SOUTH PORTLAND—The feel-good story of the 2013 regular season is now wearing a bulls-eye.
The South Portland boys’ lacrosse team, coming off a record-tying 10 win regular season and ranked second, learned Tuesday night in a Western Class A quarterfinal round playoff game versus No. 7 Gorham at Martin Memorial Field, that it can’t rest on its laurels and will need to bring it for 48 minutes to succeed.
The Red Riots got off to fast start, scoring three times in less than six minutes, then went cold for over 17 minutes, allowing the Rams to be very much in the hunt at halftime, with South Portland clinging to a 4-2 lead.
The Red Riots were a new team in the second half, however, as junior Thomas Leddy scored four times in the third quarter to help push the advantage to a comfortable 9-3. South Portland’s defense was solid throughout and it got two more goals from Leddy in the final period and went on to put the finishing touches on a 12-6 victory.
The Red Riots improved to 11-2, ended the Rams’ season at 5-8 and advanced to host a semifinal round game Saturday, against either No. 3 Kennebunk or No. 6 Thornton Academy.
“We’ve always been about business and playing 48 minutes, not worrying about the hype,” Leddy said. “We don’t have anything to prove to anybody. We’ve proven ourselves to each other.”
South Portland matched the 2010 squad for regular season victories, but the argument could be made that this is the finest team in program history (which dates to 2000).
The Red Riots, a strong and skilled crew, who clearly enjoy playing with each other, are also playing for more than just wins. They’ve dedicated the season to standout sophomore goalie T-Moe Hellier’s father, Ted, who is battling cancer.
South Portland started the spring with home wins over Marshwood (8-7) and Gorham (12-7). After rallying for a 13-10 victory at reigning Eastern A champion Cheverus, the Red Riots battled back from an early 6-0 deficit before falling, 9-8, at three-time defending Class A champion Scarborough. A 15-4 home loss to Class B power Yarmouth followed, but South Portland then turned around to rattle off seven straight wins: 15-3 at Bonny Eagle, 17-2 over visiting Windham, 10-7 over visiting Thornton Academy, 17-7 at Massabesic, 14-8 at Waynflete, a first-ever victory over visiting Kennebunk (8-7, on Leddy’s goal in double overtime) and a 21-3 victory at Biddeford in the finale.
Gorham, meanwhile, lost its first three games, turned around and won three straight, then dropped four more before finishing with wins against Westbrook and Windham to grab the final seed in the region.
In the first meeting, April 17, junior Duncan Preston had four goals and three assists and freshman Jack Fiorini added three goals.
Tuesday evening, the Red Riots went out and won a postseason game for just the fourth time in 14 tries.
At first, it came easily, as South Portland opened the scoring just 1 minute, 43 seconds in, when Fiorini fed senior Colton Gervais for the opening goal.
With 8 minutes to play in the first quarter, sophomore Andrew Whipple scored unassisted, beating Gorham senior goalie Matt Petty while falling down.
Then, with 6:23 left in the first, Preston scored unassisted to make it 3-0.
The Red Riots wouldn’t score again for a long time.
South Portland managed to take a 3-0 lead to the second quarter, but 2:41 in, after a Red Riots’ penalty, the Rams broke the ice as freshman Tristen Brunet passed to sophomore Abraham Eaton, who beat Hellier.
It stayed that way as Petty robbed Gervais in front and Hellier did the same to Brunet.
Finally, with 1:07 to play before halftime, coming out of a timeout, junior Joey Babbidge scored an unassisted goal, pushing the lead to 4-1, snapping a 17 minute, 16 second drought.
Just when it looked as if the Red Riots would take some momentum to halftime, however, sophomore Michael Susi won the ensuing faceoff and fed Eaton, who scored with 59.6 seconds left, pulling Gorham within 4-2 at the break.
South Portland had a 24-16 shots advantage in the first 24 minutes, but eight saves from Petty kept the Rams close.
At halftime, Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini stressed the importance of sharing the ball and his team responded, scoring five times in the third quarter, with four of the goals assisted.
It took only 31 seconds for South Portland to set the tone as Preston found a wide open Leddy in front and Leddy buried his shot for his first goal and a 5-2 lead.
It wouldn’t be his last.
Playing man-up with 7:11 remaining in the third, the Red Riots pushed their advantage to four when Whipple found Leddy for a goal.
Babbidge scored unassisted 46 seconds later and after Eaton momentarily stemmed the tide with an unassisted goal at the 5:48 mark, Leddy (from sophomore Chris Mitchell) and Leddy again (from junior Jordan Susi) tickled the twine to make it 9-3 after three quarters.
