SOUTH PORTLAND—Like it or not, history tends to repeat and when South Portland’s boys’ lacrosse team saw its lead dwindle in the late stages of Friday night’s home showdown against nemesis Kennebunk, in a rematch of last spring’s agonizing playoff loss, the Red Riots faced their first character test of the 2014 season.
And they passed it with flying colors.
Last June, the Red Riots watched in horror as the Rams rallied to eliminate them in the semifinal round of the Western Class A playoffs.
Friday’s rematch saw South Portland enjoy a comfortable lead, but Kennebunk twice pulled within two goals in the fourth quarter.
This Red Riots edition believes it has what it takes to be crowned champion, however, and refused to buckle.
After building an early lead courtesy senior scoring machine Thomas Leddy, down the stretch, South Portland turned to junior goalie extraordinaire T-Moe Hellier, senior heart-and-soul Duncan Preston, who got the job done in the faceoff circle as well as on offense, and unheralded junior Andrew Whipple, who is best known for his ability to set up his teammates, only to come up big on a finisher on this night, as it went on to a 14-9 victory.
Leddy led all scorers with five goals, seven Red Riots scored in all and Hellier made 16 saves as South Portland improved to 5-0 on the season, dropping Kennebunk to 2-3 in the process.
“It was a good, solid team win,” said Red Riots coach Tom Fiorini. “We talked all week about staying aggressive. We played to win. We talked in the locker room before we came out about (last) June 8th. We had unfinished business. We weren’t going to sit on a lead or stay on our heels. The kids stayed aggressive and it paid off.”
South Portland felt it was destined to do great things a year ago, a belief that was reinforced by a first-ever win over Kennebunk, 8-7, at home on Leddy’s goal in the second overtime, but when the teams met again, in the Western A semifinals, the Rams rallied to stun the Red Riots, 11-9.
The sting of that defeat stayed with the returning South Portland players all summer, fall and winter and rest assured that when the 2014 schedule was released, May 9 was circled.
The Red Riots have certainly impressed in the early going. South Portland pummeled host Biddeford, 19-1, in its opener, then outscored visiting Cheverus, 15-10. Then Red Riots then dominated visiting Marshwood (18-4) and host Westbrook (21-4, behind 10 goals from Leddy).
Kennebunk, which lost to Scarborough in last year’s Western A Final, opened by blanking visiting Fryeburg, 15-0. The Rams, who have been reclassified to Western B this season, then went to powerhouse Falmouth and lost, 15-2, and fell at defending Class B champion Cape Elizabeth, 8-4, before bouncing back Tuesday to crush visiting Freeport, 17-2.
Entering Friday’s game, Kennebunk had taken 10 of the past 11 meetings over the past decade (see sidebar, below), but this time, South Portland,. which never trailed, wasn’t about to be denied.
It took only 80 seconds for the Red Riots to go ahead to stay, as Leddy scored his first goal of the game, finishing a feed from Whipple.
Hellier made his first big save with 8:02 left in the first quarter, as he denied Kennebunk senior captain Tyler Elkington on a rush.
Thirty-three seconds later, Leddy scored again, taking a pass from senior Ben Bilderback before beating Rams senior goalie and captain Ben Bath.
With 3:19 to play in the first, Leddy scored for third time, with a third different Red Riot getting credited for the assist, as this time, sophomore Jack Fiorini did the honors.
But just when it appeared South Portland might be en route to a rout, the Rams got on the board in the final minute when senior captain Patrick Rimmer scored unassisted.
After winning the ensuing faceoff, which he would do time and again, sophomore Patrick Gassman raced in and fired a shot which eluded Hellier, but hit the post to keep the score 3-1 after 12 minutes.
The Red Riots opened things up a little more in the second quarter.
First, Kennebunk pulled within a goal when Gassman won the faceoff to start the frame and fed Elkington for a goal, causing Fiorini to call timeout.
His team responded as, in transition, Leddy set up Jack Fiorini for a goal.
The tandem struck again with 5:21 to go in the half, as Fiorini set up Leddy for a 5-2 lead.
