Shorthanded Bulldogs fall at home; Playoff hopes on life support after 20-14 loss to Windham

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PORTLAND—On the eve of the most important football game for Portland High in Mike Bailey’s 25th season, four players were suspended by the school for student-athlete code violations and would not play in the do-or-die showdown against the defending Class A state champion Windham Eagles with the season on the line.

Imahdi Zagon, the Bulldogs top weapon on offense and one of the most talented athletes in Class A football happened to be one of them. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound senior is the central figure in Portland’s offensive playbook as the “quartercat” and in all other traditional sets as the league’s most dangerous tailback.

Zagon was on everyone’s list as a likely Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist when this season began after a breakout junior season and similar expectations of grandeur were pegged on a Bulldogs team that never did find a way to match prognostication with performance on the field.

At 2-4 after opening the season with consecutive losses, Portland had backed itself into a win-seror-be-in-serious-trouble situation and booked a Windham team for Week 7 in precisely the same conundrum.

With Zagon sidelined, and oh by the way, starting senior quarterback Matt McInnis, along with junior wideout Mike Herrick joining him, the rest of the Bulldogs had no other choice but to rally around the cause and deliver the best game they had played all season.

But that season is now likely over as far as the playoffs go and the Bulldogs have one player to blame for it: Windham senior quarterback Cody Laberge. In one of the most impressive individual performances of this or any season, Laberge ran and passed his way to 374 yards of total offense from scrimmage to go with three touchdowns. In a dizzying 1:03 span to begin the fourth quarter, Laberge tallied up 163 yards and two of those touchdowns to lead the Eagles to a 20-7 victory in sheets of consistent, light rain carried onshore by a stronger breeze Friday night at Fitpatrick Stadium.

First, Laberge stunned Portland with a 95-yard touchdown pass from one end zone to the other when he dropped a gorgeous ball into tight coverage over senior Drew Gagnon’s inside shoulder on a fly pattern down the home sideline. His second touchdown pass of the game finally broke a 7-7 deadlock that had lingered for nearly 25 minutes of play, eclipsing 11:09 of the second quarter, all of the third and nearly two minutes of the fourth.

Next, Laberge stretched out a keeper toward the far boundary, found a crease to exploit and was off to the races on a 68-yard touchdown run on the Eagles’ very next possession. Windham shanked the point-after, but led 20-7 with less than six minutes left for the Bulldogs to find two scores and pull even or better.

Laberge finished his brilliant effort with 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air on a tidy 6-of-12 passing and dominated on the ground with 245 yards rushing on 23 carries for another score. Midway through the first quarter on Windham’s opening possession, Laberge connected with promising sophomore Colby Waterhouse for an eight-yard touchdown pass to take a short-lived 7-0 lead with 4:55 left in the first.

Portland would answer right back with a seven-play, 59-yard drive that began with 2:29 left in the first quarter and ended with sophomore tailback Nick Volger sweeping left from the 5 and lunging for the pylon to tie the score at 7-7 with 11:09 still to go before the half. Volger carried a team-high 18 times for 66 yards as the replacement for Zagon at tailback, including five times for 48 yards on this drive.

Volger’s TD was it for scoring until Laberge launched a 95-yard touchdown pass with 10:41 left in the game. The Portland defense can take the lions’ share of credit for the lack of scoring, three times holding the Eagles at bay after extended drives took them inside the 15. Sophomore linebacker Tate Gale was a beast of a Bulldog against Windham, wrapping up Laberge on the scramble for no gain on third-and-5 at the 14 with seven minutes left in the third to stall an 11-play, 66-yard drive. The Eagles decided to kick a 31-yard field goal that looked good but fell just inches shy of the crossbar.

Portland took over for the second time on the turnover on downs but could only manage 20 yards on seven plays before punting back to Windham with 2:48 remaining in the third quarter. The Eagles picked up 23 yards when this time Gale intercepted Laberge at midfield and returned it to the 40-yard line. Portland accomplished very little with the gift and punted back with the score still tied and just 11 minutes now left in the game.

The Bulldogs MVP on Friday night had to be senior Caleb Kenney for his outstanding night of punting. He booted four of them for 146 yards (a 37-yard average) and held the Eagles without a single yard in the return game. His spiraling kicks nose diving to the synthetic turf have a fortuitous way of touching down and quickly touching off in favor the Bulldogs. Kenney boomed this one and pinned the Eagles inside the 10 to start the fourth quarter.

“I’m proud of this team right now,” Bailey said. “To find out on Thursday afternoon that four teammates had been suspended and play the way did says a lot about the type of players we have. They hit us with a couple of home runs, but it was a tie game still in the fourth. I’m the most positive guy you’ll ever meet and I’m a believer in Bill Belichick’s thing about playing with and coaching the players on the field. That’s what you saw tonight and really all season from us.”

Unfortunately, the Bulldogs do not have a play for a perfectly thrown ball over the top of the defense. And after Windham was flagged for holding and moved back five yards to the 5, Laberge stood in and went deep to Gagnon for a 14-7 lead with 10:14 left in the game.

The Bulldogs’ offense couldn’t match the Eagles score a second time and this was not good. Windham got the ball back with 6:38 left in the game and on the third play of the drive Laberge broke free for a 68-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 20-7 in just 42 seconds.

Portland did have an answer for Laberge’s second long touchdown play of the fourth, finally getting Kenney involved in the ground attack after he carried just twice and had caught one pass up to this point. The Bulldogs went 80 yards on nine plays for the score to pull within 20-14. Kenney bulldozed his way down the field on four carries for 49 yards that began with big runs for 19 and 26 and ended with a short touchdown from the 2. It took just 3:34 to score but left Portland with only 1:38 to regain possession and do it again. It would do neither and watched the season slip away in a hard-fought game that like most things this year, just didn’t go the Bulldogs’ way.    

“I think in football more than any other sport, the team needs to really play together,” said Kenney. “This incident, with the suspensions and everything, brought us together a lot more. That really goes to show you the character of this team. Our record is down but I’m proud of this team.”

Portland will travel for the annual Battle of the Bridge with South Portland (4-3) Saturday for the regular season finale. The Bulldogs must win and hope that Windham (now 3-4) loses to Westbrook (2-5) and Massabesic upsets Sanford to have any hopes of continuing their year, other than the annual Thanksgiving Day Game versus Deering.