SOUTH PORTLAND—A little over a week ago, South Portland’s field hockey team was 1-9 and largely forgotten in the Western Class A standings.
Fast forward eight days and the Red Riots are riding high.
And they’re not done yet.
Tuesday afternoon, on Senior Day, at Wainwright Farms, South Portland capped a dizzying late-season surge with its fourth win in a row.
A victory that was as tasty and sweet as the cake that was devoured in the postgame celebration.
Needing a win over visiting Cheverus to advance to the playoffs, the Red Riots fell behind, 1-0, when the Stags got a penalty stroke goal from junior Abby Ford in the first half, but South Portland, in a microcosm of its season, saved its best for last.
It would be a freshman and a first-year varsity junior who made the difference for the Red Riots.
Freshman Bonge Lako, who spent most of the season turning heads on the junior varsity team, tied the score with 20:21 to play, when she scored on a penalty corner.
Lako struck again seven minutes later, this time on a rebound and South Portland was ahead to stay.
Then, it was up to junior goalie and first-year starter Grace Chitam to preserve the lead and she would do so with several clutch saves down the stretch.
The Red Riots went on to a 2-1 victory, improved to 5-9, earned their first playoff berth since 2010 and dropped Cheverus (which will also take part in the postseason) to 5-7-2 in the process.
“I’m very happy,” said South Portland coach Leslie Dyer. “I knew we could do it. I’m happy we’re peaking. This is the one we needed. This was one of my goals as a coach. It was my fourth year and we hadn’t gotten in. The girls have worked so hard and I’m glad to see them rewarded for their hard work.”
There was a playoff feel in the (pleasantly warm) air Tuesday.
For South Portland, the mission was simple: Win and you’re in.
For Cheverus: Restore some confidence before the playoffs began.
The Red Riots had been oh-so-close most of the season.
They began with losses to visiting Gorham (4-0), at Marshwood (5-0) and at home to Massabesic (3-2) before getting in the win column at Noble, 2-1. After a painful 5-3 home loss to Portland, South Portland lost at Sanford (4-2), at home to Scarborough (6-0), at Windham (1-0), at Thornton Academy (3-1) and at home to Westbrook (3-1).
Then, with their playoff hopes on life support, the Red Riots responded, winning at Biddeford (2-1), at home over Bonny Eagle (6-0) and at McAuley (6-0).
The Stags, meanwhile, couldn’t have asked for a better start to their season, as they won their first five games.
Cheverus opened with a 3-2 win at Westbrook, then downed visiting Biddeford (4-1), host Bonny Eagle (1-0), visiting McAuley (7-0) and visiting Windham (2-1).
Then, the wins dried up.
After tying host Deering (2-2), the Stags lost at home to Gorham (1-0) and at Marshwood (5-1). Cheverus played visiting Massabesic to a 2-2 tie, then lost at Noble, 2-0, fell at home to Portland in double overtime, 3-2, lost late at Sanford, 2-1, and played visiting Scarborough tough Friday, but dropped a 1-0 decision.
South Portland won the first meeting between the schools (4-1, in 2004), but Cheverus had captured six of the past seven (see sidebar, below), including a 3-0 home victory last year.
Tuesday, the Stags appeared en route to a long overdue win, but the Red Riots saved their best for last and as a result, lived to play another day.
After both squads missed on some opportunities in the early going, Cheverus struck first.
Midway through the half, Chitam fell on the ball and the officials ruled she trapped it, giving the Stags a penalty stroke.
Ford did the honors and unlike last week versus Portland, her bid was true, rattling the cage for a 1-0 lead with 14:34 to play in the first half.
“I tried to follow the ball with my eyes, but I hesitated a little too long and I let it go in before I stepped,” Chitam said.
South Portland fought hard to answer, but despite five penalty corners before the break, couldn’t do so.
Cheverus almost doubled its lead with 8:44 to go in the half, but on a breakaway, senior Hattie Train shot just wide.
With 1:35 left, Red Riots sophomore Lydia Henderson had a shot blocked by Stags junior Emily Michaud and a rebound bid from junior Maddie Hasson went wide, sending the hosts to the break down by a goal.
Despite the deficit, South Portland wasn’t fazed.
“We were down at halftime, but we were playing well,” Dyer said. “We weren’t getting outplayed, we just weren’t connecting. Our goal at halftime was just to finish it.”
The second half would be much kinder to the Red Riots.
South Portland’s first good chance would result in the equalizer.
After earning a penalty corner, sophomore Jessica Angelova sent the ball over to Lako and Lako one-timed a shot that Cheverus senior goalie Casey Simpson couldn’t reach and the score was 1-1.
“I got an assist from Jessica and all I had to do was put it in,” Lako said. “It’s really exciting playing with varsity. They support me a lot.”
After Chitam made a save on a Michaud shot on a penalty corner, the Red Riots doubled their lead.
With 13:08 to play in regulation, Lako struck again, this time on a rebound and South Portland was on top, 2-1.
“(Bonge’s) played on JV all season and was playing awesome,” said Hasson. “She’s been scoring goals and playing a big part in our success. She’s a big reason why we won four straight.”