With 4:09 showing, junior Kam Andrews finished Whipple’s feed for another tally, but with 3:04 to go, Elkington scored unassisted after a gorgeous spin move to pull the Rams within three, 6-3, at the break.
In the first half, South Portland won only one statistical category (saves, as Hellier made eight to just three for Bath). The Red Riots won just one of 11 faceoffs, committed eight turnovers and were outshot, 21-12, but they still had a seemingly comfortable lead.
If South Portland has learned nothing else in recent years, it’s that a lead over Kennebunk is never comfortable.
The third period would preserve the status quo, however.
Just 90 seconds in, Preston scored his first goal, unassisted.
After Hellier made a clutch save playing a man-down, the Red Riots opened up an 8-3 advantage when Whipple set up Fiorini.
After a goal from Rams senior captain Josh Hussey was waved off, Kennebunk got its first goal of the new half when Elkington scored unassisted, but Bilderback answered with an unassisted tally.
Inside the final minute, Kennebunk earned some momentum when Elkington set up junior Patric Murphy to make the score 9-5 heading toward what proved to be a frenetic final frame.
South Portland’s lead never was less than two goals in the fourth period, but until the final minute, the Red Riots never seemed to be in the clear.
Fiorini almost produced an insurance goal 45 seconds into the fourth, but his shot hit the post.
The Rams then made it 9-6 when senior Bryce Fraser set up Hussey for a goal with 8:46 to play.
Whipple then inserted himself into the offensive discussion when he scored unassisted 43 seconds later, making 10-6.
It didn’t stay that way for long, as sophomore Donovan Connor finished a feed from freshman Brendan Whiitten and with 7:05 to play, senior captain and defensive standout Nicco Delorenzo raced in and beat Hellier to cut the deficit to two.
South Portland refused to fold, however.
First, Hellier came up with a clutch save on a bid from Gassman.
Then, with 5:28 to play, Preston set up Whipple for a goal and an 11-8 advantage.
“I think (Andrew’s) the odd guy out, which is kind of crazy, because he drives our offense,” Tom Fiorini said. “I think assists are the greatest thing in the world. He gets five, six, seven assists every game. Duncan, Thomas and Jack get the goals and everyone focuses on that, but we had 73 goals before today and out of those 73 goals, no less than 60 were assisted. That’s Whipple. As a junior, he owns the most assists in a game and he owns the most assists in a career. The other thing about Andrew, when you need him to, he can put the ball in the cage. He’s a complete player. I think he’s overlooked.”
The Rams again pulled within two when Elkington found Hussey for a goal with 4:20 to play, but Preston won the ensuing faceoff, bulled in and eluded the defense before firing past Bath to make it a three-goal game.
“When I see a ball in front of me, I pick it up and I don’t see anyone else,” Preston said. “It’s just me and the goalie.”
Preston had given way on faceoffs to seniors Joey DiBiase and Jordan Susi most of the night, but he won some key draws with the game on the line.
“I let Joe and Jordan handle it most of the game,” Preston said. “The addition of Joe this year helps because last year I was so tired when it came to the fourth quarter, but this year, I’m so much fresher. I felt like I could win. (Gassman’s) wide and he’s quick with the stick and he’s strong. He can scoop the ground ball.”
“To be honest, it was a strategy I came up with over the summer,” Fiorini said. “Joey DiBiase came on board and we talked about throwing a lot of guys at (Gassman). He’s a good faceoff guy and he’ll be a good faceoff guy for two more years. We wanted to wear him down in the fourth quarter and put our biggest and strongest kid against him and see what happens. Duncan, when he puts it in his mind that he’s going into the cage, unless you send all six (defenders), I don’t see anyone stopping him. He’s so big and strong, it’s ridiculous. That’s what All-Americans do.”
Hellier then came up huge, stopping consecutive shots.
The Red Riots transitioned to offense and with 2:16 remaining, Bilderback set up junior Chris Mitchell for an insurance goal.
Hellier then essentially slammed the door, saving bids from senior Ryan Keefe and Hussey.
“T-Moe will do anything he can,” Whipple said. “He’s such a great goalie. Most teams don’t have a great goalkeeper like that.”
Then, with 28.8 seconds showing, Leddy, who hadn’t scored since the second quarter, slammed the door, as he finished a feed from Fiorini.
