SOUTH PORTLAND—Scarborough boys’ lacrosse coach Joe Hezlep couldn’t have dreamed up a better scenario than what played out for his team Saturday afternoon.
After an up-and-down 7-5 regular season, the Red Storm appeared to be playoff longshots with the No. 3 seed in Western A, but after a quarterfinal round win over Bonny Eagle, Scarborough made an enormous statement at Martin Memorial Field, fending off every challenge from second-ranked South Portland in a 10-4 semifinal round victory.
If that wasn’t enough, the Red Storm then received word that top-ranked Kennebunk had been upset by No. 4 Thornton Academy, meaning Scarborough will not only play in the Western A Final Wednesday afternoon, but host.
“We’ve been increasingly getting better,” Hezlep said. “Our guys have experience. They’re no longer first-year players. They’ve played a full season and it showed today.”
Stars have aligned
The tone for the 2010 season appeared to be set way back on April 17 when South Portland rallied to beat Scarborough for the first time ever, 8-7, on senior Garret Reuscher’s overtime goal.
From there, the Red Riots won seven more games in succession, seemingly earning a stranglehold on the region. South Portland finally lost, 5-4, at home to Thornton Academy May 18, but won twice more before losing, 15-13, at Kennebunk in the final June 2, winding up 10-2 and second behind the Rams in Western A.
The Red Storm, meanwhile, struggled early on, losing at home to Kennebunk (13-11), at Falmouth (4-3) and at home to North Yarmouth Academy (8-6). Scarborough closed strong, however, winning three straight before losing, 16-12, at undefeated, defending Class A champion Portland in a game which saw Bulldogs junior Caleb Kenney erupt for 10 goals.
After holding off No. 6 Bonny Eagle, 9-6, in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round contest, the Red Storm went to South Portland Saturday.
The teams had met three previous times in the playoffs with Scarborough winning each time (5-4, in OT, in the 2001 second round, 13-7, in the 2006 semifinals, and 17-6, in the 2007 semis).
This time, the Red Storm held off an early Red Riots push, then gradually seized control to advance.
Reuscher gave the hosts an early 1-0 lead when he scored (from senior Jake Leeman) just 1 minute, 38 seconds in, but South Portland wouldn’t tickle the twine again until the third period.
Scarborough drew even with 1:42 to go in the first when Wheeler scored his first goal (from sophomore John Blaisdell).
Then contest turned in the dying seconds of the period when Wheeler scored with just over a second to go to put his team ahead to stay, 2-1.
“I heard there was a little time left,” Wheeler said. “I had the ball and just went in and shot.”
“That Johnny Wheeler kid is one heck of a 14-year-old,” said Hezlep. “That was huge goal with one second left to give us the lead.”
The Red Riots held off the visitors for most of the second period behind a strong defensive effort and timely saves from senior goalie Travis Wibby, but every time South Portland tried to go on the attack, it turned the ball over.
The Red Storm then seized control in the waning moments of the half.
First, senior Tennessee Peters set up junior Nathan Hopkins for a goal and a 3-1 lead with 3:23 to play. With just over a minute to go, Peters scored unassisted and with 30.5 seconds showing, Wheeler scored unassisted to make it 5-1.
Despite winning all seven first half faceoffs, the Red Riots were in a deep hole at the half.
As expected, South Portland played much better in the second half, but every time it scored, Scarborough had an answer.
Just 43 seconds into the third period, Reuscher scored unassisted (ending a 23 minute, 5 second drought and a 5-0 Red Storm run) to possibly give South Portland momentum, but the visitors answered and went back up by four goals with 9:03 to play in the quarter when senior Sam Parenteau set up Blaisdell for a shot that appeared to hit the post, but was credited as a goal to make it a 6-2 contest.
The Red Riots had a two-man advantage moments later, but couldn’t score. With 5:02 remaining in the third, junior standout Harrison Keithly scored unassisted, but senior Nick Neugebauer answered with a man-down goal to keep it a four-goal game, 7-3.
With 31.3 seconds to go in the period, Keithly scored unassisted again, but for the third quarter in a row, Scarborough scored in the waning seconds, with Hopkins doing the honors, keeping the lead at a comfortable four goals, 8-4, entering the final stanza.
