Portland’s Cinderella run ends in Gorham

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Portland senior Alex Frank, left, and junior Quinn Clarke receive the Class A South runner-up plaque following the Bulldogs’ 1-0 loss at Gorham in the regional final Wednesday night. Portland’s magical run through the postseason fell one goal shy of a state game appearance.

Adam Birt photos.

More photos below.

GORHAM—It was closer than expected, more physical than should have been allowed and ultimately ended in frustration and heartbreak, but Portland’s boys’ soccer team bowed out with a valiant performance in the Class A South Final Wednesday evening.

Host Gorham, meanwhile, got the one goal it needed, played solid defense and as a result, managed to do something last accomplished during the first Reagan Administration, win a regional title.

The sixth-seeded Bulldogs, who lost by three goals to Gorham less than a month ago, showed immediately that they would not go quietly and in the first half, they were every bit the top-ranked Rams’ equal.

In fact, Portland almost struck first in the 24th minute, when senior El-Shadai Ngaundu sent a promising shot just wide of the target.

The game was scoreless at halftime, but Gorham came out inspired in the second half and earned three quick corner kicks. On the third, senior Tyler Richman’s serve found the head of junior Sam Burghardt and Burghardt put it into the net for a 1-0 lead.

The Bulldogs did their best to equalize and should have been given a chance to tie the game with 16 minutes to go when junior Manny Yugu was pushed to ground in the box, but no call was made and the visitors never could find a way to continue their magical run and the Rams held on for the one-goal victory.

Gorham improved to 16-0-1, won a regional title for the first time since 1983, advanced to battle Bangor (15-1-1) in the Class A state final Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium and ended Portland’s season at 12-4-2 in the process.

“All we asked of the boys tonight was to give the same effort they’ve given the past two weeks and they did,” said Bulldogs coach Rocco Frenzilli. “I couldn’t be more proud of all the kids. It was every one of these guys who gave everything they had.”

“It feels really good,” said Rams coach Tim King. “I’m very proud of the kids. We had to work really hard. Portland gave us all we could handle. They played a great game.”

Magic runs out

In a season with several strong teams in Class A South, Portland didn’t generate a lot of attention, even though it was competitive throughout.

The Bulldogs went 9-3-2 in the regular season, but that was only good for the No. 6 seed, forcing Portland to host a preliminary round game. The Bulldogs survived that one, 1-0, over No. 11 Bonny Eagle, then sprung their first upset, getting a goal from senior Alex Frank in the final minute to down No. 3 Deering, 1-0. Saturday, Portland shocked second-ranked Falmouth, 3-2, in a game that had to go to penalty kicks before the Bulldogs prevailed with four makes to the Yachtsmen’s three.

Gorham went 13-0-1 in the regular season, as a 0-0 tie at Deering was its lone blemish. As the top seed, the Rams advanced with a 5-1 win over No. 9 Westbrook in the quarterfinals and a 3-1 victory over No. 4 Scarborough in Monday’s semifinals.

Portland lost, 3-0, at the Rams Oct. 6. Gorham got goals from senior Jackson Fotter, senior Ryan Firmin and junior Nick Sturtevant.

The teams split two prior playoff meetings with the Rams winning, 3-0, in the 2005 Western A quarterfinals and the Bulldogs holding on for a 2-1 victory in the 2010 Western A Final.

Wednesday, on an unseasonably warm evening (48 degrees with no wind), Gorham faced a character test and answered in the affirmative.

The Rams threatened first, but Portland junior back Quinn Clarke headed away a cross from Burghardt four minutes in.

Portland put the first shot on frame, as junior Zekariya Shaib set up freshman Alex Millones, but his bid was saved by Gorham senior keeper Alex York.

In the 10th minute, Fotter, who has over 30 goals this fall, sent a promising low shot toward the far post, but Bulldogs junior goalkeeper Rowan Daligan went sprawling to make the save.

The Rams kept the pressure on and earned successive free kicks. Richman’s first was headed out by a defender and his second was caught by Daligan.

Richman then got the ball in the box and turned to shoot, but his bid was blocked.

With 22:33 left in the half, a long floater from Frank kissed off the top of the crossbar.

Portland had a great chance with 16:24 to go before halftime, when Ngaundu got free on the left side of the box and with York coming out to cut off the angle, Ngaundu’s shot appeared ticketed for just inside the far post, but instead, it went just wide, keeping the game scoreless.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t have a better chance all night.

“As it was leaving (El-Shadai’s) foot, we all hoped we’d see the side of the net bulge out, but it just didn’t happen,” Frenzilli lamented.

Five minutes later, in a harbinger of an even more frustrating oversight to come, Yugu was brought down just outside the box with no call being made.

Late in the half, a Gorham corner kick was headed out, a long blast from Fotter sailed just wide and a Yugu shot was saved by York.

Each team had one corner kick in the first half. Portland put three shots on frame to two by the Rams.

After the Bulldogs earned a corner kick in the first minute of the second half, which resulted in a shot from Millones and an easy save from York, Gorham tilted the field and applied some serious pressure which ultimately resulted in the game’s lone goal.

