Portland’s football team will play for a regional title.
Cheverus and Deering’s title quests, meanwhile, came to an end.
And that’s the long and the short of last weekend’s semifinal round.
Portland had a superb regular season, winning all eight games, then, as the top seed in Class A North, earned a bye into Friday’s quarterfinal round against fourth-ranked Bangor, a team the visiting Bulldogs blanked, 59-0, Oct. 16 in Bangor.
The teams had met just one before in the playoffs, a 20-14 Rams’ win in the 2001 Class A state final.
This one was over quickly, courtesy Portland senior standout Joe Esposito, who ran for 290 yards and six touchdowns, which tied a nearly century-old program record.
In the first quarter alone, Esposito had four touchdown runs and John Williams added the extra point each time for a quick 28-0 lead. Esposito added two more scoring runs in the second period for a 42-0 halftime advantage. In the third quarter, Nick Archambault got in on the fun with a scoring run and in the final stanza, after Bangor got on the board, Jake Knop capped the scoring with a TD run and the Bulldogs romped, 56-7.
“Esposito had an incredible game,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “We knew going into the season that he’d be good. He’s a different kind of runner. He allows us to run the I-formation. He runs between the tackles as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s quick and he’s tough. He takes an awful beating, but it doesn’t faze him.
“Our line blocked really well. Defensively, we played extremely well again. To Bangor’s credit, they never quit. Our kids did a good job not looking past anything. They’re rally focused on a Gold Ball. They knew what was at stake and played well.”
Portland (9-0) hosts No. 2 Windham (7-2) in the Class A North Final Friday at 7 p.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Back on Sept. 18, the Bulldogs beat the visiting Eagles, 10-3, in a defensive struggle. The teams have played three previous times in the playoffs with Portland winning twice. The most recent was Windham’s 21-17 victory in last year’s semifinals.
“Windham is extremely good, extremely tough, they want to play smashmouth with us, which is our style,” said Hartman. “We’re similar teams. They’re extremely good on defense, as we are. It may come down to special teams, so we’ll preach that all week. They’ve had close games, but we’re not as beat up and we have tough kids. I’m always amazed how tough our kids are.”
If Portland reaches its first state final since winning it all in 2002, it would play either Thornton Academy (8-1) or third-ranked Bonny Eagle (7-3) Saturday, Nov. 21, at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The Bulldogs didn’t play either team this fall. They 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).
Cheverus went into its semifinal at Windham confident it could compete. The Stags went 5-3 in the regular season, capped by a 19-15 loss at the Eagles, but Cheverus felt it should have won that game and probably would have if it didn’t fumble the ball away four times in the second half.
While many expected another down-to-the-wire thriller, Windham instead extended its win streak to four over the Stags and for the second year in a row, sent them packing from the postseason.
Two early Eagles fumbles kept Cheverus in the game, but the Stags could do nothing on offense. In the second period, Windham got two touchdown runs to lead, 14-0, at the half. Cheverus, which managed only 45 yards of offense in the first half, never could respond and two more TD runs in the second half allowed the Eagles to slam the door on a surprisingly decisive 28-0 victory.
The Stags managed a mere 63 yards of offense as their season ended at 6-4.
“They were bigger, stronger and they were more physical,” said Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. “They were just better. We were overmatched physically. They had everybody back from last year. They’re a very good football team. The first time around, we had some things go our way, but they had a couple weeks to look at us and they prepared very well, We were undersized in some spots and they took it right at us. It wasn’t smoke-and-mirrors. It was blood and guts football. Credit to them. They understood us very well. We have some high character kids, but we just weren’t good enough tonight.”
Cheverus steadily improved as the season progressed.
“The kids came together,” Wolfgram said. “Overall, we had a very good season. We were third in our division, but we weren’t good enough to get to the next level.”
Deering’s proud program struggled through several rough seasons, but the Rams returned to their rightful perch near the top of the heap this fall under new coach Jason Jackson.
After going 6-2 in the regular season, Deering earned the No. 2 seed in Class A South and a bye into Friday’s semifinals, where the Rams hosted No. 3 Bonny Eagle, a team which came to Portland and erupted in the second half for a 42-7 victory back on Oct. 2.
The teams had split six prior playoff meetings and the seventh was a gem, featuring a little of everything.
The Scots picked up where they left off last time with a quick touchdown for a 7-0 lead, but later in the first quarter, quarterback Max Chabot scored on a 1-yard run. The extra point was no good and Deering trailed, 7-6, after one period.
In the second period, the Rams sandwiched a 10-yard Chabot TD run and 33-yard interception return for a score from Benedict Williams around a long Bonny Eagle touchdown run, but only one of two extra points was converted, making it 19-14 Deering at halftime.
The lights then went out at Memorial Field and stayed out for over 20 minutes before play was resumed. After an apparent 57-yard Chabot to Sambath Sao touchdown pass was called back by a holding penalty, the Scots went back ahead on a TD run in the third period
Deering had a 37-yard field goal attempt to go ahead in the fourth quarter, but it fell short and a last-second Chabot desperation pass was intercepted and B0nny Eagle eked out a 20-19 victory.
“We were confident,” said Jackson. “We knew what we had to do. We quit in that first game. I’m fine with losing. You lose more than you win in life. It’s how you deal with losing and I have a problem with not leaving it all on the field. This time, it worked out really well for us. We almost had it. The missed extra points mattered, but we had other opportunities as well. The boys left it all out on the field. I’m happy for the guys, but I’m bummed for the seniors. It would have been awesome to get them to another game.”
Very few people thought the Rams were capable of winning six games and making it to the semifinals and those doubters helped spark this squad’s success.
“We had naysayers and that was great motivation,” Jackson said. “There were a few very negative people who didn’t give me a shot, but I knew what we had and I knew the coaches I was bringing in. When you do things the right way, things work out. We always had great athletes here and this year, they really bought in. I knew we could go 6-2, it was just a matter of showing up and doing what we had to do every week not just in games, but in practice too.”
While the program is losing several key seniors who helped turn things around, the future is bright for the Rams and they expect to be in this position regularly.
“We have a solid sophomore class,” Jackson said. “We’ll hang with teams next year. I’ve put my brand, ‘Ram Life,’ into Deering. I think the guys understand the culture. I want to make sure the kids are respecting everybody. I need them doing the right things in the classroom and treating their parents and each other right.”
The silver lining for Deering is that the Rams aren’t done quite yet. On Thanksgiving Day, Deering will do battle with Portland for the only time this season in the renewal of the ancient rivals’ holiday showdown, which figures to be hotly contested and highly anticipated.
“That’s a big game, maybe the biggest game of the season,” Jackson said. “I love the fact we didn’t play this season and we’ve both had the success we’ve had. This one is going to be huge. It’s tradition. Both teams are very good. Something’s got to give.”
Cheverus’ Bobby Slattery recovers a Windham fumble during the Stags’ 28-0 loss in Friday’s Class A North semifinal.
Cheverus’ Jack Casale can’t come down with a catch during the Stags’ semifinal round loss at Windham last weekend.