It was a long-time coming and it sure didn’t come easy, but then again, that was then and this is now.
It was a different South Portland Red Riots football team out there that snapped a nine-year winless streak on Opening Night, doing it against the defending Class A state champions.
Behind the early running of senior tailback Jacob Stanley, a transfer from Florida, and the late game heroics of sudden-quarterback senior Tommy Ellis, the Red Riots stretched a 7-0 lead at the half to 13-0 early in the fourth and hung on for a hugely significant 13-6 victory over the Windham Eagles at home on Friday night in the season opener for both teams.
Stanley and Ellis came through with big plays for the Red Riots in a monster win, but one other equally important element that’s been missing of late made its grand return. South Portland’s got the big boys up front back on patrol. Finally, an abundance of uniform-stretching second-helpers stuffed uncomfortably in jerseys with numbers like 65, 66 or 72. The Red Riots have size and power now in the trenches that fuels confidence and leadership. The tempo is different, faster and more downfield.
Now with Stanley in that mix, new to opposing defenses but not really to South Portland, the ground game becomes even more explosive. The 6-foot, 200-pounder broke free for a 36-yard touchdown run on the game’s opening drive and finished with 124 yards rushing on 14 carries against a tough Windham defense.
Stanley went to South Portland schools into middle school before moving with family to Palm Beach Gardens halfway down the east coast of Florida. Stanley’s back now and it didn’t take him long to make his presence felt in his first game at his new school.
“This is exciting for me,” said Stanley. “My family is from here and I’ve always wanted to play football for South Portland. Everybody’s been real welcoming to me. I’ve kept in touch with a lot of friends here over the years. We’re happy to get this win. Hopefully we can turn things around here and become a championship team.”
And there was Ellis stepping in for junior Michael Salvatore after the two had just finished the summer in a quarterback competition that was still up in the air as late as Monday. In the end, South Portland coach Steve Stinson and his staff felt the Red Riots were a better team with Ellis at receiver and Salvatore at quarterback, rather than the other way around.
Salvatore did start and played the entire first half and the first three offensive plays for South Portland in the third quarter before leaving with an injury. Ellis came in focused, prepared and ready to take over without skipping a beat. With Stanley tiring in the fourth quarter, Ellis took over the offensive load and engineered a six-play, 80-yard scoring march that put the Red Riots on top 13-0 with eight minutes left to protect the win.
Stanley carried twice for five yards on the drive and left the game with leg cramps and ankle soreness, so Ellis went to work finding senior Evan Indorf at the marker for a crucial third down completion that kept the chains moving. Then, South Portland spread the field and let Ellis take over in the quarterback option with junior Joey DiBiase offset to his left. Ellis carried three times for 20 yards before bursting free on a delayed keeper for a 37-yard touchdown up the far sideline to give the Red Riots a two-score lead with time becoming a factor for the Eagles.
“This is an amazing feeling for us right now,” said Ellis. “We didn’t know until Monday who would start at quarterback. Even then coach said nothing was set in stone. I was glad to be able to go out there and contribute to us getting this win. The offensive line was incredible tonight. The touchdown play was a counter and I had to sit back and let it develop a little bit. Kind of let it marinate and wait for things to open up.”
Windham moved the ball effectively behind senior Cody Laberge at quarterback and sophomore tailback Colby Waterhouse, but sputtered inside the 20s and came away with nothing after several sustained drives. In his first start after biding time behind last year’s star signal-caller Jackson Taylor, Laberge was sharp and made several big throws downfield in a solid performance. But Laberge was picked twice in the red zone by Ellis at the end of the first half and by junior Logan Gaddar in the back of the end zone with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
Gaddar’s pick was particularly painful since it spoiled a 16-play, 84-yard Eagles’ drive that ate 7:23 off the clock. Laberge finished 18-of-41 for 187 yards and did throw a 23-yard touchdown to his favorite target Nick Burton that pulled the Eagles within a score late in the fourth quarter.
Windham would try an onsides kick, but the Red Riots were able to recover and salt two more critical minutes of the clock before punting with 2 minutes left in the game. Laberge led another valiant march all the way down inside the 20 again, completing a huge fourth-down pass to Burton sliding on his rear to keep the Eagles hopes alive, but his last four passes fell incomplete and South Portland held on.
“There was nothing easy about this one,” said Stinson. “We would have liked to have won this game 10 other ways, but that’s a good football team over there and it’s never easy to get a win in this league. We expect to be in battle like that every week. I couldn’t be prouder of the guys. We had several players step up tonight with great games when we needed them. Not one player won this game for us. This was a complete team effort. The credit goes to every player on this team.”
The Red Riots travel to Westbrook Friday for a 7 p.m. start, then face a pair of the league’s elite teams on Friday night the next two times out. South Portland hosts the Cheverus Stags on Sept. 17 and travels to Bonny Eagle on Sept. 24.
Windham- 0 0 0 6- 6
SP- 7 0 0 6- 13
SP- Stanley 36 run (Horton kick)
SP- Ellis 37 run (kick failed)
W- Burton 23 pass from Laberge (kick failed)