Portland's rally falls short in season opening loss to Oxford Hills

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Oxford Hills senior Jamal Hill sacks Portland junior Ronaldo Wakati during the Vikings’ 20-14 victory over the defending Class A North champions Saturday night. 

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Oxford Hills 20 Portland 14

OH- 7 0 13 0- 20
P- 0 7 0 7- 14

First quarter
OH- Stevens 17 run (Stevens kick)

Second quarter
P- Pasquali 49 pass from Wakati (Clarke kick)

Third quarter
OH- Stevens 47 run (Stevens kick)
OH- Brown 2 run (kick failed)

Fourth quarter 
P- Elowitch 2 run (Clarke kick)

PORTLAND—The Portland Bulldogs have what the Oxford Hills Vikings want.

And if Saturday night is any indication, the Vikings are heading in the right direction.

Portland, one of the state’s most storied programs, and the two-time defending Class A North champions, hosted up-and-coming Oxford Hills in the teams’ mutual regular season opener at Fitzpatrick Stadium and promptly learned why the Vikings have earned plenty of buzz as the new season dawns.

The Bulldogs, who beat Oxford Hills, 55-7, in last year’s playoffs, were staggered in the first quarter, as the Vikings chewed up eight minutes in a 13-play, 80-yard drive. Oxford Hills went ahead, 7-0, on a 17-yard scamper by senior Dawson Stevens, who would enjoy a huge game.

Portland couldn’t do much offensively most of the first half, but after senior captain Vinnie Pasquali intercepted Vikings junior quarterback Colton Carson, Pasquali found himself on the receiving end of a 49-yard scoring pass from junior quarterback Ronaldo Wakati, which forged a 7-7 tie at halftime.

The Bulldogs hoped to take control in the second half, but as it did to start the game, Oxford Hills opened the second half with another scoring drive and went ahead to stay on a 47-yard touchdown run from Stevens with 7:15 to play in the third period.

The Vikings made it 20-7 when, after an interception, junior Emerson Brown scored on a 2-yard run later in the quarter.

Portland, not surprisingly, wouldn’t go quietly and made things interesting with junior Zach Elowitch scored on a 2-yard run with 6:27 remaining, but after Oxford Hills ran five minutes off the clock, one final Bulldogs series couldn’t produce points and the Vikings were able to celebrate a 20-14 victory.

Oxford Hills beat Portland for the first time in program history and handed the Bulldogs their second straight season-opening setback as the Vikings served notice that their aspirations go much deeper than a win in early September and that they expect to be in the hunt for the long haul.

“We played hard,” Bulldogs coach Jim Hartman said. “Portland kids don’t quit. We had 1,000 percent effort here tonight. I’m proud of these kids. We’re replacing some serious studs. These kids have to learn how to be the big boys.”

“We’ve had some success, but we needed to beat a good team in this league,” said Oxford Hills coach Mark Soehren. “Portland is always Portland. They have the ‘P’ on their helmet. Our goal this year is to make history. This is something we’ve focused on all summer. We wanted to be competitive and have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.” 

Fresh start

Portland won the past two Class A North championships, but couldn’t get over the hump in the Gold Ball game against some stellar opponents. Last fall, the Bulldogs finished 9-2 after falling, 34-14, to Bonny Eagle on the big stage.

The program was then decimated by graduation and has a lot of holes to fill as a new season dawns.

Oxford Hills, meanwhile, went 5-5 last season. This fall, the Vikings are viewed as a top contender in the region.

The Bulldogs also beat visiting Oxford Hills in the regular season last fall, 36-7, and had taken all five previous meetings (see sidebar, below).

Saturday night, the Vikings came out swinging and ultimately had just enough to make an early season statement.

Portland junior Quinn Clarke’s kickoff was good for a touchback, so Oxford Hills had to start from its 20 and after Stevens was held to no gain by Bulldogs sophomore Jonah Green, then was thrown for a two-yard loss by junior Nathan Kapongo, it appeared the visitors were going to go three-and-out, but on third-and-12, Vikings junior quarterback Colton Carson hit junior Cam Slicer for 13 yards and a first down.

