Rewind the calendar almost exactly one year to the day and things sure do look different for the South Portland Red Riots football team.
Needing a win last year in the last game of the season to lock in the program’s first playoff berth since 2002, the Red Riots jumped out to a 27-7 halftime lead and then watched in horror as the Portland Bulldogs staged a furious rally and stole a 36-33 win on the last play of the game. South Portland fell to 4-4 and missed out on the 2009 postseason.
This year, South Portland helped erase that memory by taking care of the playoffs a week earlier to snap an eight-year drought in coach Steve Stinson’s sixth season, and then took care of the Bulldogs in the 95th Battle of the Bridge game.
Red Riots junior tailback Joey DiBiase will go down in the books as the star of the 2010 annual showdown. DiBiase broke free for a 34-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and finished with a game-high 206 yards rushing, leading the Red Riots to a 13-7 victory over the Bulldogs Saturday afternoon at Martin Memorial Field.
South Portland leads the all-time series that dates back to 1907, 52-40-3.
“This is something we’ve been trying to get done since I came here six years ago,” said Stinson. “We come real close a couple of times and this is a real special group that we’re very happy for. The senior class we have wanted to leave their mark on this program and be the ones to break through. They have done everything that we asked them to and wanted to improve.”
Even better, the win improves South Portland to 5-3 on the season, good for seventh in the final Class A West Crabtree Points standings. Friday night (7 p.m.), the Red Riots will travel to Standish and take on the No. 3 Bonny Eagle Scots (7-1). The Scots needed a last second touchdown to outlast the Red Riots 21-14 at home in the regular season meeting back on Sept. 24. Please note that South Portland ended the Scots 15-game win streak the season before with a thrilling 48-45 win at home and has somewhat of a mini-rivalry brewing with Bonny Eagle.
“With Bonny Eagle it is somewhat about matchups,” Stinson said. “We matchup well with their athletes and play a similar style. We beat them last year and played them real close this year so there’s also a sense of confidence there for our guys. We both run a no-huddle, spread offense and that allows our defensive players to key in on what their trying to do on certain plays and formations. Plus, our kids love a challenge. They know Bonny Eagle’s been the top team around for the last few years, and we’ll be ready to go on Saturday.”
DiBiase racked up big yards against the Bulldogs on Saturday behind an experienced offensive line he credits with “playing unbelievable” all season. Interestingly enough, after putting the Red Riots on top 7-0 just over a minute into the game on a zigzagging 34-yard TD run, DiBiase tacked on another 172 yards on the ground but somehow would not reach the end zone for a second time. Instead, the game would turn into a defensive struggle riddled with turnovers and punts for both teams the rest of the way.
The middle two quarters went down in the books scoreless, with the Red Riots clinging to a 7-0 lead at the half and still to end the third quarter. South Portland finally punched in another score to extend the advantage to 13-0 after senior Jacob Stanley went in from the 3-yard line just inside the fourth. The Red Riots missed the point-after but did take a two-score lead with less than 10 minutes left.
As if on cue, the Portland offense would take the kickoff and suddenly spring to life. The Bulldogs simply stuffed the football into senior Caleb Kenney’s gut and watched as he led them down the field for the score. There’s not a whole lot of fancy footwork taking place when Kenney has the ball in his clutches, but if anyone took a poll he would be right at the top of the list of players no one feels like tackling. Kenney rushed 29 times for 104 yards against the Red Riots, including his two-yard touchdown with 4:41 left in the fourth quarter that pulled the Bulldogs within 13-7.
Suddenly, things went from manageable to frightening for South Portland. The Bulldogs forced another three-and-out, and a poor snap on the punt got away and Portland senior Nemanja Jankovic recovered inside the 10-yard line with four-minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Portland’s offense charged back out on the field looking to steal the Battle of the Bridge game for the third straight season. Senior quarterback Matt McInnis went right back to Kenney on the ground and two carries for six yards set up third-and-goal from the 2 for the Bulldogs. But a short pass fell incomplete and the Red Riots defense came up huge when senior Evan Indorf chased down Kenney on a screen play and wrestled him down a yard shy to protect the lead.
“I had the one big run but actually fumbled on the next possession and we had some big penalties that hurt us,” said DiBiase. “We’re lucky the defense stood in there with us and was able to keep them off the scoreboard. (Kenney) is a tough kid. He’s the toughest player I’ve seen this year. But the defense made some big plays down at the end. (Indorf) made a great tackle on him at the goal line and we’re happy it worked out for us.”
The Red Riots defense played the game of the season on Saturday, holding Portland scoreless for the first 43:19 of the game, pitching the dramatic goal-line stand late in the fourth and after punting back to the Bulldogs, forcing one more turnover on downs to finally secure the win with only 40 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs had a first down with 1:41 still left to go 49 yards and at the very least tie the score. McInnis connected twice to sophomore Seamus Kilbride down to the 30. But Portland would come up short this season. Kenney ran twice for short gains and McInnis threw incomplete to set up fourth down at the Red Riots 24. After briefly juggling the exchange, McInnis tossed left to sophomore Nick Volger racing for the first down marker. But with time running out and the Red Riots defense closing in quickly, Volger was briefly disoriented and thought he had the first-down marker. Looking to stop the clock, he stepped out of bounds prematurely to end the Bulldogs run of magical comebacks at two.
After opening the season with high expectations, Portland fell to 2-6 in the loss and will miss the playoffs for the third time in four years. The Bulldogs started the season out with consecutive losses and never did recover in coach Mike Bailey’s 25th season.
Portland had won the last two Battle of the Bridge games in dramatic fashion on the last play of the game. Two years ago the Bulldogs won in overtime on a short touchdown run by tailback Imahdi Zagon at South Portland. Last year Zagon powered in from the 5-yard line to close out the 36-33 comeback win. But this year as a senior, Zagon would not be available to Portland after he was suspended along with three other players for the last two games of the regular season, both losses to Windham in Week 7 and South Portland on Saturday.
South Portland senior Stephen Hodge breaks the tackle of Portland’s Nemanja Jankovic and gains yardage during the teams’ “Battle of the Bridge” showdown Saturday. The Red Riots held on for a 13-7 victory.
South Portland junior Logan Gaddar delivers a bruising hit to Portland junior Seamus Kilbride. The Red Riots look ahead to their first playoff appearance in eight seasons.