduc got the handoff, broke free up the middle, slipped one tackler, then wouldn’t be denied, outrunning the pursuit all the way to paydirt, capping a 72 yard burst. Clarke’s PAT made it 34-0.
Portland got the ball right back, as after Stevens ran for six yards, a bad snap put the ball on the turf and Hamilton pounced on it at the Vikings’ 30.
On the next play, Hamilton got in the end zone, as he caught a Bachelder pass down the right side and broke the plane with 6:12 remaining in the quarter.
“That made Dante’s high school career,” Hartman said. “He’s done the dirty work all year. For him to make that catch, that was great. I’m really happy for him.”
Clarke booted the extra point to make it 41-0.
Oxford Hills gave the ball back on downs, as VanDecker gained two yards, senior Brayden Bean picked up two, Brett gained three and on fourth-and-3, Truman was held to a yard.
Portland got the ball back at the Vikings’ 45 with 3:35 remaining in the quarter and in a drive which chewed up 3:43, marched in eight plays to another touchdown.
Knop caught a seven yard pass on first down. On second down, Bachelder hit junior Terion Moss for 11 yards and a facemask penalty tacked on 15 yards to the Oxford Hills 12. After Bolduc ran for two yards, Bachelder gained seven. Bolduc was held to no gain, but on fourth-and-1, Bachelder moved the pile enough to pick up a first down at the 2. On the final play of the third period, Hoyt gained a yard and on the first play of the fourth, Knop scored from the 1.
With 11:52 left in the game, Clarke’s PAT made the score 48-0.
The Vikings then put some points on the board against Portland’s second-string defense.
On first down, Truman hit Bickford for 42 yards to the Bulldogs’ 27. After the visitors were backed up by a holding penalty, sophomore Janek Luksza gained 11 yards and VanDecker ran for 10, setting up third-and-2 from the 19. Brown got the call and broke a tackle before getting outside and racing to the pylon for a 19 yard score with 6:35 to go. Stevens made the PAT even though it was never recorded on the scoreboard, cutting the deficit to 48-7.
Portland roared right back to score one final time.
Pasquali took the ensuing kickoff at his 20 and again broke free for what ultimately would be an 80 yard touchdown return with 5:23 to go.
“I found another lane and again, great blocks,” Pasquali said. “I just did my thing. Special teams win championships. Coach tells us that every practice. You can’t win without them. We prepared a lot and practice made perfect.”
“Coach (Tim) Marr is a great special teams coach,” Bachelder said. “Vinny’s a fantastic player. He’s fast and knows how to read blocks. He has a great future ahead of him.”
Clarke’s PAT made it 55-7.
After Oxford Hills couldn’t handle the ensuing squib kick, Bulldogs sophomore Cameron Clifford recovered the ball at the Vikings’ 34. This time, Portland didn’t take advantage as a bad snap was recovered by Oxford Hills’ junior Jarrod Taylor at the Vikings’ 42.
Oxford Hills ran four more plays, as senior Spencer Hurd ran for 18 yards, sophomore backup quarterback Colton Carson scrambled for eight yards, sophomore Cameron Slicer ran for seven yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 25 and on the game’s final play, Moss intercepted a pass, capping Portland’s 55-7 triumph.
The Bulldogs had 393 yards of offense (227 in the second half) and overcame five penalties for 51 yards and two turnovers. Bolduc gained 121 yards and scored a touchdown on 13 carries. Bachelder finished with 102 yards on 15 rushes and scored once. Knop carried five times for 75 yards with two TDs.
Bachelder threw seven times, completing six passes for 95 yards and two scores. Knop caught three passes for 36 yards and a TD, Hamilton had two receptions for 48 yards and a score and Moss had a catch for 11 yards.
Portland’s defense held Oxford Hills to 148 yards and forced four turnovers.
“We were flying around the ball,” Knop said. “We didn’t let their backs build up speed or momentum.”
“(Defensive coordinator) Mike (Rutherford) did a great job with the game plan and the kids executed it brilliantly,” Hartman said. “Whatever we throw at the guys, they handle.”
Stevens, who entered the game as the region’s second leading rusher, didn’t gain a yard on nine carries. VanDecker had 35 yards on 10 carries. Truman ran twice for five yards and completed 2 of 11 passes for 52 yards with a pair of interceptions. Carson’s lone pass was picked as well. Bickford had two catches for 52 yards.
The Vikings committed three penalties for 43 yards.
Portland won’t play a game away from Fitzpatrick Stadium the rest of the season. If the Bulldogs get to the state final, they’ll be at home. They’ll also face Deering in the teams’ annual Turkey Day showdown on the Fitzy turf.
The only game that matters now though is next weekend’s regional final. Portland will meet Windham for the second year in a row after a 24-7 victory last season. The Bulldogs and Eagles have met four straight seasons in the playoffs with Portland winning on three occasions.
Back on Sept. 16, the Bulldogs doubled up host Windham, 42-21.
The rematch probably won’t be as lopsided.
“(Windham’s) a great team, but if we do what we do, we feel good about our chances,” Pasquali said.
“We’re similar teams,” Bachelder said. “They have good defense and offense, so do we. We have good coaches, they have good coaches. Every time we play, it’s a battle.”
“We think back to states last year all the time,” Knop said. “It was the worst feeling in the world. All we have on our minds right now is winning the Gold Ball. They’ve improved as a team and are doing well and we’ve improved as a team and we’re doing well. I can’t wait.”
“Windham’s always tough,” Hartman added. “They’re a great team. Well coached, with great athletes all over the place. It’ll be a war. It’ll come down to who can exploit the other’s weaknesses.”
Portland senior quarterback Issiah Bachelder gains some of his 102 rushing yards.
Portland senior Dylan Bolduc has his jersey grabbed by Oxford Hills sophomore Parker LaFrance.
Portland senior Dante Hamilton finds running room.
Portland senior Nick Giaquinto pressures Oxford Hills senior quarterback Connor Truman.
Portland senior Jake Knop breaks free for a 20 yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Portland senior Jake Knop catches a third quarter touchdown pass.
Portland junior Vinny Pasquali returns a kickoff for a second half touchdown.
Portland sophomore Ben Stasium is congratulated by junior Vinny Pasquali after one of his two interceptions.