SOUTH PORTLAND—If one roller coaster ride of emotional ecstasy wasn’t enough for South Portland football fans this season, the Red Riots gave their followers a new set of thrills Friday night in the rain at Martin Memorial Stadium.
Two weeks after turning its season around with a stunning 48-45 home upset of two-time defending Class A state champion Bonny Eagle, South Portland dug holes of 21-7, 28-21 and 34-30 to the visiting Deering Rams, who were likely playing for their postseason lives, but senior Ryan Curit rose to the occasion one more time, racing 80 yards to paydirt (his fifth score of the game) with 7:05 remaining and the Red Riots defense got tough when it mattered most, holding off the Jamie Ross-led Deering offense twice down the stretch to eke out a scintillating 36-34 victory.
South Portland improved to 4-2 and is now smack dab in the middle of the playoff hunt, while Deering dropped its fourth game in a row, is now 2-4 and will need plenty of help to make it to the postseason.
“It’s always exciting around here,” said Red Riots coach Steve Stinson. “We’re in a good place mentally. We don’t
worry about our opponent. We just want to do our best to represent South
Portland football. We’re not pressing or grinding too much. The kids
are just playing. They’re great kids. We’re just living play by play and trying to do our best. We talk
about that at length. If we focus on that, it helps with our short term
goals. They’ve proved they’re a special group.”
Here we go again
Prior to Friday night, the last time South Portland beat Deering was Sept. 28, 2000 (35-28). In the interim, the Rams had won close games (14-6, 7-0, 19-7) and more recently, dominant Deering teams had blown out the Red Riots by scores of 35-6, 62-0, 49-8, 42-0 and 27-7 (which was last year’s result).
Things have shifted dramatically in 2009, however. The Rams, who were perfect in the regular year last fall and reached the regional semifinals before losing to Bonny Eagle, got off to a good start with home victories over Portland (14-0) and Gorham (35-12), but setbacks at Bonny Eagle (41-21) and Windham (35-19) and a home drubbing by Thornton Academy (30-0) had the team in a tailspin.
The Red Riots have already run the gamut of emotions this season, losing 40-13 at Windham, eking out a surprisingly-difficult 7-0 home victory over Westbrook, then falling 21-0 at Cheverus to make many think that 2009 was going to be like the last six playoff-less campaigns, but South Portland then stunned Bonny Eagle and rolled at Noble (36-0).
The fun continued Friday night.
The Red Riots took over at their 47 to start the game and on the second play, Curit ran untouched up the middle, cut left and outran the secondary for a 53-yard scoring strike. Sophomore Brendan Horton’s extra point made it 7-0 South Portland just 17 seconds into the contest.
Those good feelings took all of 14 seconds to dissipate as Deering sophomore Renaldo Lowry fielded the ensuing kickoff on his 18 and took it to the house for an 82-yard score. Ross kicked the point-after to make it 7-7, just 31 seconds into what was already a memorable game.
The Red Riots weren’t as successful on their second offensive series, going three-and-out and Ross and the Rams offense quickly asserted themselves.
Deering started at its 41 and drove 59 yards in three plays to take the lead. After Ross gained 3 yards on a first down run, a bad snap led to a loss of 17, setting up a third-and-24. No worries, Ross calmly dropped back and hit junior J.J. Hardy behind the secondary. Hardy outraced the pursuit and completed the 73-yard scoring play. Ross’ extra point made it 14-7 Rams with 7:54 still to play in the first.
South Portland lost three yards on its next series and had to punt again. Deering took over at the Red Riots 46 and after sophomore Trey Thomes ran for 12 yards and South Portland jumped offside, Ross found junior receiver Sam Balzano between two defenders for a pretty 29-yard scoring strike. Ross’ point-after made it 21-7 Rams midway through the first quarter.
After another Red Riots punt, the hosts’ defense finally stiffened, forcing a Deering punt and as the first period gave way to the second, South Portland’s offense came back to life.