After senior Jason Paradis ran for four yards, Stevens found some breathing room and raced for 15 yards and a first down at midfield. Spicer ran for a yard and Brown collected eight more before junior Parker LaFrance picked up three yards to move the chains again. After Stevens ran for four yards, Green sacked Carson for a seven-yard loss. A false start penalty backed up the visitors further, setting up third-and-18 from the Portland 46, but again, Carson came up huge, hitting Spicer for 26 yards down the middle of the field, setting up first down at the 20.

“We don’t normally give up those plays,” Hartman said. “We’re still learning.” 

After Stevens ran for eight yards, another false start penalty cost Oxford Hills five yards, but Stevens made that flag a moot point, taking off to his right and outracing the pursuit to the pylon for a 17-yard TD with 4 minutes remaining in the first period.

Stevens added the extra point to cap the time consuming march and give the Vikings a 7-0 lead.

“That was exactly what we wanted to do to start the game,” Soehren said.

Portland hoped to answer and did move the chains once before having to punt.

After Elowitch ran for two yards, Pasquali picked up seven. On third-and-1, a bad snap ensued, but Elowitch recovered at the first down marker. After Elowitch was held to no gain, Pasquali gained seven yards, but on third -and-3, Pasquali was thrown for a five-yard loss by senior Dylan Cobbett, ending the drive.

After a punt and a block in the back penalty, the Vikings started from their 30 and on the final play of the opening stanza, Stevens picked up one yard. On the first play of the second period, Stevens ran for six yards and a facemask penalty on the Bulldogs set up a first down at the 42. Portland’s defense then stiffened, as two Stevens runs gained two yards and Carson’s third down pass to senior Tasker Winslow was only good for five yards, forcing a punt.

With 9:37 to go before halftime, the Bulldogs started at their 20, but again went nowhere, as Elowitch was held to no gain, Pasquali lost a yard and Wakati threw incomplete.

Oxford Hills got the ball back at the Portland 41, but couldn’t capitalize, as after Stevens ran for eight yards, then two to set up third-and-inches, a Carson run for a yard and a first down was wiped out by a chop block penalty. Senior Jordan Silver ran for five yards on third-and-15, but the Vikings had to punt and pinned the Bulldogs at their 16.

Again, Portland went backwards, as an incomplete pass was followed by a false start penalty and after Wakati was sacked for a nine-yard loss back to the 2 by senior Jamal Hill, Elowitch was held to no yards and the Bulldogs punted again.

Oxford Hills started at the Portland 21 with 4:20 to go before halftime, but again failed to extend their lead.

After an illegal procedure penalty backed the Vikings up five yards, junior Ben Levine held Stevens to no gain and Carson threw incomplete. Carson then threw again, but he was intercepted by Pasquali at the 10 and Pasquali brought the ball back to the 40, giving the Bulldogs life.

After doing nothing in its first three series, Portland got its offense going in a big way, as senior Terion Moss touched the ball for the first time and ran for 11 yards and on the next play, Wakati dropped back and lofted a beautiful spiral into the arms of Pasquali behind the secondary and Pasquali ran into the end zone to complete a 49-yard scoring pass with 3:03 to go before halftime. Clarke’s PAT tied the score, 7-7.

Oxford Hills looked to bounce right back when it started at its 20 after a touchback, moving the chains on an eight-yard run from Carson and a 10-yard sweep from Stevens. On the next play, a four-yard run by Spicer, a personal foul was called on the Bulldogs and the Vikings had a first down at the Portland 43. After Stevens ran for six yards, he was held to no gain by Bulldogs junior Ben Stasium, but Carson moved the chains again with a six-yard keeper, setting up a first down at the 31. Stevens gained six more yards, but Carson went to the air on the next snap and after a deflection, Pasquali intercepted the ball again at the 9 and he returned the ball all the way to the Oxford Hills 37 with 27.5 seconds on the clock.

Portland wasn’t able to take the lead, however, as Wakati was sacked by senior Shawn Hermanson and on the play, Wakati was injured, ending his night.

