FALMOUTH—After a late season surge and an inspirational playoff run, the stars appeared to finally be aligned for the Portland boys’ soccer team to win a first ever state championship Saturday evening at Falmouth High School.
When Bulldogs sophomore Tim Rovnak struck twice in a 41-second span early in the first half of Saturday’s Class A final against Bangor, a Gold Ball seemed close enough to taste.
In the end, however, it wasn’t to be as the Rams rallied for a pair of goals in a 2:13 span late in the half to take the lead and despite ample opportunities and close calls, Portland couldn’t score again and saw its best season since 1994 end at 15-2-1 after a painful 3-2 setback.
Bangor senior Phil Frost proved to be the difference, scoring three times, including a controversial go-ahead tally off a direct kick, that was believed (by those in blue and white anyway) to be an indirect kick. The Rams held on to finish 17-0-1 and won their second state championship.
“We were proud to be one of two teams left playing in the state,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Rocky Frenzilli. “Congrats to Bangor. They deserved it.”
Oh so close
Portland, a semifinalist in 2009, entered the season expected to be a top contender, but an early 3-1 home loss to Scarborough and a 1-1 tie at Windham left the Bulldogs just 1-1-1.
They wouldn’t stumble again, winning their final 11 regular season contests to lock up the No. 2 seed with a 12-1-1 mark.
Portland dominated rival No. 7 Cheverus in the quarterfinals, scoring early and often en route to a 6-0 triumph. Next up was a thriller against No. 3 Cape Elizabeth in the semifinals. Trailing 1-0 late, senior standout Fazal Nabi (who had been denied moments earlier on a PK) scored a tying goal and Rovnak delivered a score in overtime for a 2-1 win. The Bulldogs completed their regional journey Wednesday by holding off No. 4 Gorham, 2-1, in the Western A Final.
Portland had just one prior regional championship to its credit. That came in 1994, when the Bulldogs lost, 1-0, to Mt. Ararat in the state game.
Bangor was 13-0-1 in the regular season, tying Lawrence, and wound up first in Eastern A. The Rams advanced to states by virtue of regional wins over No. 8 Erskine (2-1), No. 4 Morse (5-0) and No. 3 Brunswick (2-1, in double overtime).
Bangor has enjoyed even-numbered seasons of late. In 2006, the Rams made it to the Class A Final for the first time, edging Scarborough, 1-0, in double overtime. Two years ago, Bangor got back, but this time lost to Scarborough, 1-0, in OT.
Saturday, the Rams would get the job done in regulation, but Portland didn’t make it easy.
The action was fast and furious from the get-go in front of a huge and vocal crowd. In just the third minute, off a throw in, Frost made his presence felt with a header, but Bulldogs senior goalkeeper Taylor Mannix made the save.
With 35:57 to play in the 40-minute first half, Frost broke through when he was set up by senior Luke Hetterman;s floating pass and beat a defender and then Mannix to make it 1-0.
The Bulldogs then came to life and showed how explosive their offense can be.
First, Nabi had a shot broken up in the box. Rovnak then had a chance, but tipped a cross just wide.
With 31:03 remaining before halftime, Rovnak headed in a pass from Nabi and tied the game.
If that wasn’t exciting enough, Portland came right back down and scored again when senior Feliks Cobanovic’s long lead pass found Rovnak’s head and went into the goal. Rovnak beat both a defender and Bangor senior goalkeeper Jesse Perkins and put his team on top, 2-1.
After Mannix maintained the lead by making saves on shots from senior Jack Stacey and Frost, he couldn’t stop a low Frost shot off a pass from senior Jacques Larochelle, which snuck between the goalie and the left post, tying the score, 2-2.
The game turned for good with 10:24 left in the half. After a foul just outside the box, Frost took a free kick. He calmly floated a shot into the far corner of the goal. The Rams celebrated, while the Bulldogs argued vehemently that the shot shouldn’t have counted.
“I thought (the official’s) arm went straight up indicating an indirect kick,” said Frenzilli, who stressed that the call was not the difference in the contest. “He obviously called it a direct kick and said on the field he called it a direct kick. He said his motion in putting up his arm was weak. We thought we saw it go straight up. It was a great shot and after it went in, that’s what the coaches thought, that it was an indirect kick.
“Credit the Frost kid. He danced around us twice and hit a great ball on a free kick. We weren’t able to stop him. He was deserving of the goals he got.”