“I’ve been dealing with injuries and I was short on players and (Bonge had) been practicing so hard,” Dyer said. “She came up last week. She’s a freshman, but she just knows when to get that last touch. She’s a lot like Maddie Hasson.”
The Stags looked to answer, but Chitam didn’t allow it.
After Red Riots sophomore Sophia Cummings was just wide on a bid to put the game away, Cheverus began peppering the South Portland goal.
First junior Becca Archer had a shot kick saved by Chitam. A rebound was off the mark and another rebound bid was saved by the goalie.
Archer then appeared primed for a great shot, but junior Ciera Mullen broke up the chance.
After Chitam saved a bid from Stags freshman Hannah Abbott, Hasson broke up a Cheverus penalty corner.
With 4:59 to play, Archer shot wide and a minute later, Abbott had a point blank chance in front, but Chitam denied her for her seventh and final save.
“It was really nervewracking,” Chtiam said. “I was nervous going to the ball. It wasn’t easy. In the second half, I could tell everyone was fired up.”
Chitam’s teammates and coach certainly appreciated her effort.
“Grace plays a really big part in our success,” Lako said. “She’s a really good goalie.”
“Grace has improved so much over the course of the season,” Hasson said. “She’s aggressive, she talks. She’s our backbone. She was big.”
“This is (Grace’s) first year as a varsity player and she’s been huge,” Dyer added. “She’s had some phenomenal games.”
Dyer called a timeout to guide her charges through the final minutes and South Portland din’t allow another shot and soon was able to celebrate its 2-1 win.
“I think we really started to play together,” Chjitam said. “We had trouble finding all the parts that fit, but we figured it out last week. Coach told us to play our hardest every game so that there weren’t any we regretted. We knew now was the time to play better.”
“We’ve worked really hard for this,” Lako said. “We talked about communicating, believing in ourselves and finishing. We’re a really good team and we play well with each other.”
“I think we realized partway through the season that we lost all the games we could afford to lose,” Hasson said. “Our goal, at least since I’ve been in high school, is getting to playoffs and rebuilding the program. We knew we had to win all these games to get in. We played hard. There was a lot of urgency. Everyone came out and was aggressive. Everyone came together. That’s what we’ve worked on all season and we came out on top.”
South Portland had an 8-4 edge in corners.
Cheverus had a 14-11 advantage in shots and got three saves from Simpson, but for the ninth game in a row, couldn’t garner a victory.
“South Portland came to play today and they did a great job,” said Stags coach Amy Ashley. “Today was like a playoff game for them and you have to give them credit.”
Cheverus projects to be the No. 10 seed in Western Class A (although the final Heal Points standings won’t be released until Thursday). The Stags will have to go on the road for a preliminary round contest Saturday, possibly at Portland.
Cheverus is overdue for a win and can’t be overlooked.
“All season long, our goal was to make it to the playoffs, so I’m happy that even though we didn’t play well today, we were able reach our goal,” Ashley said. “Now that it’s win or go home, we need to make sure we play our best at all times. From here on out, anything can happen and I really hope we can find it within ourselves to leave everything on the field. It really depends on which team shows up, but I think the struggles we have gone through could help us down the road.”
South Portland isn’t satisfied. While the Red Riots will likely be 12th and will probably have to go to Falmouth Saturday, they know they’re playing with house money and they’re not just happy to be in the postseason.
“I think we’ll be good,” Lako said. “I think (making the playoffs) will help us with the next couple of years. We’ll learn from this.”
“We’ve turned it around,” Hasson said. “I think we have momentum. We’ve seen what we can do now. There’s no going back.”
“I think we have to continue to play our hardest all the time,” Chitam said. “We can capitalize on that and continue to play like that.”
“We’ll see a top team, but when we’re on, we’re on,” Dyer added. “We can do it. I’m very excited to see what happens in the first round of playoffs.”
Cheverus freshman Hannah Abbott shoots the ball past South Portland sophomore Phonsavahn Senesombath.
Cheverus junior Colleen Slattery and South Portland junior Maddie Hasson fight for possession.
South Portland sophomore Sophia Cummings brings the ball up the field as Cheverus senior Kelsey Masselli defends.
South Portland freshman Abby Darling tries to take the ball away from Cheverus junior Emily Michaud.
South Portland junior Maddie Hasson smacks the ball upfield.
South Portland junior Ciera Mullen fires a shot.
Cheverus sophomore Charlotte Noyes keeps the ball away from South Portland sophomore Phonsavahn Senesombath.
@ Cheverus 3 South Portland 0
@ Cheverus 6 South Portland 0
Cheverus 5 @ South Portland 0
South Portland 2 @ Cheverus 0
Cheverus 5 @ South Portland 0
@ Cheverus 3 South Portland 0
Cheverus 2 @ South Portland 0
@ South Portland 4 Cheverus 1
A celebration four years in the making breaks out after South Portland beats Cheverus, 2-1, Tuesday. The Red Riots’ fourth straight victory secured their first playoff berth since 2010.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.