In the first half, the Vikings managed 149 yards to the Bulldogs’ 54. Stevens gained 83 yards and had one touchdown on 17 carries.

With the game very much in the balance as the second half started, Portland looked to carry over its momentum, but couldn’t take the lead.

The Bulldogs started the third period at their 20 after a touchback and with Wakati injured, turned to sophomore Sam Knop to lead them. Knop threw to senior Griffin Foley on his first play and Foley broke three tackles en route to an 11-yard gain. When Pasquali ran for 15 yards on the next play, it appeared Portland was in business, but after a three-yard Foley reception and a one-yard Elowitch run, Knop’s pass down the middle went off the outstretched hands of junior Nico Leavitt, necessitating a punt.

With 9:46 left in the third, the Vikings started at their 40 and four plays and 2:31 later, they were on top to stay.

After starting the drive inauspiciously with a false start penalty, Oxford Hills got going on a four-yard Stevens run, a seven-yard keeper by Carson and a 12-yard pickup by Stevens, setting up a first down at the Portland 42. After another false start, Stevens got the ball on a pitch to the right and while he appeared to be surrounded by three defenders, he shook off one tackle, accelerated, then left the defense in his wake en route to a 47-yard scoring burst. 

“I know last year they liked to string me out and give me the sideline and that’s what they did,” Stevens said.  “All offseason, I’ve been working on getting my foot in the ground and cutting back. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I credit the offensive line. All of my success is because of them.”

Stevens added the extra point and with 7:15 to play in the third period, the Vikings were on top, 14-7.

The Bulldogs’ next drive began in promising fashion, as Moss ran for 11 yards, but after Pasquali picked up one yard and Knop threw incomplete, Knop’s pass on third-and-9 was picked by junior Alex Turner, who brought the ball back to the Portland 43.

Oxford Hills only needed four plays and 2:54 to reach paydirt once more.

Stevens ran twice for eight yards and after a false start penalty, a fumbled exchange was recovered by junior lineman Austin Doughty, setting up fourth-and-3. The Vikings then crossed up the Bulldogs, giving the ball to sophomore J.J. Worster for the only time all night and Worster broke a tackle and burst free up the middle for 35 yards. Moss hauled him down at the 2 to momentarily save the touchdown, but on the next snap, Brown plunged into the end zone. A bad snap short-circuited the PAT, but with 3:07 left in the third, Oxford Hills had a 20-7 lead.

As the third quarter gave way to the fourth, Portland looked to counter, but would be frustrated again.

Starting at the 20 after another touchback, the Bulldogs saw Knop pick up five yards after a bad snap before being leveled by a defender. Pasquali then gained 12 yards before fumbling, but Moss was in the right spot at the right time to retain possession. After Knop found Foley for five yards, Doughty and Worster sacked Knop for an eight-yard loss and a delay of game penalty set up third-and-18 as the final stanza began. There, Knop hit Pasquali for 13 yards, but Pasquali fumbled at the end of the play and Silver came up with the loose ball at the Portland 45.

The Vikings wouldn’t convert the turnover into points.

After Stevens ran for eight yards, Oxford Hills was backed up with a personal foul penalty and after an incomplete pass and three-yard Stevens run, Stevens attempted a rugby punt, running to his right before kicking the ball, but the kick was blocked by Green and Portland took over at the Vikings’ 32 with 9:57 left.

The Bulldogs needed seven plays and 3:23, but they would score to make things interesting.

After Pasquali lost a yard, Elowitch ran for three and Knop threw incomplete, with the ball going through Foley’s hands, Knop tried Foley again on fourth-and-8 and Foley managed to make a highlight reel 19-yard catch, pinning the ball between his arm and his helmet, bringing up painful memories for Patriots fans of a similar play that won’t be named. Foley’s catch set up first-and-10 from the 11 and after Moss swept for two yards to the left and Knop hit Moss for seven more, on third-and-1 from the 2, Elowitch got the handoff and ran left into the end zone with 6:34 to go.