Bangor had a 3-2 lead, Frost had himself a hat trick, but the game was far from over and Portland came very close to pulling even before the end of the entertaining and high scoring first half.
With 2:12 remaining, the ball came free in the box and Nabi had a look, but couldn’t make contact. With 1:38 to go, senior Abdulkadir Hassan fed Nabi, whose header forced Perkins to make a diving save, setting up a corner kick. With 24 seconds to go, Nabi’s free kick just outside the box snuck through the defense and left Perkins helpless, but the ball hit the inside of the left post and somehow trickled across the goal line without going in before it was cleared from harm’s way.
As a result, the Rams clung to a 3-2 advantage at the break.
As expected, the second half was much quieter, although the Bulldogs fought for 40 minutes to pull even.
The first chance came with 30:35 to play when Rovnak’s one-on-one rush was broken up at the last moment.
With Bangor now playing with a defensive mindset and 14:02 remaining, Nabi knuckled a free kick just wide. With 11:38 showing, Hassan found Nabi in the box, but Nabi couldn’t control the ball to unleash a shot. Four minutes later, a cross from junior Alan Tuyishme was headed out of harm’s way. Junior Brett O’Kelly followed with a long shot that Perkins momentarily bobbled before snaring with Rovnak bearing down.
With 5:03 remaining, Nabi got a sliver of room and attempted a turnaround shot, but it went just high. Freshman Tony Yekah followed with a shot that went just wide. A lofting Rovnak bid with 3:25 left went high. A minute later, a Nabi free kick was tipped over the crossbar by Perkins, setting up a corner kick (Portland had an 8-0 advantage for the game) that resulted in nothing.
With 1:06 to go, junior Paley Burlin’s attempt was tipped wide by Perkins, setting up another corner. This time, the ball got into the box and for a split second, the Bulldogs and their fans’ eyes got big as Nabi prepared to fire it home, but his blast never got through, instead bouncing off a defender and out.
Finally, with three seconds left, a shot from sophomore Ralph Houanche sailed high.
Bangor had survived, 3-2.
“We knew after they got their goal that put them ahead, they’d become tough defensively,” Frenzilli said. “They withdrew players and did exactly what they needed to do to protect the lead. We had a couple good looks and thought we might get one, but we just couldn’t finish. They did a great job down the stretch of bottling everything up, making it tough for us to get through.”
A year to remember
Portland’s disappointment will ultimately be assuaged by its amazing accomplishments.
“I can’t say how proud I am of my team and the effort they put forth,” Frenzilli said. “They never quit. The loss hurts and we’ve been on the good side of it for the three games we played and saw the disappointment on the other teams. You hope for the best, but know only one team will walk out of here. I told the kids to keep their heads up, that they had a wonderful year. You just wish you could take that last step and get them something they worked so hard for.”
Portland will graduate 11 seniors, most notably Nabi, who stands to earn an abundance of postseason accolades. That group helped the Bulldogs not only become a top contender, but come within a goal of making school history.
“The seniors accomplished a lot,” Frenzilli said. “That’s what you reflect back upon. I told them to go out tonight and play for each other. Fazal’s an amazing athlete and young man. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to get it for him. He’ll get through it and will be fine. It’ll take awhile. As cliche as it is, we’ll reflect on a great season and take pride in what we’ve done.”
If there’s any consolation in the wake of the loss, it’s that Portland has no shortage of talented underclassmen. After coming so close, the 2011 Bulldogs will be right back in the title hunt.
“We’re coming back next year and this will fuel us,” said Frenzilli.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland sophomore Tim Rovnak heads a ball over the goal while Bangor senior Andy Prusaitis runs interference.
Portland freshman Tony Yekah kicks the ball ahead before Bangor junior Connor Griffin can get to it in the first half.
Portland senior Oryem Charles heads the ball away from Bangor senior Jack Stacey.
Portland sophomore Ralph Houanche heads the ball while junior teammate Ben Day looks on.
Portland’s dynamic senior standout, Fazal Nabi, runs roughshod over a Bangor defender. Despite many attempts, Nabi couldn’t score Saturday and his career came to an end.
Portland sophomore Tim Rovnak soars through the air to head home a goal early in the first half to give the Bulldogs a 2-1 lead over Bangor in Saturday night’s Class A state final. That would be the Bulldogs’ high water mark, however, as they fell, 3-2.
More photos below.