SOUTH PORTLAND—Everyone knows that the South Portland boys’ lacrosse team is eminently talented.
The only question mark surrounding the preseason favorite Red Riots is are they mentally strong enough to hold off talented foes in close games?
For one night at least, the answer was a resounding yes.
Hosting two-time defending Eastern A champion Cheverus in an early season showdown Monday evening at Martin Memorial Field, South Portland never trailed, but never truly enjoyed a comfortable lead either.
A wild first period ended with the Red Riots on top, 6-4, and they pushed their lead to 9-5 at halftime. On three different occasions in the third quarter, the Stags drew within three, but unlike last year, when it had a penchant for letting leads slip away, South Portland refused to buckle.
Late in the third, senior Ben Bilderback scored to make it 12-8 and midway through the final stanza, moments after the Red Riots got a huge boost on an improbable save from their backup goalie, sophomore Jack Fiorini and senior Duncan Preston scored to provide some breathing room. South Portland went on from there and prevailed, 15-10.
Fiorini had a game-high five goals, while Bilderback and junior Andrew Whipple both scored three times. Junior goalie T-Moe stopped 17 shots and the Red Riots improved to 2-0 on the young season, dropping the Stags to 1-2 in the process.
“It’s really early, but it shows what this team can do,” said South Portland coach Tom Fiorini. “The kids played great from the first moment. I never saw a let-up at all. There’s no such thing as a big enough lead against these guys. Cheverus is extremely good. For us to come up big means a lot.”
Cheverus is used to getting a lot of attention, as it has played in the Class A Final two years running. While the Stags lost both times to Scarborough (9-4 in 2012 and 15-4 last season), they’re now among the elite and appear to be the team to beat in Eastern Class A again. Cheverus opened with a 9-8 loss at Thornton Academy, then got in the win column Friday with a 17-7 home triumph over Deering.
South Portland, meanwhile, has been a contender under Fiorini, but after coming close last spring (dropping an 11-9 heartbreaker to visiting Kennebunk in the Western A semifinals), the Red Riots returned almost everyone, added a few key pieces and just like that, are now viewed as perhaps the team best equipped to end Scarborough’s four-year title reign.
South Portland pummeled host Biddeford, 19-1, in its opener, then turned its attention to a much tougher foe in the Stags.
The Red Riots won at Cheverus last year, 13-10, but since 2002 (see sidebar, below), the Stags held a 6-5 edge (including a preliminary round playoff win back in 2005).
Monday’s game lived up to billing as the offense came fast and furious, while both goalies made their presence felt.
Hellier set the tone just 42 seconds in when he denied Stags junior Nick Schleh point blank.
The Red Riots opened the scoring with 10:21 to play in the first period, when Bilderback set up Jack Fiorini for a goal.
With 8:49 left, Bilderback scored unassisted, beating Cheverus senior goalkeeper James Biegel.
Back roared the Stags, as junior Thomas Lawson and Schleh (after collecting a ground ball in front) managed to tickle the twine to tie the score, but with 3:38 to go in the quarter, Preston scored an unassisted goal.
Cheverus tied it one final time, 3-3, on an unassisted tally from senior Patrick O’Hanlon with 3:10 showing, but 53 seconds later, Whipple fed Bilderback, who raced in from the left side and dazzled those on hand by beating Biegel with a highlight reel behind-the-back shot.
The tandem switched places with 1:09 remaining in the quarter, as Bilderback set up Whipple for a man-up goal and a 5-3 advantage.
There was still plenty of time for more offense, however, and with 26.9 seconds showing, O’Hanlon fed Lawson for a goal.
Then, with just 5 seconds to go, Whipple (from junior Chris Mitchell) finished and the Red Riots had a 6-4 lead.
Not surprisingly, the scoring pace slowed in the second period.
South Portland opened up a four-goal lead, as Whipple (from Fiorini) and Fiorini (from Mitchell, in transition) scored, but with 8:22 to go in the half, Lawson answered with an unassisted tally.
With 6:36 remaining, Preston set up Fiorini for a goal and a 9-5 lead and that would be it for first half scoring.
Not that the hosts didn’t have their opportunities.
With 3:33 showing, South Portland senior Thomas Leddy hit the post.