The Rams earned a corner kick with 38:15 left and senior Ethan Orach was brought down just outside the box, leading to a free kick which Richman served into the box. Junior Kyle King managed to send the ball on goal, but Daligan kicked it away and it was cleared out of bounds to set up a corner. The ball would be cleared out of bounds again and set up another corner kick, which bore fruit.

With 36:10 remaining, Richman served the ball in, Burghardt soared to get it, then with Daligan moving to his left, he headed it back the other way, inside the near post for a 1-0 lead.

“We were lucky to get that goal,” Tim King said. “I talked to my seniors at halftime and I didn’t call them out, but I told them they needed to play better. Your best players have to play well in big games. They played much better in the second half. Tyler really turned it on and created chances.”

“At the beginning of the second half, they pressured and got one,” Frenzilli said. “There was a scrum in the front and it wound up in the back of the goal.”

Portland had ample time to answer, but couldn’t do so.

With 34:55 left, Millones took a free kick from the side and sent his shot just high.

Eight minutes later, the Bulldogs got a corner kick, but it was headed out by a defender.

With 23:14 to play, Yugu served the ball to sophomore Samuel Nkurunziza, but Nkurunziza headed the ball wide.

With 17:50 remaining, a long free kick from Millones landed in the box and was batted around before finally being cleared.

Portland got the ball right back and that set the stage for the incident that the Bulldogs and their fans will long remember, as Yugu was clearly pushed from behind in the box and no call was made. If a foul had been called, Portland would have earned a penalty kick and would have had a great chance to draw even, but instead, play continued without interruption (Frenzilli declined comment on the officiating after the game).

With 10:25 to go, the Bulldogs got a corner kick, but it was cleared and that proved to be their final chance.

Down the stretch, Richman almost doubled the lead, but his left-footed bender hit the post and two Rams’ corner kicks didn’t result in a shot.

Gorham’s defense slammed the door, however, and at 8:52 p.m., after a 33-year wait, the Rams could celebrate a regional crown by virtue of their 1-0 triumph.

“I’ve been at this for 17 years, so it’s been a long ride for me,” Tim King said. “We’ve had good teams that just couldn’t get over the hump.

“I thought it was going to be closer this time. Their quickness bothered us and we couldn’t get on the ball. We couldn’t generate chances like we usually do, but we hung in there. They didn’t do anything unusual. They were just tough and strong on the ball. We’re best when we get the ball in to our midfielders, then play it up top to Jack or Kyle. We couldn’t do that tonight. They broke us down off the dribble all over the place. Their athleticism really bothered us tonight. We seemed a little slow coming off a big, emotional win Monday night.”

Both teams had five shots on frame. York stopped all five he saw. Gorham finished with seven corner kicks (scoring once), while Portland had three. Daligan made four saves.

“Gorham deserved it,” Frenzilli said. “They got the goal and unfortunately, we weren’t able to equalize.”

Portland pride

The Bulldogs enjoyed a playoff run that won’t soon be forgotten. Portland found a way to win in the final minute on the field of its biggest rival, then outlasted the state’s most decorated program in the first shootout of Frenzilli’s long career.

While the Bulldogs fell just short Wednesday, they earned a legion of admirers for their play.

“It was a nice run,” Frenzilli said. “I just think the kids found a way. They found heart and energy. It kept rolling. We believed. Not many other people did. The legacy the guys built this year and the way people look at them now, they should be incredibly proud. Emotion is good. It’s OK to cry a little bit. These kids played in the biggest game of their lives. They’ll only grow and be better people for it in the long run. It was a hardware game and we got something. It’s something we can look back on and be proud of. There were only two teams down south in Class A playing tonight and we were one of them.”

Portland graduates eight seniors, but returns many key players who saw critical minutes as underclassmen. If all goes well, the 2017 Bulldogs could find themselves playing into November again.

“We’ll do our best to get back here,” Frenzilli said. “I have some good young kids. I look forward to next year.”

Eighty minutes to gold

Gorham will take part in its first state final in 33 years Saturday and is seeking its first championship since 1981 when it meets Bangor, which downed Camden Hills in its regional final Wednesday.

The Rams have no history with the Rams from up north.

Gorham will look to bring home its eighth championship and its first this century.

“It’s good to get to this game,” Tim King said. “The alumni is pleased. We hope we can win one more. We played Bangor in the preseason. They’re a really good team. They’ll give us all we can handle, but we can play a more controlled game on turf. I expect we’ll play really well and we’ll see what happens. I’m hopeful.”

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

Portland sophomore Samuel Nkurunziza fights past Gorham junior Sam Burghardt. Burghardt later scored the game’s lone goal.

Gorham junior Kyle King heads the ball away from Portland junior Zekariya Shaib.

Portland junior Sam Mermin defends dangerous Gorham senior standout Jackson Fotter.

Gorham junior Sam Burghardt exults after his goal early in the second half gives the Rams the lead. The goal held up and the Rams advanced.

Portland’s cheering section showed up in huge numbers and decibels Wednesday.

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