The Red Riots would drive 95 yards on seven plays to get back in it. Senior quarterback Jon DiBiase found junior Billy Darling for 38 yards, then hooked up with senior Mike Foley for 45 yards on a slant, as the senior standout broke tackles down to the 2. After Curit got to the 1 on first down, he barreled in for the score. Horton’s extra point pulled the hosts back within seven, 21-14, with 10:15 left in the first half.
After the Rams went three-and-out and had to punt, South Portland hoped to drive and tie it up, but after moving to the Deering 20, the drive stalled and DiBiase was intercepted by Rams senior Travis Wade at the 14. Wade returned the pick 24 yards and Deering retained the lead.
After the Rams went three-and-out again, however, the Red Riots did drive for the tying score. DiBiase did most of the work with his feet, scampering 58 yards on second-and-9 from the South Portland 41, scrambling right, running up the gut, breaking a tackle and racing to within sniffing distance of the goal line before Hardy brought him down at the 1.
“Jon brings a running dynamic at quarterback,” said Stinson. “Coming from the lineage
he comes from, he’s an absolute competitor. He and his brother Joey.
He’ll run into linebackers. He brings confidence and swagger. He’s good
to have under center.”
One play later, Curit took it in and Horton’s extra point tied the score at 21-21 with 1:27 to play in the first half.
Deering went three-and-out and it appeared as if the game would go into the break deadlocked, but Curit muffed Ross’ punt and senior Ryan Giobbi recovered for the visitors at the South Portland 34. After Ross hit Balzano for 12 yards, the prolific tandem hooked up again for a 22-yard score with 48.3 seconds left. Ross’ extra point made it 28-21 Rams at halftime.
The dizzying first 24 minutes featured 377 yards of offense (213 for South Portland, 164 for Deering) and 49 points.
“(The Rams) weren’t pounding on us,” Curit said. “They got some good breaks. We knew we were in it the whole time.”
A pivotal moment in the game arrived early in the third period. Deering got the ball to start the second half and instead of stretching its lead, gave two points back to South Portland.
The Rams earned one first down on a 17-yard pass from Ross to Hardy, but a holding penalty, fumbled exchange and false start set up fourth-and-34 from the Deering 24. Ross dropped back to punt, but the snap went way over his head and rolled into the end zone. Ross grabbed the ball and tried to kick it, but it deflected off a defender and was eventually recovered by the Rams, giving the Red Riots a two-point safety, making it a 28-23 contest.
Deering then had to kick to the hosts and South Portland got a 42-yard kick return from Foley to the Rams 21. Two plays later, Curit raced up the gut from the 15 for the touchdown. Horton’s extra point put the Red Riots back on top, 30-28, with 7:57 to go in the third.
“How we came out to start the second half was the difference in the
game,” Stinson said. “It gave us confidence. We rode the wave for
Deering earned one first down on its next series, but had to punt. South Portland started at its 45 and drove to the Rams 30, but stalled and had to kick. Junior Cal Skillings came up with a beautiful punt, which died on the Deering 4. With 1 minute to play in the third quarter, the Rams quickly saw Thomes lose 3 yards on a rush and Ross throw incomplete, but rolling the dice, Ross dropped back to pass again and this time, he hit senior Corey Van Brocklin for 34 yards and a first down as the third period gave way to the memorable fourth.
Deering would go on to complete its 96-yard drive, chewing up nearly six minutes on 13 plays. Ross ran five times for 33 yards and capped the series with a 9-yard TD floater that Van Brocklin leaped to catch. Ross’ point-after failed, but the Rams were back in the lead, 34-30, with 7:21 to play.
With their backs to the wall one more time, the Red Riots responded. Again. On first-and-10 from the 20, Curit took a handoff, broke two tackles, then outran the pursuit down the right sideline all the way to paydirt. Horton’s extra point was no good, but with 7:05 to play, South Portland improbably was in the lead again, 36-34.
“I saw a little opening,” Curit said. “The corners came up. I made a little move, saw green and knew I was getting in.”
Enter the Red Riots defense.