Then, with 1:59 left and Biegel on the sidelines serving time for a penalty, a shot from Bilderback was saved by freshman backup goalie Sean Walsh.
That wouldn’t be the last time a backup goalie turned heads.
After the Red Riots’ defense stymied the Stags in the final minute, South Portland enjoyed a 9-5 lead at halftime.
South Portland was able to stay on top despite Cheverus’ dominance in the faceoff circle, where sophomore Alex Nason won 11 of 16 opportunities.
“It’s really frustrating against a good faceoff guy,” Preston said. “He went out there and beat us. We anticipated where he’d put the ball and we attacked the ground ball.”
Nine saves from Hellier helped the Red Riots stay ahead. Improved defense also helped the cause.
“We struggled with their offense in the first quarter,” Tom Fiorini said. “They moved the ball well. We adjusted our slide package a little bit. We didn’t stop them, but we slowed them down a little bit.”
The game remained tight in the third quarter.
Lawson scored an unassisted goal with 10:35 to go, but 43 seconds later, Preston set up Leddy for a goal which restored the four-goal bulge, 10-6.
“Last year helped me grow,” Preston said. “I see the field better and I know my teammates better and that helps a lot.”
After Schleh (from junior Keegan Thomas) scored man-up with 7:54 left, junior James Kane had a great chance to make the game even closer, but Hellier made a big save.
Then, after Whipple hit the post, South Portland made the score 11-7 when Fiorini (from Bilderback) scored with 3:57 to play in the quarter.
With 2:40 left, the Stags pulled within three one last time, as O’Hanlon scored an unassisted goal, but just 20 seconds later, Whipple fed Bilderback for a goal and the Red Riots took a 12-8 lead to the fourth period.
There, Cheverus had a chance to creep closer, but it wasn’t to be.
A little over a minute in, Hellier robbed Kane point blank.
Then, with 9:11 to play, with both Hellier and sophomore defender Nick Mezzanotte on the sidelines due to tripping penalties, the Stags were almost ensured of drawing closer, as senior Phil Densmore had to fill in as goalie.
Sure enough, Lawson got a great look, but with 9:03 showing, Densmore stood tall and made the save and Cheverus never did score on the man-up opportunity.
“Phil came up huge,” Hellier said. “We didn’t think he’d play this year, but we talked him into it. We talked him into staying. I’m glad he did.”
“Phil, as of yesterday, left the team,” Tom Fiorini said. “Today, he asked to come back. If we didn’t have Phil, we’d have been in big trouble. He came up huge.”
If that wasn’t disheartening enough for the visitors, a shot from senior Jack Sutton hit the post moments later.
Then, with 6:47 to play, Hellier fed Preston, who threw a long pass to Whipple, who spotted Fiorini in front and Fiorini beat Biegel for a 13-8 lead.
After Nason hit the post at the other end, Preston essentially clinched it with 4:45 to play, as a rebound ricocheted off his body and past Biegel to make the score 14-8.
The Stags refused to go quietly and got goals from Schleh (assisted by Lawson) and Sutton (assisted by junior Fritz Gemmer, playing man-down) to cut the deficit to 14-10, but it was too little, too late and with 1:07 left, Leddy (from Fiorini) scored and that brought the curtain down on South Portland’s 15-10 triumph.
“We’ve got a lot more drive and incentive to win,” Preston said. “Last year we were good, but this year we’re great. Our motto is ‘Unfinished Business.’ We won’t leave anything behind. Cheverus is a very good team. They’re very skilled offensively and defensively. We knew what we had working and we kept going to that. We had great ball movement, got the defense out of position and put the ball in the cage.”
“We moved the ball around a lot,” Jack Fiorini said. “We know each other really well. We’ve played together so long. It was big for us. This season, we’re just driven to go all the way. We really want to do it for our old coach, Ted Hellier (T-Moe’s father, who passed away of cancer last June). We really miss him and wish he was here with us.”
A year ago, South Portland might have buckled in a game like this, but not in 2014.
We have 6 a.m. workouts every day,” T-Moe Hellier said. “Coach tells us (the other teams aren’t) having workouts at 6 a.m. They’re not working as hard as us.”
