WINDHAM—The Portland boys’ soccer team was given up for dead just a few weeks ago, but surprise, surprise, the Bulldogs are still standing.
In dramatic fashion.
After ridiing a four-game regular season-ending win streak to lock up an unexpected playoff berth and waiting two extra days due to a rainout, Portland traveled to Windham Monday afternoon for a Western Class A preliminary round contest.
In a microcosm of their season, the Bulldogs dug a hole immediately, falling behind, 1-0, on an Eagles’ goal just 2 minutes, 42 seconds in, but late in the first half, a sensational strike by freshman Sam Farr pulled Portland even.
Neither team would score again in regulation or in the first 15-minute overtime, but with darkness and penalty kicks looming, the Bulldogs earned their most inspirational victory of the season.
After Farr placed another free kick right on target, only to have it punched away by the Windham goalkeeper, Bulldogs junior back Liban Hassan was in the right place at the right time, burying the rebound to give Portland a 2-1 triumph.
The score evened the Bulldogs’ record for the first time all season at 7-7-1, ended Windham’s year at 10-5 and sent Portland to No. 2 powerhouse Scarborough for a quarterfinal round tilt Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“I just know people had us down and out,” said Bulldogs coach Rocky Frenzilli. “The guys found a way to believe in each other. Windham’s very talented. We just dug deep and found a way. We dodged a few bullets there. I’m just so pleased for the boys for all they’ve been through. I wanted it for them so, so bad.”
After falling to Cheverus in last year’s quarterfinals, Portland was hard hit by graduation and Frenzilli expected 2012 would be a challenge.
He had no idea.
The Bulldogs only returned two players with an abundance of varsity experience, senior scoring sensation Tim Rovnak and senior goalkeeper Chip Weber. After falling at home to Noble in the opener, 3-0, Portland enjoyed a 2-0 triumph at Deering, but it was soon learned that the Bulldogs had fielded an ineligible player for that game and the Bulldogs had to forfeit the victory. By Oct. 4, Portland was 2-7-1 after dropping a 1-0 decision to visiting Kennebunk in double overtime.
The season turned at Windham, of all places, Oct. 6, with a 1-0 win.
“After that game, knowing where Windham was and what we could do, we had to keep emphasizing we could win,” said Frenzilli. “Our thing was, ‘Why not us?’ I think that game catapulted us.”
The Bulldogs then erupted for a 7-0 victory at Bonny Eagle, eked out a 3-2 home win over South Portland, then clinched a playoff berth with a 3-1 home victory over Thornton Academy, leaving the Bulldogs 10th in Western A. Portland qualified for the playoffs for the 13th year in a row and 19th time in 20 seasons.
Windham was the feel good story of the 2011 season, winning the Class A championship for the first time, in Colin Minte’s first season as coach. The Eagles lost the core of that squad to graduation, but still managed to go 10-4 this fall to wind up seventh in the region.
The Bulldogs’ victory earlier this month snapped a three-game unbeaten streak against the Eagles. Windham won the lone prior playoff meeting, 2-1, in overtime, in the 2006 preliminary round.
Monday, it took nearly 108 minutes, but Portland managed to advance.
The Eagles got their partisan crown riled up early when senior Tyler Defosse served a ball into the box that senior Marc Reynolds headed past Weber and into the goal for a quick 1-0 lead.
“We came out a bit slow,” Weber said. “It wasn’t great conditions in the box. We didn’t stay goalside enough. They beat us. I think they thought they had it made after coming out that quickly.”
“We didn’t even get off the bus when they scored that first one,” said Frenzilli. “We came out flat.”
Weber prevented Windham from making it 2-0 when he denied Eagles junior Tony Yekeh (who played at Portland his freshman and sophomore years) in the 11th minute.
The Bulldogs’ first good chance came in the 16th minute when a feed from Farr intended for Rovnak was broken up at the last moment by Windham junior Jack Herzig.
Portland kept the pressure on as senior Ibrahim Dahir fired a pair of blistering shots with his powerful left foot just off target.
Then, with 2:08 left before halftime, the Bulldogs tied the score as Farr sent a seemingly harmless free kick from 35 yards out on target and over the leap of Eagles senior goalkeeper Tom McGowan into the net.
“Coach just told me to put it in the box,” Farr said. “I just wanted to put it up there and see what I could do. I knew I struck it hard enough to get it in the box. I wasn’t sure if it would go in the net.”
Windham almost retook the lead with 40 seconds to go in the half, but a blast from junior Spencer Hodge went just wide.
Both teams would have chances in an exciting second half, but couldn’t finish.
Just three minutes in, a Farr free kick forced McGowan to make a leaping save.
After Portland sophomore Haron Habibzai and Rovnak failed to finish opportunities, the Eagles turned up the pressure.
