Portland's title dream dashed; Valiant Bulldogs drop heartbreaker to repeat champ Thornton Academy

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Portland senior captains Joe Esposito (31) and Dan Marzilli receive the runner-up trophy after the Bulldogs’ 24-14 loss to Thornton Academy in Saturday’s Class A state final. Portland suffered its first loss of the season as the Golden Trojans repeated as champion.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.


Thornton Academy 24 Portland 14

TA- 14 0 0 10- 24
P- 0 0 14 0- 14

First quarter
TA- Ruff 6 run (Cadorette kick)
TA- Lambert 71 punt return (Cadorette kick) 

Second quarter
No scoring 

Third quarter
P- Knop 14 pass from Bachelder (Williams kick)
P- Esposito 4 run (Williams kick) 

Fourth quarter
TA- Cadorette 32 FG
TA- McCrum 15 run (Cadorette kick) 

PORTLAND—All autumn, Portland’s football team rode its magnificent defense and unrivaled heart and pride to victory after victory.

Saturday, in the Class A state final at Fitzpatrick Stadium, against defending champion Thornton Academy, the Bulldogs again were stellar on defense and never gave in, despite falling behind early by two touchdowns.

But on this day, Portland couldn’t overcome its mistakes and with a first Gold Ball in 13 seasons close enough to taste, the Bulldogs fell just short of the shimmering prize.

Portland dug an early 14-0 hole, largely by virtue of self-inflicted wounds.

First, after a Bulldogs fumble on a punt, the Golden Trojans went ahead on a 6 yard touchdown run from senior captain Greg Ruff and an extra point from junior Cam Cadorette.

Then, after Portland went three-and-out on its next possession, senior Ben Lambert returned the ensuing punt 71 yards to paydirt for a seemingly commanding 14-0 lead with the game not even eight minutes old.

The Bulldogs weren’t able to answer the remainder of the first half, but their defense, sparked by an interception from junior Jake Knop, held the fort and kept Thornton Academy within hailing distance.

Portland came out a different team in the second half and showed the capacity crowd, estimated somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people, what it’s made of, getting on the board by virtue of a gorgeous 14 yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder to Knop, then pulling even when senior standout Joe Esposito scored on a 4 yard burst with 1:08 to play in the third quarter.

But the Golden Trojans have no shortage of pride themselves and their big game experience proved to be the difference, as the defending champs drove to re-take the lead, 17-14, when Cadorette drilled a 32 yard field goal with 10:28 remaining.

After the Bulldogs failed to answer and punted, controversy reigned when first, Portland thought it had forced a fumble only to have the runner called down, then, after the Bulldogs appeared to force a punt, a personal foul penalty gave Thornton Academy a first down and with 4:55 to play, Golden Trojans senior quarterback Austin McCrum scored on a 15 yard run for some breathing room.

This time, Portland couldn’t answer and after taking their fans on a joyous three-month ride of triumph, the Bulldogs’ title quest ended with a 24-14 loss to the defending and now repeat champions, as both teams finished the year 10-1.

“We’re a good team, but it was just a couple plays here and there today,” said Portland coach Jim Hartman. “I’m proud of the boys. We weren’t supposed to be able to come back, but we damn well did and we should have come out of here with a victory.”

Titanic struggle

You couldn’t have drawn up a better matchup for the state championship in the biggest class in Maine.

On one sideline was tradition-rich Portland, playing on its homefield no less. The Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker to Windham in last year’s semifinals and this fall had no peer (see sidebar for earlier game stories).

Portland opened with a 47-26 win at Scarborough, then stymied every remaining foe, downing visiting Edward Little (33-0), visiting Windham (10-3), host Oxford Hills (41-0), visiting Cheverus (16-14), host Lewiston (65-0), host Bangor (59-0) and visiting South Portland (31-0) to complete the program’s first 8-0 regular season since 2005.

