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PORTLAND—After a four-goal first half lead dissolved into a two-goal third period deficit, the stirring season opening run of the South Portland boys’ lacrosse team appeared to be coming to an end with a thud as a disheartening defeat to reigning Eastern Class A champion Cheverus loomed Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium.
But this group of Red Riots has staying power and as we learned, a strong finishing kick.
South Portland erupted for five fourth quarter goals, took the lead for good with 4:12 to play on a tally from junior Thomas Leddy and went on to an inspirational 13-10 triumph.
Leddy had four goals, was one of seven scorers, and the Red Riots fended off five tallies from Stags sophomore Tom Lawson to win their third game in as many outings, handing Cheverus its first loss in three games.
“I’ve said it from the beginning, I think I have something special with this group of kids,” said South Portland coach Tom Fiorini. “You can see it in their eyes. They said, ‘It’s not going to happen tonight, Coach.’ I believe in them, they believe in me. It’s a fun ride. We’re having a good time.”
While many boys’ lacrosse teams haven’t even played a countable game yet, Cheverus and South Portland have been quite busy.
The Stags entered the season defending an Eastern Class A title (Cheverus lost to Scarborough in last year’s state final, 9-4). The team has a new look this spring as longtime coach Deke Andrew stepped down and was replaced by Bill Bodwell, who led Lewiston to the 2011 Class A Final. The Stags opened with a 12-6 win at Deering, then handled visiting Thornton Academy, 7-3.
South Portland won just four times a year ago, finishing 4-9 after a 5-3 quarterfinal round loss to Kennebunk. While the Red Riots weren’t viewed as a top contender coming into this season, the feeling around the team is that special things were in store, something South Portland hinted at with opening wins over visiting Marshwood (8-7, on senior Alec Neal’s tally with 20 seconds left) and Gorham (12-7, behind four goals from junior Duncan Preston).
Cheverus took last year’s meeting, 5-4, at South Portland.
Saturday, on a chilly and blustery evening, offense was much more prevalent and in the end, the Red Riots had more of it.
It took the visitors a mere 19 seconds to set the tone, as after an opening faceoff win by Preston, Preston fed junior Joey Babbidge for a goal and a quick 1-0 lead.
South Portland almost made it 2-0 44 seconds later, but a shot from Colton Gervais hit the post.
The Stags got on the board with 8:20 left in the first period, when Lawton scored unassisted, beating South Portland sophomore goalie T-Moe Hellier to tie the score, but with 5:47 remaining, an unassisted tally from Preston gave the Red Riots a 2-1 advantage, which held into the second quarter.
There, the offense picked up significantly.
Seconds after an apparent goal from Leddy was waved off due to his being in the goalie crease, freshman Jack Fiorini took a pass from Babbidge and finished to make it 3-1.
Babbidge (from Preston) scored with 9:25 left in the half and South Portland was up, 4-1.
After junior standout Jack Sutton got a goal back (unassisted) for Cheverus, Neal (from Babidge) and Leddy (from Gervais) struck to make it 6-2 Red Riots with 7:48 to go in the first half.
Then, the game turned in the Stags’ favor for the better part of two periods.
By halftime, Cheverus had roared back to tie the score, as senior Warren Murray scored unassisted, Lawson (from Sutton) and Sutton (from Lawson) both scored man-up goals and with 1:25 left, Sutton struck unassisted to make it a brand new ballgame, 6-6.
South Portland went back on top 28 seconds into the third period, snapping an 8 minute, 16 second scoring drought as Leddy took a pass from sophomore Andrew Whipple in traffic and beat Stags junior goalie James Biegel with a shot.
Cheverus would answer again, as Lawson tied it with an unassisted tally with 6:47 left. Lawson (from senior Patrick Sullivan) struck 55 seconds later to give the hosts their first lead and with 4:32 remaining in the quarter, Sullivan found Lawson for another goal and a 9-7 advantage.
At that point, many on hand thought the Red Riots were finished, but they were simply saving their best for last.
With 1:52 to go in the quarter, the tide turned as Whipple set up junior Andrew Hodge for a goal, pulling South Portland back within one, 9-8, heading for a final quarter it would command.
It took the Red Riots awhile to complete the comeback, however, as they couldn’t score two-men up and shots by Hodge and Babbidge were turned aside by Biegel.
Then, with 7:26 left in regulation, after a pivotal Cheverus turnover, Neal pounced on a ground ball and fed Whipple, who beat Biegel to tie it, 9-9.
