Portland's magic continues

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WESTBROOK—Destiny’s Darlings did it again.

Saturday afternoon, at playoff-seasoned Westbrook, the upstart, Cinderella Portland field hockey team penned another memorable and palpitating chapter in the greatest postseason run in program history.

Playing in their first semifinal round game since 1982, the Bulldogs, ranked seventh in a topsy-turvy Western Class A, fell behind the sixth-ranked Blue Blazes early, but answered to tie the score at the half.

After some close calls in the second half, Portland went on top to stay when junior Carissa Porcaro continued her clutch play with a goal with 8:05 remaining. The Bulldogs’ defense and senior goalie Rachel Waterhouse did the rest and Portland held on for a 2-1 win, improving to 12-4-1, extending its win streak to nine, its unbeaten run to 11 and reaching the regional final for the first time in program history.

Tuesday evening, at Thornton Academy, the Bulldogs will look to do it again when they face No. 5 Marshwood in the regional final.

“It feels really good,” said Porcaro, who hadn’t scored a goal this year prior to the quarterfinals. “I’m really happy for my team. We deserved it. I’m so happy we got to show our skills. It means a lot to us. We’re really proud of our coach and of each other.”

Rewriting history

Entering this season, over the past 35 years, Portland had only posted a winning record eight times. From 1980-82, the Bulldogs had very good teams each autumn, winning one playoff game each year, but their hopes were dashed in the semifinals each time, by South Portland, Bonny Eagle and Edward Little, respectively. Portland returned to the postseason in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1997, 2000 and 2001, but again, were immediately eliminated. In 2003 and 2004, the Bulldogs won a prelim, then were left heartbroken by rival Deering after an agonizing quarterfinal round loss. A preliminary round setback at Westbrook in 2005 marked the last playoff appearance.

Since then, the program struggled, winning just nine times over the next four yeras, bottoming out two years ago with a 1-13 mark. Portland made great strides in 2010 with a 6-8 mark, but just missed out on qualifying for the playoffs.

Everything changed this fall, but it took some time. Not only did these Bulldogs feature an experienced coach in Beth Arsenault and a solid returning core, led by 2010 Fall Female Athlete of the Year Raechel Allen, but the squad was enhanced by the addition of seniors Waterhouse (who came to the team from soccer) and Kylie Dalbec (who helped lead North Yarmouth Academy to Class C championships in 2008 and 2010) and junior Gabi Cardona (who was part of Cheverus’ regional title squad a year ago).

Facing expectations for the first time in years, Portland struggled early, losing at Massabesic (4-1) and Marshwood (3-1) before getting in the win column, 4-1, at home over South Portland. After sandwiching losses to powerhouses Scarborough (3-0, at home) and Cheverus (5-0, away) around a 2-0 home victory over Gorham, everything came together and the Bulldogs went 7-0-1 to finish the regular year.

After blanking visiting Thornton Academy, 2-0, Portland settled for a 1-1 tie at Windham. Then, the Bulldogs beat host Deering (1-0), visiting McAuley (2-0), host Bonny Eagle (3-1), visiting Noble (3-0), host Westbrook (2-1) and visiting Biddeford (7-1) to wind up 9-4-1, good for the No. 7 seed in Western A.

The road to the semifinals was fraught with danger and the Bulldogs were almost knocked out in the preliminary round when they couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead against No. 10 Thornton Academy and wound up going to penalty corners before Dalbec won it. Few gave Portland a chance at No. 2 Sanford in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round, but goals from Porcaro, Allen and senior Natalie Anderson spelled a 3-1 victory.

Westbrook entered Saturday’s semifinal on a high note. After a 10-4 regular season, which left them sixth, the Blue Blazes escaped No. 11 Kennebunk, 1-0, on an overtime goal in the preliminary round, then upset No. 3 Cheverus, 1-0, on the fourth round of penalty corners Tuesday in the quarterfinals.

In the regular season meeting, also at Westbrook, the Blue Blazes struck first before the Bulldogs came back to win by a 2-1 margin behind goals from Allen and senior Cat Flaherty. Saturday’s playoff meeting (just the second ever between the schools, Westbrook took the first, 2-1, in the 2005 preliminary round) followed a similar script.

For much of the first half, the more experienced Blue Blazes carried play while it took Portland awhile to hit its stride.

The hosts went on top 1-0 in the 17th minute when sophomore Katie Berry, the hero of both prior playoff wins, banged home a rebound off a penalty corner (Westbrook had eight to the Bulldogs’ one in the first 30 minutes).

With 9:45 remaining before halftime, Arsenault called timeout and less than a minute later, Portland drew even when senior Alex Thompson’s shot was tipped home by Flaherty.

“I called a timeout after they scored to say, ‘Listen, this is how our last game here started and we came back,'” Arsenault said. “We haven’t been behind a lot. The only other time the last five weeks was against Westbrook and we came back.”

Late in the half, the Blue Blazes threatened to retake the lead, but Waterhouse stood tall and it was a 1-1 contest at the break.

The second half featured good opportunities for both squads.

With 22:52 left in regulation, Allen had two looks in close, but Westbrook senior goalie Maryssa Arsenault stopped both.

At the 16:15 mark, Waterhouse had to make a tough save on a long shot.

With 13:40 showing, Portland was primed to go on top when Allen broke free down the left side, but Arsenault made the save and junior Katie Conley cleared the ball from harm’s way.