First, a header from junior Christian Hewitt went just wide. After Weber beat Reynolds to a Hewitt feed, a 30-yard blast from Windham senior Dalton Mauro forced Weber to dive to make a save.
After Dahir and Habibzai missed and freshman Josh Irving’s shot was saved, Reynolds and Yekeh were denied by Weber.
Down the stretch, Hodge had a shot blocked, Reynolds’ bid was denied by Weber and Hodge’s shot was also saved by Weber and it was on to overtime.
In Maine boys’ high school soccer playoffs, teams play two 15-minute, “sudden victory” overtimes and if no one scores, the game is resolved by penalty kicks.
It would be a close call, but PKs wouldn’t be necessary.
In the first OT, Reynolds was robbed by Weber, Farr’s long shot was saved by McGowan, Reynolds shot just wide, Hodge and Hewitt had bids saved by Weber and Yekeh shot just high.
Windham had a couple golden chances in the second overtime, but failed to finish and eventually, Portland took advantage of its best opportunity.
With 12:20 left, the Eagles got the ball into the Bulldogs’ box and with Weber down and out the play, only needed to bang it home, but Portland sophomore Connor Bruce calmly cleared the ball out of harm’s way.
With 6:38 to go, after a foul, Windham senior Eric Gumaer set up for a free kick just outside the box. Gumaer managed to place a low shot through the Bulldogs’ wall and Weber had to go all out to keep it from going into the net and ending the season.
“The way he set his body, it looked like he wouldn’t go around the wall, so I leaned that way, the way his hips were going,” Weber said. “Unfortunately, it got the through the wall. I don’t like when that happens. It wasn’t a powerful shot. It wasn’t that tough.”
The winner came with 3:35 left in the second overtime.
After a foul, Farr played a free kick in from the side. Like his earlier goal, this shot was placed perfectly, but McGowan came out and punched the ball away. Problem was, from a Windham perspective, he hit it right to Hassan at the top of the box and Hassan didn’t hesitate, pounding a shot past the helpless McGowan and into the net, setting off a wild Portland celebration.
“It was very exciting,” said Weber. “A bit stressful. I was thinking about PKs since we tied it up. I’m glad we finished it out before PKs. I couldn’t see it going any other way. We’re on a peak. Last year, it seemed like we slowed down at the end of the season, but now, I’ve never felt better in my soccer career.”
“It’s huge,” said Rovnak. “It’s playoff soccer. You never know. Anything can happen. (Liban’s) got a hell of a right foot. He showcased it at the end. It was a half volley and it was just what we needed. We’ve been fighting, scratching and clawing this year. To get a win like this means a lot. We found a way. It’s nothing new to us. We put our heads down, went to work and got the job done. The defense has improved so much. They didn’t give Windham anything easy. Thank God we have Chip in the goal. He bailed us out so many times. We have a young team. Struggling early on wasn’t a surprise to us. We stuck with it and stayed positive and worked through it.”
“I think we’re playing as well as anybody right now,” Frenzilli added. “We were 1-6-1 and the kids gave us everything we wanted in practice. They did what we asked them to do. The reward is just something to be appreciated. I just can’t say enough about them and what they did. We stemmed the tide. Sammy’s goal was just magic for us. It gave us something to work on. I’m happy for Liban. He’s busted it as a defensive back all year long. We wanted to put him up top on those types of plays.”
For Windham, it was a bitter and stunning end to a title defense.
“It was a great playoff atmosphere,” said Minte. “A lot of fun. End to end. Unfortunately, the ball didn’t bounce our way. I thought Portland played with a lot of heart and a lot of energy. I think (the regular season loss to the Bulldogs) served as motivation. I think the guys came out with a lot of desire to have success today. Their goal took the air out of our sails. After that, it was an even game. Portland’s come so far from the beginning of the season until now. They’re organized. They’re playing good soccer at the right time. That was us last year.
“This season had its ups and downs. Last year, we had fantastic senior leadership. This year, it was a little more of a challenge. The guys gave us their best shot every time. We lose a lot of guys again, but I think we’re up to the task.”
Very few people will give Portland much of a chance Wednesday at 12-0-2 Scarborough, which dominated the host Bulldogs, 6-1, back in September. The Red Storm has taken both previous playoff encounters, in the 2003 and 2009 semifinals.
Portland will make the trip confident and pressure free and will look to keep its amazing run going.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Rovnak said. “We’ll do the same thing we did today. Play strong defense, be opportunistic and just play our game.”
“We (looked at our season like) chapters of a book all year,” Frenzilli said. “Chapters one through seven weren’t very good ones. Chapters eight, nine and 10, things started to come around. Now, we want to write a nice little epilogue. We hope it continues along. We’re young. Last year at this time, a lot of the guys were in middle school and now they’re in a Western Maine quarterfinal. We’re happy to get there. We’ll work tomorrow and talk about a few things. The house money is still there for us. We’ll go out and have a good time with it.”