Ross appeared poised to drive his team back down the field and into the lead, moving the Rams from their 31 to the South Portland 10 on five runs totalling 60 yards. After Thomes was stopped for no gain on first-and goal, Ross ran for 3. On third down, Ross threw incomplete and a Deering receiver was called for offensive pass interference, setting up fourth-and-goal all the way back at the 22. Ross tried to run, but only gained five yards and the hosts got the ball back on downs.
Needing one first down to put the game away, the Red Riots couldn’t do it. Curit ran three times for six yards, but South Portland had to punt and with with 2:09 to go, the Rams took over at their 38, needing only to drive into field goal range to earn a shot at victory.
Ross ran for 3 yards on first down. On second down, he avoided a sack, then picked up 2 to the 43. Yet another bad snap doomed Deering on third down and Ross was brought down by Darling for a 5-yard loss. That set up fourth-and-10 at the 38. Ross looked for Hardy, but his pass was incomplete and the Red Riots defense had held.
“Our defense, when they needed to, bailed us out,” Stinson said. “We came up with some
big stops. Deering’s a very talented team. Ross has an unbelievable
arm. He has unbelievable receivers. We shuffled the deck defensively.
The offense gets a lot of press, but our defense is the leader.”
DiBiase took a knee twice and South Portland got to celebrate yet another inspirational win.
“This is unbelievable after the Bonny Eagle game,” DiBiase said. “It’s fun without a doubt. Bonny Eagle showed us how we can play. This tells us we’re up there with the best of the best.
“At halftime, we
regrouped. We let everyone know we were here to play. Ross is a great
player, but our defense really stuck together. They have a powerful
offense. We gave up 28 points in the first half, then the defense
“Everyone did their job at the end,” Curit added. “We held our own. It’s an amazing ride for us. The seniors have been waiting for this.
We’ve worked our (rear ends) off. We’ve always had the talent, but we
couldn’t find the ‘Riot Pride.’ The Cheverus game was a turning point.
We had a long in-depth conversation about what ‘Riot Pride’ is. We
reached down and found it.”
South Portland wound up with a 341-303 edge in total yardage. Curit ran for 207 yards (and five TDs) on 26 carries.
“The line gives holes to Curit that you can drive a truck through,” DiBiase said. “One move I saw Ryan do was one jab,
two jabs, stiff arm. It was ridiculous. I didn’t even see a hole there.”
DiBiase completed just 2-of-11 passes for 83 yards with a pair of interceptions, but he ran six times for 54 yards. Foley caught a pass for 45 yards and ran twice for 12. Darling had one catch for 38.
“We didn’t get to showcase Foley tonight because of the weather and
Deering did a good job taking him away,” Stinson said. “Curit was amazing. Those guys
make me look like such a smart coach.
“It feels good. You like to see progress every year. We’ve been able to
point to benchmarks every year. This is another benchmark for this year.
I’m really happy for these guys. For them to be noticed as special is
important. Last year’s team was special, but couldn’t make plays at key times.
This year, we’ve kicked the door down. They’ll have it forever. They’re
the first team in a long time to have a non-losing season.”
Deering got another stellar effort out of Ross, who completed 9-of-22 passes for 211 yards and four scores. He also rushed 28 times for 154 yards. Hardy caught four passes for 105 yards and a score. Balzano had three receptions for 63 yards and two TDs. Van Brocklin caught two balls for 43 yards and a score. Thomes rushed 11 times for 28 yards.
Deering will need to win out and will have to get some help if it wants to continue its eight-year streak of making the playoffs. After hosting Westbrook next weekend, the Rams close with a home game against resurgent Cheverus.
South Portland is now on the verge of its first playoff berth since 2002 and its first winning season since 2001. The Red Riots host Gorham Friday, then play at Portland in the season finale.
“We just need to keep up the intensity and keep working hard,” Curit said.
“We want to win the next two games, get as high as we can and maybe get homefield for the playoffs,” said DiBiase.
“We’re pretty good at staying in check,” Stinson added. “Coming from where we came from,
we’re pretty hungry. Every week is a
championship football game. Gorham’s a very good team. They have backs
who can go to the house. Portland will be meaningful for both teams.
It’s been a very fun season. The best one in a long time.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com