Almost no one outside of South Portland (and frankly very few inside of the city) thought the Red Riots football team had much of a chance in their regular season opener Friday night.
But that’s why they play the games and suddenly, the whole complexion of what we thought we knew about Class A football has gone out the window.
South Portland welcomed defending state champion Thornton Academy, a heavy favorite to repeat, to Martin Memorial Field and pulled off a stunning 26-13 upset victory.
The Red Riots were the lone local team to win last weekend, as Scarborough lost at Sanford, 21-6, and Cape Elizabeth went down to a 26-7 home defeat to Leavitt in its first game in Class C since the 2003 season.
South Portland went 2-6 in 2012 and missed the playoffs, but a strong returning core of veterans gave the team optimism for this season. The Red Riots also had a positive recent history with the Golden Trojans, beating them, 20-16, in the 2011 regular season, then losing, 20-15, in a thrilling Western A semifinal that fall, as a final drive was stopped just shy of the goal line. The teams didn’t meet last season.
Friday, South Portland struck first, on a touchdown pass from quarterback Duncan Preston to Jaren Muller. The extra point failed, but the Red Riots had a 6-0 lead.
Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Thornton Academy senior standout Andrew Libby, widely recognized as the state’s finest player and the favorite for the Fitzpatrick Trophy, suffered a knee injury, left the game and was ultimately lost for the season.
“(Libby) wears the other jersey, but he’s so great for Maine high school football,” said South Portland coach Steve Stinson. “We had two epic games against him when he was a sophomore. It was just an accident. Bad timing. Knowing him, he’ll rehab and play at the next level. He’s far from done.”
The Golden Trojans were understandably shaken and South Portland capitalized, extending its lead to 18-0, as Preston hooked up with Joey DiBiase on a 70-yard bomb, then found Jordan Susi for another touchdown pass. The visitors got back within 18-6 at halftime on a touchdown pass and the score stayed that way entering the fourth quarter, where, not surprisingly, Thornton Academy made things interesting.
Another touchdown pass pulled the Golden Trojans within five, 18-13, but Preston and Susi worked their magic one more time, this time from 19-yards out, and Preston added a two-point conversion pass to Muller to account for the 26-13 final score.
“We had competed with TA all summer in 7-on-7 (games),” Stinson said. “We knew they’re very talented, but we knew the kids we have back are pretty darn good. Depth was a concern, but we came up with gritty performances to finish the full 48 (minutes).
“The defense bent, but was stout in the red zone. We were good on special teams. Offensively, we did what we thought we could do. We had balance. We ran and threw with success. It’s not often you can execute all the skills. We’re balanced across the field. That makes it hard for the defense.
“It was good for the community, a real shot of morale. We had a great crowd. It was great for the kids. They’ve been grinding. It was awesome.”
South Portland can’t rest on its laurels, as it travels Friday to 1-0 Bonny Eagle (coming off a 48-14 win over Biddeford in its opener). The teams haven’t met since Sept. 24, 2010 (a 21-14 Scots victory in Standish).
“(The Thornton Academy win) is in the past now,” Stinson said. “Bonny Eagle is very talented. That takes away any thoughts of a letdown. They’re very similar to us. They have a number of talented skill players. They’re very well coached. Anything short of our best and we’ll get blown out.”
Scarborough, which is riding a three-year postseason streak (the Red Storm was 7-3 in 2012), liked its chances going to Sanford Friday (Scarborough beat the Spartans, 42-16, in last year’s Western A quarterfinal round), but things didn’t go as hoped.
The Red Storm jumped out to a 6-0 lead after a Sanford turnover, getting a touchdown run from quarterback Ben Greenberg. It was all Spartans from there, however, as the hosts went ahead, 14-6, at halftime, then added another score in the third period to prevail, 21-6.
Scarborough hopes to even its record at 1-1 Friday night when it hosts Bangor (1-0, after a 14-13 home win over Edward Little). The programs have never met on the gridiron.
Cape Elizabeth, now in Class C after a very productive nine seasons in Class B, had the misfortune of drawing powerhouse Leavitt in its opener Friday night, at Hannaford Field. The teams last met in the 2009 Class B state champion game, won by the Hornets, 35-21.
This time around, Leavitt took advantage of a Capers’ fumble on the opening kickoff to go ahead to stay. Cape Elizabeth fell behind, 14-0, before a Noah Wolfinger-to-Tony Moulton TD pass pulled it within seven at halftime. The Capers would get no closer and the Hornets scored two more touchdowns to win, 26-7.
Cape Elizabeth goes to 1-0 Poland (coming off a 6-0 win over Lake Region) Friday night. The teams last met in the 2010 season opener (a 25-0 Capers’ victory at the Knights).