As the top seed in Class A North, the Bulldogs earned a bye into the semifinals, then crushed No. 4 Bangor (56-7) and avenged last year’s ouster with an impressive 24-7 victory over No. 2 Windham in the regional final.

Squaring off with Portland was Thornton Academy, which won two of the past three championships, including a 35-14 decision over Windham a year ago, and entered the 2015 campaign as heavy favorites to do it again.

The Golden Trojans had no peer early, crushing visiting Sanford (49-0) and Cheverus (57-0), then winning, 42-20, at Deering, but on Sept. 25, Thornton Academy lost at Windham, 24-14. That served as a necessary and well-received wakeup call and the Golden Trojans closed the regular season with victories over visiting Scarborough (48-7), host Massabesic (55-7), host South Portland (42-14) and visiting Bonny Eagle (45-21) to wind up first in Class A South.

After a quarterfinal round bye, Thornton Academy dispatched fourth-ranked Scarborough, 35-0, in the semifinals, the outlasted No. 3 Bonny Eagle, 24-14, in the regional final.

The Bulldogs and Golden Trojans didn’t meet in a countable game this year (they did play in the preseason and last met when it counted Oct. 6, 2011, a 14-12 road win for Thornton Academy). Entering play Saturday, the teams had met three times in the postseason (see sidebar), with Portland winning in the 1982 semifinals (34-14) and the 2004 quarterfinals (48-6) and Thornton Academy taking the 1994 quarterfinals (27-12). 

The Golden Trojans had won four of five previous state final appearances (see sidebar) and were also awarded championships in the pre-title game era in 1954, 1955 and 1962.

The Bulldogs had prevailed in two of their previous three state game appearances, downing Sanford (14-10) in 1982 and Edward Little (41-6) in 2002 and losing to Bangor (20-14) in 2001. Portland was also given the 1952 state title.

Saturday, on a pleasant morning/afternoon (kickoff temperature was 44 degrees with a negligible five mile-per-hour wind), the Bulldogs dug a hole, climbed out of it and had a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, but the defending champs did what it took with the game on the line and managed to go back-to-back.

Thornton Academy won the opening coin toss and deferred possession to the second half.

Portland got the ball first and not surprisingly, put the ball in Esposito’s hands early.

After Esposito ran for four yards on first down, a holding penalty backed up the Bulldogs. Esposito then ran for two yards and Bachelder threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

Portland’s defense rose up on the Golden Trojans’ first possession, holding McCrum to three yards on a run, allowing just two yards to Ruff, then on third down, forcing McCrum to throw incomplete.

Thornton Academy had to punt, but got the game’s first break as Bulldogs junior Dylan Bolduc, after a nine-yard return, fumbled and Golden Trojans senior Evan Russell recovered at the Portland 32.

Thornton Academy took advantage, driving 32 yards in seven plays in 2 minutes, 58 seconds to strike first.

After a false start penalty backed the Golden Trojans up five yards, McCrum hit Lambert on a screen for 17 yards and a first down at the 20. After Ruff ran for two yards, he was thrown for a two-yard loss by junior Ethan Hoyt. Lambert made a nice diving catch for five yards, but that set up fourth-and-5, where McCrum rolled right and hit senior Corey Hart for seven yards and a first-and-goal at the 8. After McCrum ran for two yards, Ruff got the call, burst up the middle and scored on a 6 yard run to break the ice with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter. Cadorette added the extra point and Thornton Academy was up, 7-0.

Just like that, Portland faced its biggest deficit of the season (the Bulldogs were down by three points against Windham in week three, four against Cheverus in week five and four against Windham in the semifinals).

The Bulldogs went three-and-out on their second possession as well, as Esposito ran for three yards, was held for no gain, then Bachelder threw incomplete. Junior Nick Archambault came on to punt and booted the ball 37 yards to Lambert, who grabbed the punt along the near sideline at the Golden Trojans’ 29, got a block (Portland’s coaching staff advocated for a block in the back to no avail), cut back and as he neared the far sideline, turned the corner, then outran the pursuit and didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line for a 71 yard score. Cadorette’s PAT with 4:08 to go in the first quarter extended Thornton Academy’s lead to 14-0.

