SOUTH PORTLAND—It was a frigid early September night at Martin Memorial Field, but the offenses were as hot as could be. Host South Portland hung on for a dramatic 42-34 victory over previously unbeatean Sanford Friday in a game that back and forth in the final quarter.
Led by their versatile “backup” quarterback, senior Michael Salvatore, the Red Riots didn’t skip a beat on offense with starting quarterback Jordan Muller sidelined with a collarbone injury. Salvatore racked up just over 100 yards rushing with three touchdowns and also threw for one, while running back Dan Medici had two touchdown runs.
“I don’t want to be seen as that backup quarterback that’s coming in,” said Salvatore. “I want to see myself as a player that can lead this team and I feel like I can do that.”
Sanford running back Alex Shain scored on fourth down from the 1 with 1:50 in the fourth quarter to make it 35-34 South Portland, but Sanford decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. Sanford called a timeout to discuss the play and then lined up for two, which prompted South Portland head coach Steve Stinson to call his own timeout to set up a solid defensive scheme.
Stinson and his squad were definitely ready for the attempt, as the play was a halfback toss left to Shain who met a swarm of Red Riots that stuffed him just shy of the goal line.
“(Stinson) thought he knew what the play was and he actually guessed right, said Medici. “He called that it was going to be a toss.”
“It was truly a team effort on that two-point conversion stand,” Stinson said. “It was an overall team pursuit, which we do every day, that ended up stopping him. This is a tough group.”
After South Portland received the onside kick at their own 35 with no problem, one would think they would try to just milk the clock and try to let time expire for the 35-34 win.
However, Medici busted out a 57-yard run that brought the ball to the Sanford 8. Moments later, Medici took a handoff, broke a tackle and took it into the end zone for a 42-34 lead with 1:31 remaining. The points were certainly nice, but it meant Sanford would receive the ball again with enough time to drive down and potentially score and punch in a two-point conversion for a tie.
After starting on its 40 with 1:25 to play, Sanford quarterback Cody Mooney completed a pass that brought the ball to the South Portland 46. His next pass attempt was nearly picked off by Medici, but he landed awkwardly and couldn’t hold on. Another pass later, the ball was on the South Portland 38. With 36 seconds remaining, sophomore Joey DiBiase intercepted a Mooney pass and that was truly the end of the drama as Salvatore took a knee.
It was definitely an exciting ending to a game that showed South Portland’s true grit and capabilities in a tough and unpredictable Western Class A as the Red Riots improved to 2-1 and dropped the Redskins to 2-1 in the process.
“We fought back from adversity,” said Salvatore. “Just that feeling of being able to kneel down at the end of the game is just a great feeling.”
Sanford got on the scoreboard first with 2:30 remaining in the first quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run from Mooney. Early in the second quarter, South Portland recovered a Sanford fumble which put the Red Riots in great field position, at the Sanford 35 yard line. DiBiase ran for three yards and then Max Porter ripped off a 23-yard run that put the ball on the Sanford 9. That’s when Salvatore ran it himself hard and aggressive through the middle for a touchdown making it 7-7 with 9:44 left in the second quarter.
On Sanford’s next possession, the Redskins used a tricky reverse handoff play that gained 36 yards and set up a 10-yard touchdown run for Shain, making it 14-7 Redskins. On the Red Riots’ next possession, a roughing the kicker penalty was key in giving them a fresh set of downs and 15 extra yards. After a few good DiBiase runs, a 17-yard reception for Porter put the ball on the Sanford 5. DiBiase ran for a yard and then an incomplete pass made it third and goal from the 4. On the next play, Salvatore powered his way through traffic up the middle and tied it, 14-14 with 3:32 in the half. Salvatore was not playing like a “backup” by any means at all. He was confidently and skillfully leading the Riots’ drives.
“(Salvatore) just wanted it, on bth sides of the ball,” said Stinson. “The way he played tonight, he just refused to lose and we fed off him throughout the night.”
