SP boys erupt to reach regional final for first time

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SOUTH PORTLAND—It there was ever such a thing as a “good loss,” the one that the South Portland boys’ lacrosse team suffered at the hands of four-time defending Class A champion Scarborough in the regular season finale would qualify.

While that setback denied the Red Riots a perfect season, it provided a gift in the process.

That gift was the message that South Portland was far from invincible and if it wants to reach its ultimate goal of a championship, that it still had work to do.

It’s safe to say that the Red Riots received that message and have applied it.

Saturday evening, in a Western Class A semifinal round playoff game at Martin Memorial Field, top-ranked South Portland welcomed unheralded No. 4 seed Gorham and while the Red Riots weren’t able to produce their usual prolific offense early, thanks to the sensational goaltending of Rams freshman Carter Landry, they didn’t get flustered, stayed patient and ultimately were rewarded.

With a trip to a place no South Portland team has ever gone.

The regional final.

The Red Riots led just 3-2 after one quarter and after being stymied by Landry most of the second period, got late goals from sophomore Jack Fiorini and senior Duncan Preston to get a little breathing room by the break.

Then, in the third quarter, South Portland began to solve Landry, scoring three times and with the defense pitching a second half shutout, the Red Riots erupted for seven fourth period goals to go on to a 16-3 victory.

Preston scored four times, Fiorini and junior Andrew Whipple added three goals and South Portland improved to 12-1, ended Gorham’s season at 10-4 and advanced to host No. 3 Thornton Academy (11-3) in the Western Class A Final Wednesday evening.

“It’s a huge step for the program,” said Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini. “We’ve been to this game many times. It’s the fourth one for me. To get over this hump feels incredible. These kids played great and they’re back after the Scarborough meltdown.”

Back to form

South Portland reached the semifinals in 2013, but had its season spoiled by an agonizing home loss to Kennebunk, which rallied in the second half.

After Scarborough graduated an abundance of talent and with the Red Riots returning a ton, they were viewed as the favorite in Class A and for 11 games, played like it.

South Portland pummeled host Biddeford, 19-1, in its opener, then outscored visiting Cheverus, 15-10. The Red Riots dominated visiting Marshwood (18-4) and host Westbrook (21-4), avenged last year’s playoff loss with a 14-9 home win over Kennebunk, then earned an impressive 12-6 home victory over Thornton Academy. The next triumph made an even bigger statement, as South Portland rattled off 10 straight goals en route to a 10-7 triumph at perennial power Yarmouth. The Red Riots then went on an offensive explosion, dominating host Deering (26-6), visiting Portland (22-6), host Massabesic (26-1) and visiting Bonny Eagle (17-1). June 5 was a different story, however, a shocking 14-8 loss at Scarborough in the finale, something South Portland needed several days from which to recover.

“Coach kind of tore into us at first and it got less and less each day until he felt bad for us,” Preston said. “He was disappointed not in us as a team, but how we played. He was upset for us because we have so much potential. We underestimated Scarborough going in, which you should never do, because they’re so talented. They were the kings until they were dethroned. All week, we watched game film and it showed how sloppily we played. We know we can’t play like that again or we’ll get bounced from the tournament.”

“We spent a couple days breaking (the guys) down and calling them out on a few things, then we spent time building them back up,” Tom Fiorini said. “The big thing for us was a scrimmage against Falmouth the other day. That got us out of our funk. It’s what we needed.”

Gorham won its first two games: 14-7 over visiting Bonny Eagle and 10-3 at Marshwood, then fell at home to two-time reigning Eastern A champion Cheverus (15-8). After handling visiting Massabesic (18-3), York (14-4) and Noble (19-3), visiting Freeport (15-8) and Westbrook (14-8) and host Windham (15-8), the Rams finally met their match with a 14-4 loss at Scarborough and an 11-8 home setback at the hands of Thornton Academy. Gorham then closed with an 11-9 home victory over Biddeford to go 9-3 and earn the No. 4 seed in Western A.

Wednesday, in the quarterfinals, the Rams ousted fifth-ranked Westbrook, 13-5.

Saturday was the second all-time postseason meeting between the schools. Last year, in the quarterfinals, South Portland beat Gorham, 12-6.

This time, the Red Riots won handily, but it took until the second half for things to get comfortable.

The Rams weren’t fazed by the Red Riots and took a 1-0 lead 111 seconds into the contest, when junior Abraham Eaton scored unassisted.

It took until the 6:31 mark of the first quarter for South Portland to get on the board, when junior Chris Mitchell set up Jack Fiorini.

The Red Riots went on top to stay when Preston scored unassisted with 5:25 to go in the stanza and Fiorini added an unassisted goal with 3:40 left, but with 26.7 seconds remaining, senior Colin Harvey scored unassisted to pull Gorham within 3-2.

While Landry stopped many South Portland shots, the Red Riots did score three more times in the second quarter, while their standout goalie, junior T-Moe Hellier, made some key saves of his own.

With 9:07 left in the half, Whipple scored unassisted to reopen a two-goal lead.

A little over a minute later, Harvey scored his second unassisted goal, pulling the Rams back within a goal, 4-3, with 7:45 remaining before halftime.