Portland, which played from ahead almost the whole season, found itself in a two-score hole, but instead of allowing the Golden Trojans to break it open, the Bulldogs relied on their defense to keep the game close the remainder of the half.

Portland’s third possession also failed to result in a first down, as Esposito ran for five yards, was held to no gain, then Archambault picked up four. On fourth-and-1, the Bulldogs took a delay of game penalty, then punted.

Thornton Academy started at its 40 and as the first quarter came to a close, began to drive again.

After Ruff was brought down by Bolduc for a two-yard loss, McCrum hit junior Rome Pura for six yards and on third-and-6, connected with senior captain Owen Elliott for seven more and a first down at the Portland 49. After McCrum threw incomplete, he found Pura, who made a nice sliding catch, for 11 yards and another first down on the opening stanza’s final play (the Golden Trojans had a 59-6 edge in yardage in the first 12 minutes).

Thornton Academy tried to break the game open on the first play of the second period, but Knop intercepted McCrum’s deep pass and the Bulldogs took over at their 13.

On the first play of the next possession, Portland finally managed a first down as senior George Chaison-Lapine, who was limited the second half of the season and the playoffs with an ankle injury, broke free for 12 yards. Archambault ran for two yards and Esposito picked up eight, setting up third-and-inches, where Esposito gained four yards for a first down at the 39. After Esposito ran for four more yards, the drive ended when Bachelder tried to hit Knop deep, only to see Lambert tip the ball to himself, then make a fabulous interception at the Thornton Academy 18.

The Golden Trojans moved the chains as Ruff ran for six yards, then five, but after McCrum ran for two, a holding penalty backed Thornton Academy up and a Ruff six-yard run and a McCrum incomplete pass forced a punt.

Portland got its best field position as it started at its 47, but after Archambault was held to no gain and Esposito ran for six yards, Bachelder had a pass tipped by Pura and the Bulldogs had to punt. Hartman then had Archambault try a fake, but the Golden Trojans weren’t fooled and they threw him for a loss, taking over at their 48 with 5:29 to go in the half.

Thornton Academy got a three-yard run from Ruff on first down, but a chop block penalty moved the ball back 15 yards. Pura then made a 13-yard reception with Esposito draped all over him, but McCrum, under pressure from senior Austin Phillips, threw incomplete to force a punt. After two false start penalties on the Golden Trojans, Pura only managed a 20-yard punt, but a roughing the kicker penalty gave Thornton Academy a first down at the Portland 46. The Bulldogs defense continued to rise to the occasion, holding Ruff to a yard, McCrum to two, then forcing McCrum to throw incomplete.

This time, Pura’s punt stood and with 2:04 to go before halftime, Portland started at its 10. Chaison-Lapine ran for a yard, then picked up four, but Esposito’s two-yard run set up fourth down and forced a punt.

With 58.1 seconds remaining in the half, The Golden Trojans started at midfield, but they couldn’t add to their lead.

After McCrum ran for nine yards, Bulldogs senior Jake Hunnewell sacked McCrum for seven yards and although McCrum got those seven back on the next play, time ran out in the half and Thornton Academy took a 14-0 lead to the break.

“We gave them two free touchdowns, but we weren’t going to quit,” Hartman said.

In the first half, the Golden Trojans had 84 yards of offense, but were hindered by five penalties for 42 yards. McCrum completed 7 of 13 passes for 66 yards and Ruff had 27 yards on 10 carries.

Portland got 38 yards on 11 carries from Esposito and 17 yards on three attempts from Chaison-Lapine, but three penalties for 27 yards left the Bulldogs with just 19 yards of offense in a first half which saw Portland earn just two first downs.

Despite the deficit, the Bulldogs didn’t panic and the third quarter was a completely different story.