“(Gorham was) playing great defense in the first half,” Leddy said. “I think they were expecting us to go to the middle. That’s been our bread and butter lately. Once we worked it around the outside, the middle opened up and we started producing. I have to credit everyone who assisted on my goals tonight. Not a lot of my goals are unassisted. Everyone works hard.”
Fiorini felt that his defense helped create offense in the second half.
“Defensively, instead of sitting back and letting them control the ball, we extended out and got on their hands and got turnovers and when we’re running, we’re scoring,” Fiorini said. “In the first half, they collapsed on Thomas. When we spread out and moved the ball quicker, we were able to hit Thomas on the crease.”
Early in the fourth period, the Red Riots ended all doubt.
With 10:57 left, Leddy scored again, assisted by Babbidge.
Preston scored an unassisted goal with 9:35 remaining.
Then, with 8 minutes to go, Leddy took a pass from Gervais and while being levelled by Petty, scored his sixth goal to make it 12-3.
Gorham did finish strong, getting goals from Eaton (assisted by junior Frank Pappalardo), Brunet (assisted by Susi) and senior Anthony Coppola (assisted by senior Caleb Dolloff), but it wasn’t anywhere near enough and the Red Riots were able to celebrate their 12-6 victory.
“We’re not used to (the attention), but I don’t think the kids really care,” Fiorini said. “The last time we went 10-2, we were 8-0, then finished 2-3. Now we have an eight-game run. I like that better. “
Leddy stole the show in the second half with six goals, but he had plenty of help. Babbidge and Preston both had two goals, while Gervais and Whipple each had one. Babbidge, Fiorini, Gervais, Mitchell, Preston, Susi and Whipple all had assists. Hellier only needed to make nine saves, thanks in large part to a strong defensive effort, which killed five of seven penalties and forced 29 Gorham turnovers (10 in the first period alone).
“We worked hard,” said senior defenseman Cody Munson. “Our man-down was very good tonight. We’re a close-knit group on defense. We know we have each other’s backs. We know as soon as someone gets a penalty, we realize we have to work that much harder being a man short. We may not have the prettiest man-down, but it works well.”
Munson said that his goalie makes the defense that much stronger.
“T-Moe is something else,” Munson said. “He’s the face of our defense and just lets us play. He’s crazy-active back there. He knows the defense better than anyone.”
“We had a couple changes on defense,” Fiorini said. “We have a freshman (Nick Mazzanotte) out there starting now. He does a great job on ground balls. He doesn’t try to be flashy. Cody and (junior) Josh (Allen) anchor the defense. Cody’s leadership is impeccable. T-Moe’s T-Moe. He didn’t have to be spectacular tonight. A hot goalie can take you a long way.”
South Portland had a 51-39 ground ball advantage (senior Caleb Elsemore led the way with six, while Babbidge and Preston both had five), ousthot the Rams, 39-30 (23-15 on cage) and overcame 19 turnovers.
Gorham was led by Eaton, with four goals. Brunet and Coppola also scored a goal. Susi had two assists, while Brunet, Dolloff and Susi all had one. Susi had a game-high nine ground balls, while winning 11 of 18 faceoffs (the Rams finished with a 13-8 advantage). Petty made 11 saves.
South Portland has made it to the semifinals on four previous occasions, but was ousted by Scarborough in 2006, 2007 and 2010 and Portland in 2009. This time, the Red Riots look to move on.
They expect to face a rematch with a Kennebunk team (9-3) they beat for their most dramatic triumph of the regular year.
South Portland and Kennebunk have met just once prior in the playoffs and that came last year in the quarterfinals, a hard-fought 5-3 Rams’ win in Kennebunk.
This time around, the Red Riots expect a different result.
“We know what the defense has to do,” Munson said. “We’ve seen what they have and we know what we need to do to stop it.”
“We knew from the beginning this would be a special team,” said Leddy. “It was close last time. A fun game definitely.”
“(The last game) was a classic,” Fiorini added. “I’m sure it will be a battle again. I feel we have an edge at home. It will be a tough game. They’ll try to take the air out of the ball and slow the game down. We’ll have to adjust to that. Our game’s up and down the field. Moving the ball fast.
“One game at a time. Every game’s important. The only team that wins it goes 4-0 (in the playoffs). Everyone else goes home. We have three more to go. Hopefully. The guys are not satisfied. They have an end game and this ain’t it. We’re not even close yet.”
South Portland sophomore Andrew Whipple eludes a defender.
South Portland freshman Jack Fiorini plays keep-away from a Gorham defender.
South Portland junior Joey Babbidge fights off a hit from a Gorham defender.
South Portland junior defender Josh Allen races upfield with the ball during the Red Riots’ 12-6 win over Gorham in a Western Class A quarterfinal Tuesday night.