For decades, the South Portland football program was as strong as any in the state of Maine.
Then, for most of this century, the Red Riots were far from championship caliber.
That all changed this fall as South Portland, relatively unheralded coming into the season, won seven times and reached the regional semifinals before dropping a heartbreaker to Thornton Academy in a game that was decided by one play and one yard.
It’s safe to say that the Red Riots are back and will be even stronger going forward.
“This year was awesome,” said South Portland coach Steve Stinson, who shepherded the program from back-to-back winless seasons to championship contention. “The guys played so well all year. There weren’t a lot of expectations outside of the city.”
The Red Riots, who won four Class A championships and enjoyed a 31-game win streak in the 1990s under coach John Wolfgram, made the playoffs in 2001 and 2002 under Bob Zinchuk, but wouldn’t have another winning season for eight years.
When Stinson took over in 2005, the program was about to hit rock bottom and South Portland failed to win a game that fall or the next. After going 3-5 in 2007 and 2-6 in 2008, the Red Riots just missed the playoffs with a 4-4 mark in 2009, falling short after a last-second loss at Portland in the “Battle of the Bridge” in the finale.
South Portland took the next step in 2010, winning five times and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2002. The Red Riots were eliminated at Bonny Eagle, 32-0, but had turned the corner.
The 2011 season began Sept. 3 at defending state champion Cheverus and was a mixed blessing. For a half, the Red Riots demonstrated a dangerous passing attack and were within 17-14 at the break, but the second half was a far different story, as the explosive Stags scored six touchdowns and went on to a 59-21 victory.
Most wrote South Portland off at that point, but the Red Riots were just getting started. They bounced right back with a 20-16 home upset win over Thornton Academy, then rattled off victories over Sanford (42-34), Massabesic (39-7), Noble (36-7) and Kennebunk (35-7). Only Windham, in triple overtime, was able to slow the South Portland train, 20-19, but the Red Riots capped the regular year with a 20-7 win at Portland to wind up 6-2, good for the No. 3 seed in Western A.
On Oct. 29, South Portland hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2001 and won one for the first time since 2000, downing Sanford, 33-13.
That set up the semifinal round matchup at Thornton Academy, which would be a donnybrook.
The Red Riots were down 7-0 after one quarter and 14-6 at halftime (only a 2-yard TD run from senior Michael Salvatore, who stepped up beautifully at quarterback after classmate Jordan Muller was lost to injury, kept them in the game).
“It was an even and physical game,” said Stinson. “We made too many mistakes early. Three turnovers to their one. Thornton’s a very talented team. Very physical up front on both sides of the ball.”
South Portland drew within five on a field goal from senior Brendan Horton, but a third quarter touchdown seemingly put the Golden Trojans in charge, 20-9.
The Red Riots saved their best for last and gave all on hand a thrill in the waning moments. First, South Portland made it a 20-15 game when senior workhorse running back Joey DiBiase scored on a 2-yard run. Then, they got one final chance with the ball and converted a fourth down on a gorgeous catch from senior Logan Gaddar and earned first-and-goal thanks to a Thornton Academy pass interference call.
The game came down to a fourth-and-goal situation from the 2. DiBiase got the handoff and ran left, but was dragged down a yard short.
Game over. Season over.
“It looked like we were in a good position, but you never feel that confident against such a good team,” Stinson said. “I wish we had a timeout left to settle the guys down. We got the play off and (Thornton Academy) made a good play. When they needed to make one, they did. We finished a yard away. Our senior quarterback handed to our senior running back who ran behind a senior tight end and two senior linemen. They did a nice job defending it.”
The season ended at 7-3, but memories of a lifetime were made.
“The kids really stepped up in the spring and summer and became great players,” Stinson said. “There weren’t a lot of names in the paper, but the senior class was phenomenal. To go from Week 2 to the last play of the Western Maine semifinals with Michael at quarterback was great. He played very well for us.”
While graduation will take its toll, the Red Riots expect to consistently knock at the championship door going forward.
“We set a great tone,” Stinson said. “The expectations are now firmly set for next year. I feel great about the program. Our long-term goal is to be producing a competitive product every year. I feel we’re there now. That’s what people are most proud of. We’ll be right back again in 2012.”
The South Portland football team had plenty of celebrations in 2011, with senior running back Joey DiBiase (right) often in the middle of them.