First, Portland’s defense made a statement by forcing a Thornton Academy three-and-out, as Ruff ran for three yards, McCrum threw incomplete, then Lambert ran for just six yards on third-and-7 and Phillips threw Ruff for a one-yard loss on fourth-and-1.

That play call, from the Golden Trojans’ 37, came as a shock to many.

“We do that all the time,” said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal. “It’s nothing new. We’re aggressive. We believe in our kids. They just made a great play. Portland is so scrappy. They give you a lot of different looks. It’s hard to figure them out.”

Starting from the Golden Trojans’ 36, the Bulldogs’ offense finally hit its stride and seven plays and 2:53 later, were right back in the game.

After Chaison-Lapine ran for two yards and Esposito did the same, Esposito broke free for seven yards and a first down. Esposito then ran for four yards and a facemask penalty moved the ball to the 16. Esposito ran for a yard and a first down and after Archambault picked up a yard, Bachelder, who hadn’t completed a pass to that point, dropped back, then floated a pass to the end zone where Knop came down with the ball for the 14 yard touchdown. Senior John Williams added the extra point and with 7:32 to go in the third period, Portland trailed by only seven, 14-7.

At that point, you could feel a palpable momentum shift and it wasn’t long until the Bulldogs forced another punt.

Thornton Academy did get a first down, as after Hunnewell dropped Ruff for a two-yard loss, McCrum hit Pura for four yards and Hart for 11 for a first down at the 34. After Lambert ran for seven yards, Portland senior captain Dan Marzilli dropped McCrum for a four-yard loss, then McCrum threw incomplete.

With 4:50 to go in the quarter, the Bulldogs started at their 33 and nine plays and 3:42 even, pulled even.

The drive began inauspiciously, as Esposito ran for two yards and Bachelder, under pressure, threw incomplete, but Bachelder connected with Knop for a 33 yard bomb deep down the middle for a first down at the Golden Trojans’ 32. After Chaison-Lapine ran for six yards, he picked up five more for a first down at the 21. Esposito ran for a yard, then Bachelder found Bolduc, who made a nice sprawling catch for 14 yards along the left sideline to set up a first-and-goal from the 6. After Chaison-Lapine ran for two yards, Esposito did the rest, bulling in from the 4 and after Williams added the PAT, the game was deadlocked, 14-14, with 1:08 to play in the third period.

“We didn’t have a lot to say at halftime,” Hartman said. “We made some small changes and went out and played football. We had to throw the ball since they had two safeties in the box. They gave us the pass and we took it.”

Hart only returned the ensuing kickoff to the 18 and Thornton Academy appeared in trouble, but McCrum hit Lambert with a short pass and Lambert broke tackles en route to a 27-yard gain up to the 45 to give his team some life.

“That little hitch pass was a killer when they hit that,” Hartman said. “That took field position away from us.”

Ruff ran for four yards, then, on the final play of the third period, picked up three more to put the ball at the Portland 48.

After gaining only 19 first half yards, the Bulldogs picked up 103 in the third period.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, McCrum connected with Lambert for 28 yards and a first down at the 20. Ruff gained a yard, McCrum threw incomplete and McCrum ran for four yards to set up fourth down, but Cadorette came out and calmly drilled the biggest kick of his life to date, a 32 yard field goal, which put the Golden Trojans ahead to stay, 17-14, with 10:28 remaining.

For the first time since its first possession, Portland then had a chance to drive for the lead, but wasn’t able to do so.

After Esposito was held to no gain, Chaison-Lapine moved the chains with an 11-yard run. Esposito was again held to no gain, but Knop ran for 11 yards and recovered his own fumble for a first down at the Bulldogs’ 48. Chaison-Lapine ran for three yards to put the ball on the Thornton Academy side of the field, but that’s as good as it got, as Elliott and Russell combined to sack Bachelder for a three-yard loss and on the next snap, Bachelder, under pressure, threw the ball up for grabs and junior Michael Laverriere intercepted it at the Golden Trojans’ 27 with 6:57 left.