The Red Riots featured a balanced and prolific attack. Fiorini had five goals and two assists. Bilderback and Whipple both added three goals and three assists. Leddy and Preston (two assists and seven ground balls) each finished with two goals. Mitchell added two assists.
“Our guys are so unselfish,” Tom Fiorini said. “There’s no doubt in my mind any of these guys could take the ball to the cage anytime, but these guys don’t play that way. Their heads are up at all times looking for one another. In our last game, 16 of 19 goals were assisted and that’s how we play lacrosse.”
Then, there was Hellier. He made 17 saves and had a team-high 10 ground balls.
“It felt good to get saves early,” Hellier said. “The defense helps me out by making the shots come from the outside. It’s easy to get into the groove when shots are coming from the outside.”
“(T-Moe’s) the best goalie in the state,” Tom Fiorini said. “He’s proved me right time and again and I’m so proud of the kid.”
“We hit four posts and we had a number of one-on-ones and we kept putting it in his stick,” lamented Cheverus coach Bill Bodwell. “He’s a very good goalie.”
Densmore had one very big save as well.
South Portland enjoyed a 41-37 advantage in shots.
Cheverus was paced by four goals and an assist from Lawson, Schleh had three goals, O’Hanlon two and Sutton one. Gemmer, O’Hanlon and Thomas also had assists. Biegel made 11 saves and Walsh had one.
The Stags had an 18-11 advantage in faceoffs, a 49-40 edge in ground balls (Nason had a game-high 13, while Biegel collected six) and a slight 28-27 edge in shots on frame, but fell short.
“We had a couple instances of getting close, but they didn’t let us back into it,” said Bodwell. “We played better in the second half. South Portland’s a good team. They’re going to be one of the strongest teams in Class A. It’s probably them and Scarborough as the top two teams in Class A.
“We weren’t ready. We made some errors in our slides and they exposed us. You have to watch Preston, he’s very talented. Bilderback’s very good. Leddy’s dangerous in the crease. Those three guys you think about first. We had an idea of what might work, but they made adjustments.”
Both teams committed 19 turnovers.
Cheverus is back in action Thursday at Gorham. Following that one, the Stags have to face Falmouth, Scarborough and Kennebunk.
“It’s a long season,” Bodwell said. “These kids are proud. They know how to win. They’ll bounce back. Three upcoming games are tough. We just want to make playoffs and we’ll keep getting better.
South Portland’s next game is Thursday, when it hosts Marshwood. The Red Riots look to keep improving, a scary thought for the rest of the league.
“We have a fuel to feed the fire,” Jack Fiorini said. “We need to get better on ground balls. Our defense has to work on slides, but they did a great job tonight. Our offense has to keep it up.”
“We’ve got to realize that we still haven’t proved anything,” Preston said. “We’re possibly the best team in the state on paper, but paper means nothing. We have to prove it every night.”
“I think these kids have an idea where they can go,” added Tom Fiorini. “It’s a lot of work. A long way to go. It’s just such a fun group of kids. They congratulate each other. They don’t argue.
“There are no letdowns this year. We didn’t letdown at all against Biddeford. We didn’t let down tonight and I don’t expect us to let down against Marshwood. I hope we don’t all season.”
South Portland senior Josh Allen tries to slow Cheverus junior Thomas Lawson.
Cheverus senior James Biegel denies South Portland junior Andrew Whipple.
Cheverus senior Cavan Dudley defends South Portland junior Andrew Whipple, who had three goals.
South Portland senior Joey DiBiase battles Cheverus sophomore Alex Nason for possession after a faceoff. Nason won 17 of his 28 opportunities.
Cheverus junior Quinton Farr attempts to contain South Portland senior Ben Bilderback, who scored three goals.
South Portland senior Duncan Preston tries to catch up with Cheverus senior Patrick O’Hanlon.
Cheverus senior Jack Sutton has his shot stymied by South Portland junior goalie T-Moe Hellier.
South Portland junior goalie T-Moe Hellier makes one of his 17 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 senior Ben Bilderback (23) is congratulated by classmate Duncan Preston after a first period goal in the Red Riots’ 15-10 home win over Cheverus Monday night.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.