After another turnover and Neal ground ball, Whipple set up Leddy for the go-ahead tally and a 10-9 lead with 6:45 to play.
The Stags didn’t stay down either, rallying to tie it with 6:04 to go on an unassisted strike from junior Hilmar Smith, but Cheverus wouldn’t score again.
Preston won the ensuing faceoff and raced in for a shot, but again, Biegel stood tall.
South Portland wouldn’t be denied, however, and with 4:12 left, took the lead for good when Preston set up Leddy for a goal and an 11-10 advantage.
“We just had to take a deep breath,” Leddy said. “I told everybody to rely on each other. We had to bounce back as a team and we did.”
With 2:51 to play, the Red Riots forced yet another turnover and Preston fed Whipple for a goal and a little breathing room.
South Portland then put it away with 1:40 remaining, when Preston scored unassisted and the Red Riots went on to the impressive 13-10 victory.
“We just needed to hold to hold on at the end,” Neal said. “We just needed to slow things down. We did that on offense. We had to settle down on defense. We pulled it together and got a ‘W.’ It’s a huge boost to our team.”
“It’s a stepping-stone game,” said Leddy. “We had to come in and play to the best of our ability and we did that.”
“It’s huge,” Fiorini added. “I thought it would come down to defense, but what I think it really came down to was ground balls and hustle. Alec Neal came up with some huge ground balls and made three incredible plays right in a row. That kid won the game for us as far as I’m concerned. It’s a nice character win early in the season with a young team. I think it will mean a lot to us down the road. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see them one more time.”
Cheverus was left to lament what-it.
“We gave them life,” said Bodwell. “South Portland’s a good team. They played hard. We came out really flat at the beginning, but we came back and were in a good spot there for a bit. We didn’t close the door. It was a dogfight. They’re a very athletic team. They’re strong and fast. We certainly had our chances.”
Leddy led a balanced attack with four goals. Babbidge, Preston and Whipple all had two goals, while Fiorini, Hodge and Neal each scored once. Preston added four assists, Whipple had three, Babbidge two and Gervais and Neal one apiece.
“We have great scorers,” said Leddy. “Everywhere on the field. We trust each other. It’s a great team effort. We have a lot of chemistry. We were young last year, but now we have a lot of people who have varsity experience. It’s all starting to mesh this year. We trust each other and play well together.”
“We moved the ball well,” said Fiorini. “That’s the beauty of this team. It’s not a one-horse team, or even a two-horse team. We share the ball and anybody can put the ball in the cage. Most of these guys have played two or three years. The defense needs work, but they’re willing to put in the time to make it happen.”
Hellier, who was solid in the second half, made 10 saves.
“T-Moe made a couple ridiculous stops at the end,” said Fiorini. “He was facing some kids who can put the ball in the cage.”
South Portland did the little things too and that helped spark the win. The Red Riots won 17 of 26 faceoffs, as Preston went 11 for 17, junior Jordan Susi 5 for 8 and Chris Mitchell 1 of 1. South Portland also won the battle of ground balls, 32-28 (Preston and Whipple both had six, while Gervais and Hellier each collected four) and overcame 23 turnovers by forcing 19 by Cheverus. The Red Riots had a 45-44 shots advantage (24-20 on frame).
The Stags got five goals from Lawson, three from Sutton and one apiece from Murray and Smith. Sullivan assisted on two of the goals, while Murray and Smith each had one helper. Sutton went 7 of 19 on faceoffs, while freshman Alec Nason won 2 of 7 opportunities. Biegel had 11 saves.
“Jamie has played great,” Bodwell said. “He’s really played well for us so far this year.”
Cheverus is back in action Wednesday at Noble and hosts Waynflete in a crossover game Saturday. The Stags still have a big home test looming versus Cape Elizabeth May 10. Cheverus could be the team to beat in Eastern A when all is said and done, but still has work to do.
“We started with three tough games and the weather hasn’t been kind to us, so to come out of it 2-1, I can’t be too disappointed,” Bodwell said. “We still have plenty of time.”
South Portland gets its biggest test of the season Monday evening when it visits three-time Class A state champion Scarborough. The Red Riots then host perennial power Yarmouth Saturday. After that gauntlet in which it will be a decided underdog in both games, South Portland should be able to go toe-to-toe with everyone else on the schedule.
Don’t be surprised if the good times continue for this group.
“It’s still early in the season and we’re still straightening things out,” Leddy said. “We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. (Scarborough and Yarmouth are) going to be big games. I’m ready for them.”
“I don’t know what might happen Monday or Saturday, but that makes this win even bigger,” Fiorini said.