Thornton Academy would then drive 73 yards in six plays and 2:02 for the backbreaking touchdown, but it didn’t come without controversy.

After McCrum just missed Hart on what could have been a long TD pass (Hart couldn’t hold on), the Golden Trojans were flagged for illegal procedure, costing them five yards. Ruff then ran for 11 yards and at the end of the play, Knop came out with the ball, insisting he’d recovered a fumble, but the officials ruled Ruff down. Hoyt then held McCrum to no gain on third-and-4, but just when it appeared Thornton Academy was going to have to punt, a flag was thrown and a personal foul penalty was called on the Bulldogs, giving the Golden Trojans a first down at the 48.

No official reason was given for the flag, but it was suggested there was a kick or a slap to McCrum’s head, or perhaps a comment made to an official.

“We had that unfortunate penalty,” Hartman lamented. “It was unsportsmanlike on somebody. They would have had to punt and we would have had the ball at the 50 and it would have been a different game.”

Regardless, Thornton Academy was in business and soon took advantage.

After Ruff was held to no gain, McCrum kept the ball and found a huge hole on the left side. He raced down the sideline and 37 yards later, only a nice tackle from behind from Bolduc saved the touchdown.


On the next snap, McCrum kept the ball again and on an identical play, broke free down the left side and ran in for a 15 yard touchdown with 4:55 left. 

“We weren’t lined up right and (McCrum’s) a good football player,” Hartman said. “Being here three of the last four years was an immense help to them.”

“We had a good start, but they seized momentum in the third quarter and we had to weather it and we made some plays in the fourth quarter,” Kezal said. “We want the ball in Austin’s hands. He made good throws and made good runs late in the game. They overplayed our motion, so we could hit it back the other way.”

Cadorette added the PAT for a 24-14 lead.

With the clock as big an enemy as the score, Portland hoped to answer, but Bachelder threw incomplete (as Pura knocked down his pass), Bolduc slipped on a reverse and gained nothing and on third-and-10, Bachelder was sacked for a seven-yard loss by senior captain Elijiah Ayotte, forcing a punt.

Thornton Academy got the ball back at its 27 with 3:15 to play and hoped to run out the clock, but after McCrum ran for six yards, an illegal motion penalty backed up the Golden Trojans, McCrum lost two yards and Lambert lost four more, forcing a punt.

The Bulldogs got one final chance when they started at the Thornton Academy 43 with 1:22 to play, but Bachelder threw incomplete, Ayotte sacked the quarterback for a five-yard loss, Bachelder threw incomplete and on Portland’s final offensive play of the season, Bachelder was intercepted by Elliott at the Golden Trojans’ 47 with just 23.2 seconds remaining.

At that point, it was academic, and McCrum took a knee to make it official and at 1:21 p.m., Thornton Academy was once again the champion of the Class A football world by virtue of its 24-14 victory.

“We just preach composure,” McCrum said. “We’ve been here before. We just had to stay calm. We expect adversity. We didn’t know exactly when. It came in the second half. That’s just how it ended up. I thought we pulled through it nicely.”

“We knew it would be a battle,” Kezal said. “They’re tough on D. Credit to our seniors, they’ve had great careers for us. They went over to Cheverus and got their tails kicked in sophomore year and since then, they’ve really gone out there and played great football for us. The kids are great when the ball comes to them and they’re even better when the ball doesn’t come their way, blocking for each other and picking each other up. We knew we had the bulls-eye coming in, but I give the kids credit, they worked their tails off.”

The Golden Trojans wound up with 234 yards and overcame one turnover and eight penalties for 57 yards.

McCrum, who will play at Lafayette College next year, completed 11 of 21 passes for 136 yards and ran 13 times for 81 yards and a touchdown.

Lambert caught four passes for 77 yards, ran twice for 13 yards and had the punt return for a score.

Ruff ran 18 times for 46 yards.

Pura had four catches for 34 yards, Hart caught a pair of passes for 18 and Elliott had one reception for 7 yards. 