Sanford went three-and-out on its next possession and South Portland got the ball at midfield. After a few small plays, Salvatore was blitzed and seemed to be doomed for a sack, but he escaped and took off for a 30-yard gain to the Sanford 15. Seconds later from the 11, Salvatore fired a pass through the middle that was deflected by a Redskin but ended up in Logan Gaddar’s hands for a score, making it 21-14 South Portland with 1:12 remaining in the half.
What proved to be South Portland’s weak spot was its vulnerability on the deep ball. Seventy-two seconds isn’t much time to score, but when Mooney bombed it deep for a 45-yard pass to Jon Schroder, the ball was all of a sudden dangerously close to the end zone, at the South Portland 12.
But what is the best way to make a statement after your team botched a downfield play? Well, making a brutal fumble-causing hit on a rushing quarterback could do the trick. That’s exactly what Salvatore did with Porter recovering the ball, preventing Sanford from scoring in the closing seconds of the half.
“It was a night of big plays and both teams had to respond to adversity at times,” said Stinson. “That’s a hallmark of what we’re trying to do around here. We knew we would be in for a very competitive SMAA game, and that’s what we got.”
South Portland got the ball to start the third quarter, but Salvatore made his one blemish of the night on his first pass of the second half. Salvatore threw an interception which gave the ball to Sanford at the South Portland 20. Shain ran five consecutive times and then Schroder made a nice stiff-arm on a 6-yard run for a touchdown tying the score with 8:07 to go in the quarter, 21-21.
The next drive was mostly Medici. He had a 20-yard return of the kickoff which put the Red Riots at their own 41. Medici ran on four consecutive plays, the third of which was a 36-yard pickup. From the Sanford 10, Salvatore again had a sweet run through the middle with a nice spin move at the end for his third touchdown run of the game, giving the Red Riots a 28-21 lead with 5:49 left in the third quarter.
You really can’t say enough about Salvatore. He flat out led the offense. To start the fourth quarter, he tore off a 28-yard run and then from the Sanford 5, handed it off to Medici for a basically untouched touchdown run making it 35-21 with 11:02 to play.
“I was just seeing the field really well and running with my nose down, making sure I was hitting them instead of them hitting me,” said Salvatore. “I saw green grass and just hit the hole hard.”
After an impressive few defensive plays to put Sanford in a tough fourth-and-15 situation, the Red Riots once again let a receiver, Jimmie Chaisson, slip open downfield for a 26 yard gain to the South Portland 3. The Redskins then turned to their power runner, Shain, who punched it in, making it 35-28 with 8:00 remaining.
On its next possession, South Portland’s offense sputtered a bit and a few penalties didn’t help either, forcing the hosts to punt and give Sanford quality field position at the South Portland 40.
After a few plays, Shain ran for about eight and then was grabbed by seemingly the entire Red Riots defense. Somehow, he dragged the huge pile with him another 10 yards all the way down to the South Portland 8 with 3:40 to play.
On first and goal, Sanford ran for six yards, but then back-to-back small gains made it fourth-and-goal from not even the one yard line. South Portland called a timeout to set up a good play to stop the inevitable Shain run, but Shain busted through regardless, making it 35-34 with the extra point probably coming for the tie with 1:50 remaining.
However, to the surprise of many, Sanford called a timeout and then lined up for a goal line type play, which prompted the Red Riots to call a timeout of their own. The Red Riots then stuffed Shain and kept the Redskins off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.
With many explosive and impressive offensive highlights mixed in with some key defensive stands, the South Portland group looked like a very strong team Friday night. No starting quarterback, no problem.
“What’d we score, 42 points? I don’t think you can be lacking anything if you score 42 points,” said Medici. “It’s pretty good.”
Denying a powerful running back from just a few yards out on a two-point conversion attempt when the game is on the line, no problem.
The South Portland Red Riots have become a problem for every Western Class A team.
“We all worked hard for this,” said Salvatore. “Week in and week out we just keep getting better and better.”
South Portland hosts the undefeated Massabesic Mustangs next week in what is sure to be another exciting game.