PORTLAND—After winning the Class A state title for the first time a year ago, the South Portland boys’ lacrosse team knows it will get every foe’s ‘A’ game this spring.
The Red Riots’ first big test came Tuesday evening at Deering High’s Memorial Field against a Cheverus squad which has a strong postseason pedigree of its own.
When the Stags went toe-to-toe with South Portland in the first period, stymieing the Red Riots’ potent offense with their zone defense and matching South Portland’s three goals with three of their own, it appeared the defending champs would be in for a 48-minute dogfight, but then, the Red Riots turned it up a notch.
Junior standout Jack Fiorini scored two early goals in the second quarter, loosened up the Cheverus zone in the process and by halftime, South Portland enjoyed a 7-3 lead.
At that point, the Red Riots could have stopped scoring completely, as their unheralded defense was firmly in control, but South Portland tacked on five third period goals to end all doubt.
The Stags didn’t score for 31 minutes, 25 seconds and by the time they finally did, with 5:24 remaining, the game was out of hand and the Red Riots cruised home with a commanding 15-6 victory.
Fiorini and senior Andrew Whipple both scored four times and South Portland improved to 2-0 on the young season, dropping Cheverus to 1-1 in the process.
“I’m pretty happy,” said Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini. “Cheverus is always a good team. Bill (Bodwell’s) a great coach. They have some great players.”
Cheverus reached the regional final in 2014, losing to Brunswick. This year’s team has an abundance of youth, but there is a lot of promise as well. The Stags rolled over Deering in their opener, 18-4, Friday.
South Portland graduated some key members of its championship team, but returns enough firepower to make a legitimate run at a repeat crown. The Red Riots had no trouble with visiting Biddeford in their first game last Friday, 21-3.
Last year, host South Portland outscored Cheverus, 15-10, to give each program six wins in the head-to-head series dating back to 2002.
Tuesday, the Red Riots took awhile to hit their stride, but once they did, they put on a show.
South Portland struck first, when Fiorini set up Whipple with 9:16 to play in the first quarter, but seniors Thomas Lawson and Fritz Gemmer scored unassisted goals 24 seconds apart to put the Stags on top, 2-1, with 5:32 to go in the first.
With 3:49 left, Whipple’s second goal, this one set up by senior Chris Mitchell, tied the score and with 1:56 remaining, playing with a two-man advantage, Mitchell set up senior Kam Andrews to make it 3-2 Red Riots, but with 49 seconds to go, Lawson’s second goal, assisted by senior Nick Schleh, tied the game at 3-3.
That would prove to be Cheverus’ highwater mark, as the Stags wouldn’t score again for a very long time.
Just 31 seconds into the second period, Fiorini took a pass from Whipple then fired a long, blistering shot past Stags sophomore goalie Sean Walsh to put South Portland on top to stay.
With 10:39 remaining before halftime, Fiorini struck again, this time unassisted, and the Red Riots had a 5-3 advantage and had put a crack in the Cheverus zone.
Late in the half, Mitchell (from senior Eben Babbidge) and Babbidge (from Fiorini, man-up) scored and South Portland had a 7-3 advantage and some breathing room at the break.
“It took time for us to adjust to their zone,” Jack Fiorini said. “They threw it at us and we hadn’t practiced it. We had to adjust on the fly. We had a timeout early and drew it up and told everyone their role and we executed. Their defense was trying to protect the middle, that was the point of their zone. My two outside shots opened it up and then we dumped it into the crease and flushed it.”
“We started to pick their zone apart a little bit,” Tom Fiorini said. “They had to come out of it and they didn’t really match up with us man-to-man. When Jack popped in those goals from out top, that extended their zone out and it opened up the backside for us.”
Ground balls and faceoffs were even at halftime, but the Red Riots had a 21-15 edge in shots and senior goalie T-Moe Hellier helped hold the Stags at bay with five saves.
South Portland quickly put the win on ice in the third quarter.
Two minutes in, Fiorini again finished unassisted.
With 7:46 to go in the frame, Fiorini finished a feed from Whipple and beat Walsh to make it 9-3.
After Cheverus freshman Max Coffin hit the post on his team’s first good scoring chance of the half, senior Lucas Michaud set up Whipple for a goal, Babbidge scored on a rebound and Andrews fed sophomore James Ellis for a 12-3 advantage after three periods.
In the fourth, the Stags, to their credit, hung tough, but there was never any chance of a comeback.
With 8:17 to play, Andrews set up Whipple for his final goal, stretching the lead to 10.
After Lawson hit the post, Cheverus finally broke through, as Schleh scored unassisted with 5:24 remaining, snapping a 31:25 drought, which went back to the final minute of the first quarter.
Nineteen seconds later, Coffin scored unassisted and with 4:27 left, Schleh finished a feed from junior Alex Nason and scored a man-up goal to cut the deficit to 13-6, but Michaud and sophomore Finn Zechman both responded for South Portland and the Red Riots slammed the door on their 15-6 victory.