Graduation will take a heavy toll on the Golden Trojans, but in many quarters, they’ll be seen as the favorite when the 2016 season commences.

And Thornton Academy will be ready.

“January, February and March, when you’re in the weight room when it’s dark and no one is cheering for you, that’s when you win games,” Kezal said.

Bitter end

Portland got a solid defensive performance, but just couldn’t generate enough offense to prevail, managing a mere 132 yards while being penalized four times for 42 yards and turning the ball over four times.

Esposito couldn’t get things going on this day, gaining only 59 yards and scoring a touchdown on 20 carries.

Chaison-Lapine picked up 46 yards on nine carries.

“We had to take them both away and our defense did a great job containing those two guys,” Kezal said.

Archambault gained 6 yards on five rushes.

Bachelder completed 4 of 14 passes for 72 yards and a TD. He was intercepted three times.

Knop had three receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown, while Bolduc had one catch for 14 yards.

The Bulldogs, who trailed for all of 32 minutes, 40 seconds in 10 previous games, played from behind most of Saturday, as they faced a deficit for 33:45.

Portland was distraught after the contest.

“I can’t say anything, just hug them,” Hartman said. “They’ll see what they accomplished after Thanksgiving, or maybe 10 years from now, but not until then. I’m happy. The kids played like they can play and we got the job done.

“Coming into the season, I knew we’d be good. We have good players.”

Portland does have one game left, as it battles ancient rival Deering Thanksgiving Day.

The Bulldogs graduate some special players, but return the likes of Archambault, Bachelder, Bolduc, Hoyt and Knop, among others, and will look to get back to the big stage in 2016.

“We have a ton of kids coming back, some serious talent,” Hartman said. “We just have to do a better job.”

Sun Journal staff writer Kalle Oakes contributed to this story.

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

Portland senior George Chaison-Lapine, who missed much of the season with injury, bursts through a hole. Chaison-Lapine ended up with 46 yards on nine carries.

Portland junior quarterback Issiah Bachelder throws on the run while being pressured by Thornton Academy senior Evan Russell.

Portland junior Jake Knop intercepts a pass in the second quarter.

Portland junior Dylan Bolduc makes a key third quarter reception. The catch led to the tying score.

Portland senior workhorse Joe Esposito fights through a tackle. Esposito, the Class A North MVP, was held to 59 yards on 20 carries.

Portland junior Ethan Hoyt celebrates after the Bulldogs make a key third down stop.

Portland junior Jake Knop makes the signal after picking up a first down.

Portland senior Joe Esposito, left, and junior Nick Archambault do their best to bring down Thornton Academy senior captain Greg Ruff.

Thornton Academy senior Ben Lambert, left, Portland senior Austin Phillips and Thornton Academy junior Michael Laverriere go for the ball late in the game.

Portland’s fan section turned out in force Saturday.

Thornton Academy celebrates its second successive Class A championship.

Justin Pelletier / Sun Journal photo.

Previous Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 47 Scarborough 26

Portland 33 Edward Little 0

Portland 10 Windham 3

Portland 16 Cheverus 14

Portland 24 Windham 7

Previous Thornton Academy stories

Thornton Academy 57 Cheverus 0

Sidebar Elements

Previous Portland-Thornton Academy playoff results

2004 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 48 Thornton Academy 6

1994 Western A quarterfinals
Thornton Academy 27 Portland 12

1982 Class A semifinals
Portland 34 Thornton Academy 14 

Previous Portland state game results (2-1)

2002 Class A
Portland 41 Edward Little 6

2001 Class A
Bangor 20 Portland 14 

1982 Class A
Portland 14 Sanford 10 

Previous Thornton Academy state game results (4-1)

2014 Class A
Thornton Academy 35 Windham 14

2012 Class A
Thornton Academy 37 Lawrence 23 

1988 Class A 
Thornton Academy 47 Lawrence 13 

1986 Class A
Thornton Academy 28 Bangor 6 

1974 Class A
Waterville 23 Thornton Academy 8 

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