SACO — A single yard was what separated victory from defeat, moving on from going home.
South Portland senior running back Joey DiBiase was stacked up a yard short of the goal line on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with 2.1 seconds left as the No. 3 Red Riots fell to No. 2 Thornton Academy 20-15 in Saturday’s Western Class A semifinal football game.
The Golden Trojans (9-1) move on to face No. 1 Cheverus (10-0) in the regional championship.
South Portland finishes its best season since 2000 at 7-3. The Red Riots handed Thornton Academy its only loss of the regular season, 20-16 on Sept. 9. Last year’s South Portland squad ended a nine-year playoff drought for the program but fell in the quarterfinals. This year, the team made it a step further, hosting and defeating Sanford 33-13 in the quarters, its first postseason victory since 2000.
And the Red Riots were oh-so-close to reaching the regional final, but their fourth quarter comeback came up just short.
South Portland capped an 11-play, 77-yard drive with DiBiase’s 1-yard touchdown plunge to make it 20-15 with 8:23 left in the game. The two-point conversion attempt failed.
Thornton Academy was quickly forced to punt after South Portland senior Zac Gillette dropped Golden Trojan junior quarterback Eric Christensen for a 2-yard loss on third-and-4.
The Red Riots took over at their own 39 with 6:26 remaining. After a holding penalty pushed them back, senior quarterback Michael Salvatore completed passes to seniors Logan Gaddar (8 yards) and Max Porter (12 yards) to get reach midfield and pick up a first down.
Three straight runs by DiBiase got South Portland another first down at the Thornton 36, but two negative runs and an incompletion set up a fourth-and-14 at the 40. Salvatore was able to find senior Dan Medici down the right sideline for a 25-yard gain. Medici made a fabulous diving grab over his shoulder while dragging a leg inbounds.
After two short runs and an incompletion, South Portland faced fourth-and-8 from the 13 and called its final timeout to set up a play. While Salvatore’s pass to the end zone was intercepted, Thornton Academy was flagged for pass interference, giving the Red Riots first-and-goal at the 7 with under 50 seconds play and no timeouts.
On first down, Salvatore kept the ball on a bootleg, but found no room on the edge and ran out of bounds to stop the clock after a gain of a yard. An offsides penalty on Thornton Academy moved the ball to the 3. DiBiase picked up a yard on second down, but the clock continued to run. Salvatore spiked the ball on third down to stop the clock with 7.2 seconds left. DiBiase — a workhorse all day, picking up 101 yards on 29 carries — took the handoff on fourth down with the game and the season hanging in the balance. Met almost immediately, his legs churned to cover half the needed distance, but he was brought down feet short of the winning touchdown.
“We made a great play down at the goal line to turn them away,” said Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal.
It was a tough outcome to take for a South Portland team that outgained Thornton Academy 305-162 and overcame three turnovers to put itself in a position to win.
“They responded to adversity a lot today against a very talented Thornton Academy team,” said South Portland coach Steve Stinson. “Like we talk about with our guys, we try to put performances and work together that we are proud of. The scoreboard isn’t our only barometer.
“We tell them all year long, sometimes you’re going to win one and sometimes you’re going to lose one. We won one earlier in the year (against Thornton Academy), and now we lost one. It by no means reflects on the quality of their character. It’s going to hurt now and it’s going to hurt for a while, but they’ll realize in life that there are going to be bigger things down the road.”
Stinson praised his seniors for the work they’ve done over their four years, bringing the proud program back to contender status. It started even before the players reached the varsity level.
“This senior class, as freshmen they were 7-1,” Stinson said. “They only lost to Wells that year. They’ve been amazing. That’s what makes football so special. They worked for four years. In the summer, the offseason. That’s a lot of work. They’ve been able to flip a culture. It wasn’t that long ago we were 0-16 (combined record in 2005 and 2006) and just trying to win a football game. And now we’re an inch away from the Western Maine championship game and it’s all because of their work.”
South Portland had a tough opening quarter on the offensive end, turning the ball over twice and failing to capitalize on good field position.
After forcing the Golden Trojans to go four-and-out to open the game, the Red Riots also had to punt away their opening possession, but Thornton Academy fumbled on the return and Medici recovered at the Golden Trojan 35. On second-and-5 from the 19, Salvatore’s pass was tipped by Thornton Academy junior Dakota Tarbox and intercepted by senior Chris Madden, who returned it 69 yards to the South Portland 11. On the next play, sophomore Andrew Libby ran in for an 11-yard TD. Junior Brandon Briggs added the kick to make it 7-0 with 6:17 left in the first quarter.
Medici returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards to the Thornton Academy 29, but three plays later, South Portland fumbled and Tarbox recovered.
The Red Riots forced another Thornton Academy punt, then marched 75 yards on 11 plays to get within 7-6 with 10:17 left in the first half as Salvatore capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. Libby blocked the point-after attempt by senior Brendan Horton.
The Golden Trojans took a 14-6 lead with 30 seconds left in the half as Libby ran in from a yard out and Briggs added the kick.
Horton made it 14-9 with a 22-yard field goal with 7:33 left in the third quarter. The South Portland defense again held, but Salvatore was picked off by senior Kyle Forbes on the Red Riots’ next possession, giving Thornton Academy the ball on at the South Portland 34. Five plays later, Christensen connected with Tarbox for a 22-yard touchdown. The conversion pass failed and Thornton led 20-9 with 43 seconds remaining in the third.
“I thought offensively we did enough,” Kezal said. “Defensively, we gave up some yards but we made plays when we needed to.
“We’re two pretty even teams. My hat’s off to Steve and South Portland. He’s done a great job over there and they have a heck of a football team.”
Salvatore finished 12-for-22 passing for 134 yards. He also carried 16 times for 67 yards.
Libby led Thornton Academy with 69 rushing yards on 17 carries. Junior Nick Kenney had 44 yards on 15 carries. Christensen was 5-for-6 passing for 55 yards.
The Golden Trojans and Stags did not play this year. The teams’ last playoff meeting came two years ago in the semifinals when Cheverus came to Saco and rolled, 36-7.
The winner of that game will meet either Lawrence (10-0) or Bangor (8-2) in the Class A state final Nov. 19.
South Portland senior Logan Gaddar breaks up a pass intended for Thornton Academy junior Dakota Tarbox as senior Michael Salvatore
South Portland senior Michael Salvatore finds a hole for a big gain.
South Portland junior Liam Rottkov (75) and senior Zac Gillette get ready to bring down Thornton Academy junior Nick Kenney as senior Zach Compton wraps up Kenney’s legs.
South Portland senior Joey DiBiase is congratulated by sophomore Duncan Preston (6) and senior Max Porter after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
South Portland senior Joey DiBiase gained 101 yards and scored a touchdown in Saturday’s semifinal. South Portland fell to Thornton Academy 20-15.
More photos below.
SP- 0 6 3 6 – 15
TA- 7 7 6 0 – 20
TA – Libby 11 run (Briggs kick)
SP – Salvatore 2 run (kick blocked)
TA – Libby 1 run (Briggs kick)
SP – Horton 22 field goal
TA – Tarbox 22 pass from Christensen (conversion failed)
SP – DiBiase 2 run (conversion failed)