That proved to be Gorham’s final goal of the 2014 campaign.

After five scoreless minutes, South Portland struck next as Jack Fiorini pounced on a rebound and sent it past Landry.

Then, with 17.2 seconds left, senior Ben Bilderback fed Preston for a man-up goal and a 6-3 lead at the break.

While Landry made 13 first half saves and won seven of 11 faceoffs, the Red Riots still held the lead and soon blew the game open.

Early in the third period, goalies reigned supreme, as Landry denied Whipple and Hellier stopped good looks from both Eaton and Harvey.

Then, with 5:35 to go in the frame, an unassisted tally from senior Jordan Susi stretched the lead to 7-3.

Hellier denied a bid from sophomore Joey Gallant and South Portland transitioned to offense, where Jack Fiorini set up Bilderback to make it 8-3.

After Landry robbed Preston seconds later, the Red Riots scored once more in the final minute, as junior Kam Andrews set up Whipple for a man-up goal, and South Portland had a 9-3 advantage heading for the fourth and final quarter.

There, the Red Riots finally exploded.

After Landry stopped a shot from Whipple, Preston made a long run and finished unassisted with 10:47 to go.

“We started to move the ball better,” Preston said. “Less one-on-one selfishness. We started running and once we get going, it’s hard to stop us. Once we put it in a few times, it feels like nothing can stop us.”

“We’re up and down the field, that’s who we are,” Tom Fiorini said. “We have to get the ball moving. These kids can pass and catch on the run. That’s the difference between this team and teams I’ve had in this game before.”

Forty-seven seconds later, Fiorini set up Mitchell and it was 11-3.

The onslaught continued as junior Eben Babbidge (unassisted) and senior Thomas Leddy (from Whipple) scored in a 44-second span to push the lead to 10.

Preston (unassisted) and Leddy (from Whipple) then struck in a 35-second span to force a “mercy rule” running clock.

With 5:20 to go, Babbidge set up Whipple for South Portland’s final tally.

Down the stretch, Gorham junior Michael Susi hit the post and Bilderback rang a shot off the crossbar and the clock ran out on the Red Riots’ 16-3 triumph.

“It means a lot for this to be the South Portland team to live up to the talk,” Preston said.

“We got a good look at Gorham the other day against Westbrook and we got an idea of what they were about,” Tom Fiorini said. “We just wanted to come out and play our game. We want to make teams adjust to us.”

Preston scored four times, while Jack Fiorini and Whipple both had three goals. Leddy tickled the twine twice and Babbidge, Bilderback, Mitchell and Susi each scored once.

“Their freshman goalie was ridiculous,” Tom Fiorini said. “We got good looks. We knew that eventually the goals would come. We told the kids to keep shooting and they’d start to fall.”

Jack Fiorini and Whipple both had two assists, while Andrews, Babbidge, Bilderback and Mitchell all had one. Hellier made 16 saves.

The Red Riots outshot the Rams, 44-35 (36-19 on frame).

Gorham got two goals from Harvey, one from Eaton and 20 saves from Landry, who made quite an impression (for starters, his opposite number, Hellier, was marveling about his play at halftime).

“I have no idea who that kid is, but I know he’s good,” Preston said. “He’s going to have a great career. It’s a humid night and the ball’s a little stickier, so we couldn’t put it exactly where we wanted it, but we can’t blame it on that. The kid played absolutely phenomenal.”

The Rams won 13 of 23 faceoffs.

Next challenge

Some might expect that South Portland is relieved and happy to not have to play Scarborough Wednesday, but the Red Riots would have loved another crack at the Red Storm. Regardless, Thornton Academy is the next obstacle.

“Absolutely we wanted to play Scarborough again, but it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Tom Fiorini said. “We’ll go out and do our job and play lacrosse. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other side of the field. That’s not important. TA will come in here ready to play. When we played them in the regular season, it took us awhile to get good looks against their zone and they had to come out of it. It was a close first half and our athletes kind of took over.”

South Portland doubled up the visiting Golden Trojans on May 13. The teams previously met in the 2006 quarterfinals (when the Red Riots earned their first ever postseason victory, 20-15), 2007 quarterfinals (a 15-9 South Portland win) and 2009 quarterfinals (a 9-5 Red Riots’ triumph).

South Portland knows that nothing will come easily Wednesday.

“We have to play our game right from the very start,” Preston said. “Right from the very first faceoff we have to play South Portland lacrosse. That’s great defense leading to great offense and putting the ball in the cage. We’ve still got a lot left.”

“I’ll take another seven days with these guys anytime,” Fiorini said. “We’re this much closer. It’s been a seven-year struggle and we’re finally here. I’d like to see us finish it off. The stars are aligning.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

South Portland senior Ben Bilderback lines up a shot.

South Portland junior Chris Mitchell gets a step on a Gorham defender.

South Portland junior Andrew Whipple gets past Gorham freshman goalie Carter Landry and finishes.

Sidebar Elements

South Portland senior All-American Duncan Preston splits two Gorham defenders en route to the goal during the Red Riots’ 16-3 home win in Saturday’s Western Class A semifinal. Preston had four goals as South Portland reached the regional final for the first time in program history.

Jason Veilleux photos.

More photos below.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.