“We seemed to give up goals at the end of each period,” said Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini. “We couldn’t hold them each time we scored. We couldn’t get a break. We got momentum, but we’d make a mistake and they’d respond.”
South Portland had an 11-4 edge in shots in the third, won 18 ground balls to just eight for the Red Storm and even forced 12 turnovers, but couldn’t cut into the deficit.
Then, in the penalty plagued fourth, Scarborough iced its victory as Wheeler (from Peters, man-up) and Neugebauer (unassisted) struck to account for the 10-4 final score.
“Our offense played really well today and did things we haven’t done all season,” Hezlep said. “They’re really starting to figure it out.”
Wheeler continued to dazzle with four goals.
“It definitely feels good,” Wheeler said. “We had a heartbreaker here the last time. Today, we kept our composure and didn’t take stupid penalties. We came out with a victory.
“I’ve put a lot of work in the offseason. I’ve been to a lot of camps. My teammates push me. We want to win a state championship. It feels really good to come in here and dominate. We have momentum. We’re working hard in practice and it’s been working out.”
Hopkins and Neugebauer had two goals apiece, while Blaisdell and Peters each had one goal and one assist. Parenteau added a helper. Goalie Brett Leighton stopped 15 shots (12 in the second half).
“Leighton came up huge today,” Hezlep said. “(South Portland) had three or four shots they should have (scored on) that would have changed the game completely. The defense was great as a unit. They didn’t give up that many shots.”
Sophomore Andrew Jones had six ground balls in the second half alone, while junior Mark Pearson grabbed five.
The Red Storm took several second half penalties, but for the most part, didn’t retaliate when things got chippy.
“We’ve come a long way in that aspect,” Hezlep said. “We improved leaps and bounds today in our discipline. It wasn’t perfect, but we were able to check ourselves and just play lacrosse. It really shows how far we’ve come.”
For South Portland (which finishes the finest year in program history at 10-3), Keithly and Reuscher both had two goals. Leeman had the lone assist. Wibby made seven saves. Seniors Adam Burpee and Chad MacLeod each had six second half ground balls.
“It was really heartbreaking,” said Fiorini. “The kids are heartbroken, I’m heartbroken. This isn’t how we expected to end the season. We had a great first quarter. If we played the whole game like that, we would have won, but we didn’t. I think the kids panicked a bit. Scarborough played the whole game.
“This is a very special group of kids. I’m really proud of this team. I thought we had a chance to do something. In a couple weeks, I’ll look back and realize we had a heck of a season with a lot of firsts.”
The Red Riots graduate 11 seniors, but have established themselves as a contender. Saturday’s semifinal marked the fourth time in five years South Portland has made it to within a game of the regional final. It has yet to reach that next round.
“We have a lot to build on,” Fiorini said. “We have a lot of good kids leaving, but we have a lot of good kids staying too. The future is bright.”
States within sight
Scarborough, meanwhile, looks to continue its even-year trend of winning the Class A title, following in the footsteps of the 2006 and 2008 squads.
The Red Storm will host Thornton Academy Wednesday at 4 p.m., hoping to beat the Golden Trojans for a second time this spring (the first was 6-4 in Saco on May 5). The teams have no playoff history.
If successful, Scarborough will battle either Portland (13-0) or Messalonskee (11-3) in the Class A Final Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium. The Red Storm didn’t face the Eagles this year and have no playoff history with that program. Scarborough and Portland have played in three of the past four postseasons, with the Red Storm winning the 2006 regional final (8-7) and losing the 2007 regional final (12-10) and last year’s regional final (14-1).
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
South Portland senior Alex Catrett prepares to lay a hit on Scarborough senior Tennessee Peters Saturday.
Scarborough senior Tennessee Peters runs past South Portland junior Matt Welch. The Red Riots chased the Red Storm to no avail much of the day.
Scarborough junior sophomore John Blaisdell battles South Portland senior goalie Travis Wibby for possession during the second half Saturday.
South Portland junior Billy Darling keeps a close eye on Scarborough sophomore Luke Erwin.
Scarborough freshman John Wheeler gets leveled by South Portland junior Matt Welch, but still manages to score one of his four goals during Saturday’s 10-4 Red Storm victory in the Western A semifinals.