“We knew Cheverus would be a tough team,” Jack Fiorini said. “Everyone played well and executed.”
“We came out of the first quarter 3-3 and I have to admit, I thought we were in for a dogfight, then our defense started playing and shutting their offense down which led to our offense getting control of the ball, which we weren’t getting in the first quarter,” Tom Fiorini said. “From that point on, we got control and once we got control of the ball, we wore their defense down.”
Jack Fiorini and Whipple both scored four goals, Babbidge had two and Andrews, Ellis, Michaud, Mitchell and Zechman tickled the twine once apiece as eight different players got in the scoring column. Andrews, Fiorini, Mitchell and Whipple both had two assists, while Babbidge and Michaud each finished with one. Hellier made 12 saves.
The Red Riots had a 42-28 shots advantage (20-17 on frame), but the biggest reason for South Portland’s win was its stellar defensive effort.
“We work really hard on defense,” said senior defender Trent Lloyd-Rees. ” It’s a side of the field that doesn’t always have the limelight. It’s cool to have that. T-Moe is our anchor. We do our best to protect him. Cheverus is a good team every year. It was good to test our defense like that. The defense is the side of the field that didn’t take a graduation hit, so there’s a big weight on our shoulders, but we’re ready. We’re having a lot of fun.”
“Our defense is incredible this year,” Jack Fiorini said. “We have returning starters and two kids who could have started for any other team in the state, but didn’t get a chance and now they’re playing. We also have the best goalie in the state.“
“In ‘The Avengers,’ ‘The ‘Hulk’ says, ‘That’s my secret, I’m always mad,’ well, my secret is that my defense is always good,” added Tom Fiorini. “We’re not the offensive juggernaut we’ve been in the past. We’re a defensive-minded team. Good defense leads to good offense. We played very simple and did our job, staying in front and hoping to create a turnover or a long shot.”
Cheverus got two goals apiece from Lawson and Schleh and one each from Coffin and Gemmer. Nason and Schleh both had an assist. Walsh made five saves. The Stags won 13 of 25 faceoffs and had a 36-35 edge on ground balls, but ultimately didn’t have enough answers.
“It’s going to be a roller-coaster season,” said Bodwell. “We’re young. My whole defense is new. My goalie is new. I was actually happy with our play. We played with them at times. Hopefully we see them again in seven weeks (in the state final). I’m happy that we kept our composure and finished strong in the fourth quarter.”
The road gets no easier for either squad.
Cheverus hopes to get back in the win column Friday when it welcomes Gorham. Trips to Bonny Eagle, Falmouth and Scarborough follow and when the Stags finally come home, they’ll have to battle Kennebunk.
“It’s helpful to us that we played a really strong team tonight,” Bodwell said. “It gives us inspiration to work hard in practice and get better. I think we’ll do really well. It’s a long season. It’s only game two.”
South Portland makes the long trip to Marshwood Friday, then figures to be tested Wednesday of next week when it hosts vastly improved Westbrook, which already has a win at Scarborough on its resume. Trips to Kennebunk and Thornton Academy (for a highly awaited rematch of last year’s thrilling Western A Final) and a home tilt versus two-time defending Eastern B champion Yarmouth come next.
“We feel the pressure, but after the championship last year, we’re more used to it,” Jack Fiorini said. “We think this year is just as much our time as last year.”
South Portland junior Jack Fiorini gets a step on a defender. Fiorini scored four times in the victory.
South Portland senior Kam Andrews goes one-on-one with Cheverus sophomore goalie Sean Walsh.
South Portland senior goalie T-Moe Hellier denies Cheverus freshman Finn Cawley for one of his 12 saves Tuesday.
Cheverus senior Fritz Gemmer is trapped by South Portland junior Nick Mezzanotte (left) and sophomore Bendetto Nappi.
Cheverus senior Thomas Lawson fires a shot over South Portland senior defender Trent Lloyd-Rees as senior goalie T-Moe Hellier prepares to make the stop.
Cheverus senior defender Keegan Thomas stymies the attack of South Portland senior Kam Andrews.
South Portland sophomore Benedetto Nappi defends Cheverus senior Thomas Lawson.
South Portland senior Trent Lloyd-Rees defends Cheverus senior Fritz Gemmer. Lloyd-Rees and his defensive mates shut the Stags out for 31 minutes, 25 seconds between the first and fourth quarters.
Cheverus sophomore goalie Sean Walsh makes one of his five saves.
Cheverus 5 @ South Portland 4
@ South Portland 7 Cheverus 6 (2 OT)
South Portland 8 @ Cheverus 3
@ South Portland 14 Cheverus 11
@ Cheverus 9 South Portland 6
@ South Portland 12 Cheverus 11
Western A prelim
Cheverus 17 @ South Portland 5
@ Cheverus 14 South Portland 2
Cheverus 16 @ South Portland 4
@ Cheverus 15 South Portland 3
South Portland’s boys’ lacrosse team celebrates its 15-6 win at Cheverus Tuesday night.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.