Clarke’s PAT was deflected at the line, but somehow carried over the crossbar to cut the deficit to 20-14.

Portland needed a defensive stop to get the ball back with a chance to win it and the Bulldogs would do so, but five-plus minutes bled off the clock before that happened.

The Vikings, who started at their 28, regained momentum as Carson ran for six yards, Stevens picked up three and LaFrance gained four on a dive to set up a first down at the 41. Two more Stevens runs picked up 11 more yards to move the chains again. After Stevens ran for 10 yards to the Portland 38, a holding penalty finally slowed Oxford Hills and three Stevens runs only gained four yards, forcing a punt.

With just 1:10 remaining, the Bulldogs started at their 33 with no timeouts at their disposal.

Knop hit Foley for five yards on first down, but Pasquali couldn’t haul in a Knop pass on second down and Knop threw incomplete again, setting up fourth-and-5. Knop dropped back again and got the pass off, but this time, Carson batted it down and the Vikings got the ball back on downs.

Carson took a knee twice and at 9:18 p.m., Oxford Hills was able to celebrate a win over Portland for the first time, 20-14.

“It’s a great feeling,” Stevens said. “Like Coach said, ‘We should start the season with a win at Fitzy and end with a win at Fitzy.’ That’s the goal. We want to be state champions.”

“We’re two different teams from last year,” Soehren said. “We thought we were prepared last year, but they had an excellent team and they got us. This time, we had to come ready to play. The kids are a little different this year.”

The Vikings finished with 272 yards. Stevens gained 193 yards and had two TDs on 32 carries.

“(Dawson) ran great,” Soehren said. “All those four-yard runs could be 40-yard runs. He hit the hole hard and can break it. He’s a tough kid.”

Oxford Hills did turn the ball over twice, had a punt blocked and committed 11 penalties for 86 yards.

Portland finished with 153 yards. Knop completed 6-of-13 passes for 50 yards with one interception and no touchdowns. Wakati completed 1-of-3 attempts for 49 yards and a TD. Pasquali rushed eight times for 35 yards and caught the one touchdown pass for 49 yards. Elowitch ran six times for 5 yards and a TD. Foley caught five passes for 43 yards. Moss ran three times for 24 yards and had one reception for 7.

“Terion was phenomenal on both sides of the ball,” Hartman said. “He may end up somewhere else next week. He did a beautiful job setting the edge. They didn’t run on his side.”

The Bulldogs turned the ball over twice and were penalized seven times for 65 yards.

“We couldn’t run inside like we normally do and we couldn’t get the edge,” Hartman said. “We did a good job throwing the ball. Replacing our quarterback hurt.”

Short week

Oxford Hills is back in action Friday when it plays its home opener versus Lewiston. The Vikings hope to keep their good times rolling.

“If we keep winning, we’ll see (Portland) again in the playoffs,” Soehren said. “We need to get better. A lot of what we did wasn’t good enough, but 1-0 feels a lot better than 0-1. Hopefully we can keep this going.”

Portland travels Friday to Edward Little, another potentially dangerous foe. The Bulldogs then host Bonny Eagle and Windham and go to Cheverus, so the road clearly gets no easier.

“The talent is there,” Hartman said. “We’ve got to learn. We’ll get better. We have our hands full the next four weeks.”

Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse contributed to this story.

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

Portland senior Terion Moss looks for running room.

Portland senior Griffin Foley tackles Oxford Hills senior Dawson Stevens.

Portland senior Vinnie Pasquali races upfield with an interception as Oxford Hills senior Tasker Winslow looks on.

Portland junior Nico Leavitt, left, and sophomore Jamal Moriba bring down Oxford Hills junior quarterback Colton Carson.

Portland senior Vinnie Pasquali celebrates after catching a second quarter touchdown pass.

Recent Portland-Oxford Hills results

2016
@ Portland 36 Oxford Hills 7
Class A North semifinal
@ Portland 55 Oxford Hills 7

2015
Portland 41 @ Oxford Hills 0

2014
@ Portland 14 Oxford Hills 7

2013
Portland 68 @ Oxford Hills 0

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