“It was a beautiful save, but I was so angry,” Allen said. “Westbrook’s goalie was unbelievable. She stopped so many shots.”

With 8:05 to go, the winning goal arrived.

Off a penalty corner, the ball came to Allen, who shot. The ball was stopped, but sat free and Porcaro pounced and banged it home for the biggest goal in program history and a 2-1 lead.

“The goalie stepped out and the ball was right there and I knew I had to go for it,” said Porcaro. “If I missed, who cares? I had to go for it. I knew I had it. It was a good feeling.”

“I was pretty confident that if we could get it down there, we would score, since we’ve done it all season,” Arsenault added. “To have Carissa step up and do what she’s done is amazing.”

Portland still had an interminable 8:05 to kill and as expected, the Blue Blazes didn’t go quietly.

After sustained pressure, Arsenault called timeout with 3;52 to go to settle the team and it helped.

With 3:05 showing, senior Eleni Anderson cleared a loose ball from in front of Waterhouse. With 1:20 to go, Westbrook threatened, but the ball hit the foot of an attacker for a turnover. With 45 seconds remaining, Berry’s shot was deflected wide. Fifteen seconds later, the hosts turned it over again on a shot which went too high and in the final seconds, one final turnover sealed it.

When the clock struck 3:25 p.m., the Portland Bulldogs had done something they’d never done before, win a semifinal, and the team and its big throng of supporters exulted.

“This is crazy,” said Allen, who spent the final seconds of the game waiting to sub in and wondering why the clock was moving so slowly. “It’s great because freshman year, I looked at the varsity players and I wanted to be in playoffs senior year. We’ve improved so much. This senior class is great. Our defense was so good at the end. Our goalie was so good. We’ve improved so much as a team.  (Senior) Chelsea (DePalma), our sweeper, was amazing.”

“I’m definitely very excited,” Waterhouse said. “It feels good. It went by very slow, especially the last minute. It felt like forever. I like the pressure. It doesn’t bother me much. I knew we could hold them off. The defense helped me out a lot. We didn’t hold it together too well the first few minutes, but we finally started to play our game at the end. We won and that’s because we played our game.”

Arsenault, who took over in 2000 and has presided over a lot of lean years, knew her team had the ability to get this far.

“From the beginning, we all said we have the potential and the league looked like it had more parity then ever,” she said. “We knew what our start looked like on paper. The reality is, we haven’t lost in five weeks.

“It’s a huge shock to me after 12 years of what looked like futility, at least in the ledger. I’m so thrilled for these girls. They’ve worked so hard. We don’t make cuts. Everyone gets a chance. We’re very workmanlike. We go out and get it done. It’s very satisfying. To beat Westbrook twice on their field in one year is amazing. To have a chance to represent Western Maine is huge. We’ve always struggled to be relevant. I think we achieved that last year. These seniors, many of them played as sophomores and they were 1-13 two years ago, in the basement. For them, I think it’s gratifying. For the younger kids, to see what you can do if you never give up, I think it’s really big.”

Portland was outshot, 13-6, and only had three penalty corners to Westbrook’s 11, but held on, thanks in large part to Waterhouse (12 saves).

“I knew we’d score. I also knew the defense would hold,” Arsenault said. “The clock was dragging, but I have a phenomenal goalie, an unbelievable sweeper and two great fullbacks. (Senior) Ellen Jewett didn’t get a sub all game. (Senior) Sam Dobson didn’t get one the entire second half. Chelsea has stepped up. The defense has carried the team in the playoffs. We haven’t scored a ton, obviously, I’m really, really proud of the defense. The fullbacks played within themselves.”

Sixty minutes to states

Portland’s quest for a regional title will face a pretty steep challenge Tuesday night on the Thornton Academy turf in 13-3 Marshwood, which blanked both No. 4 Massabesic and No. 8 Windham by 3-0 scores in its two playoff tests. The Hawks had the better of the Bulldogs way back on Sept. 6, but you can throw that result out the window in light of how much Portland has improved.

The Bulldogs aren’t about to let this magic carpet ride end now.

“I think we can beat Marshwood,” Allen said. “We lost to them in the beginning of the season, but we were a different team.”

“This time, we’re a better team,” Porcaro said. “No excuses. We want to get to the big game.”

“We’ve worked hard for it,” said Waterhouse. “Hopefully, we can get through two more games. We all to play to win. I think we go on to the turf with a little more confidence. We should be strong.”

“I have a huge amount of respect for Marshwood,” Arsenault added. “They’ll be difficult. If we show up and do what we can do, on the turf, I like our chances. Some turf is bouncier than ours, but we’ve been able to make it work for us.”

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

Portland senior Kylie Dalbec whacks the ball downfield during Saturday’s game. Dalbec’s poise and championship experience helped the Bulldogs pull it out.

Portland junior Leanne Reichert plays staunch defense during first half action.r

Portland senior Natalie Anderson plays the ball during the first half of Saturday’s win.

Portland senior Kara Grant plays the ball up the field during first half action.

Kaitlyn Rutherford, one of just wo sophomores on the Portland roster, looks to break up a Westbrook rush.

The Bulldogs and longtime coach Beth Arsenault (center) were all smiles after the big win.

Sidebar Elements

Portland senior goalie Rachel Waterhouse and the Bulldogs’ defense stood tall all day Saturday in the Bulldogs’ 2-1 semifinal round win at Westbrook. Portland advanced to its first regional final, against Marshwood Tuesday.

More photos below.

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