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.
“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.”
Prior to Friday night, the last time South Portland beat Deering was Sept. 28, 2000 (35-28). Things have shifted dramatically in 2009, however. 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 Rams then went up 21-7 after one on a pair of Ross TD passes.
As the first period gave way to the second, South Portland’s offense came back to life and the Red Riots drew even on a pair of Curit 1-yard TD runs. The
first was set up by a pair of long passes from senior quarterback Jon
DiBiase and the second was the result of a 58-yard DiBiase run to the 1. A muffed punt just before the half allowed Deering to take a 28-21 lead into the break, however, but everything changed early in the third.
Deering got the ball to start the second half and instead of stretching its lead, gave two points back to South Portland on a bad snap on a punt that wound up being recovered by the Rams in the end zone for a safety. Deering then had to kick to the hosts and South Portland got a 42-yard kick return from senior Mike Foley to the Rams 21. Two plays later, Curit raced up the gut from the 15 for the touchdown and a 30-28 advantage.
“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 awhile.”
Deering would drive 96 yards to take a 34-30 lead with 7:21 to go, but 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. The 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.
Twice South Portland had to stop Ross and the Rams in the waning moments and both times the defense stepped up, slamming the door on an inspirational 36-34 win.
“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.”
“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.”
“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. 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.
“It feels good,” Stinson said. “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. 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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org