South Portland ran out the clock from there and celebrated its 14-9 victory.
“We talked about doing whatever it would take to win and we did,” said Whipple. “I didn’t want a repeat of last year. There’s no breathing room when you play Kennebunk. You have to keep pushing because they’re on your tail.”
“This feels so good,” said Preston. “We won’t see them again, but we know we have an edge on the rivalry. It feels amazing. Other than Cheverus, we hadn’t played anyone this year. People might have thought we haven’t played a tough schedule. After tonight, going into the thick of our schedule, we have a lot more to prove, but this is a good step. I love games like this much more than 20-2. I love the feeling of a game that can go either way.”
“It definitely felt like last year, but I can’t say I was worried,” Leddy said. “I have a lot of faith in this year’s team. It was a little bit scary, but in the end, we came together. I love playing Kennebunk. They never quit. We have a ton of respect for them. They’re a great team. It’s always a great game. Guys always dig deep. It’s fun.”
“It feels good,” said Hellier. “We had this game marked on our calendar all year. We wanted revenge. I wasn’t worried. I had faith in our team. We know how to handle tight situations and we proved that today. We have a pretty good rivalry with Kennebunk. They always bring their best and we always bring our best. It’s a fun game to play in every year. It’s helpful for us to not only prove to ourselves, but to the rest of the league that we can do it. “
“I wish we could get out of here sometime with them just caving, but they never give up and I applaud that,” Tom Fiorini added. “We started almost every possession on defense, but what we tried to do was stay positive, keep playing our defense, get a turnover, get a stop. You can see we have an electric offense. It doesn’t take these guys long to score. They see each other so well. They move the ball so well. They get down the field so fast. If we get our possessions, we’ll be OK.”
The Red Riots’ offense is prolific largely because of their balance, which was once again on display Friday. Leddy had five goals.
“A lot of my goals come from the midfield and the other attackmen who do the work,” said Leddy. “The slide usually comes from the crease and it’s one-on-one for me with the goalie. In the first quarter, I don’t think they really picked up on how early they were sliding to the dodger and they left me open. They picked up on that and that left other guys open. Everyone can score on this team.”
“The thing Thomas is doing better this year is catching the ball, turning and finding the open spot in the cage,” Fiorini said. “That’s made a huge difference. His shot percentage is much better than it’s been in the past.”
That was only the beginning. Jack Fiorini, Preston and Whipple all had two goals, while Andrews, Bilderback and Mitchell each scored once. Fiorini and Whipple both had three assists, while Bilderback had two and Leddy and Preston each finished with one.
“We’re built for speed,” said Tom Fiorini. “As a coach, you think you should pull the reins, but I let them go. Each individual kid can go to the cage anytime they want, but when they do, every single one of them has their head up and looks for the other guys.”
Preston also had a team-high six ground balls.
Hellier continued to cement his legend with 16 huge saves.
“It feels a little weird to have pressure on, but I have faith in my defenders to help me as much as they can,” Hellier said.
“He made the big saves when he needed to,” Fiorini said. “The goals he gave up were guys on the doorstep.”
South Portland only turned the ball over 13 times. The Red Riots were outshot, 45-34 (25-23 on frame), but held on.
Kennebunk got three goals from Elkington, two from Hussey and once apiece from Connor, Delorenzo, Murphy and Rimmer. Elkington had two assists, while Fraser, Gassman and Whitten all had one. Bath made nine saves.
Gassman was sensational on faceoffs, winning 22 of 27.
The Rams had a 32-22 edge in ground balls and committed 14 turnovers.
While Kennebunk is back in action next week, when it hosts dangerous Greely and Cheverus, South Portland is in the midst of a series of tests.
The Red Riots welcome a Thornton Academy squad which can beat anyone at any time Tuesday, then visit reigning Eastern B champion Yarmouth in a compelling crossover contest Friday of next week.
We’ll know even more about this top contender a week from now.
“We like having the target on our backs,” Hellier said. “It gives us something to work harder for because we know every team is going to bring their best. We have to be ready. We’ll focus on whoever we play next.”
“We’ve got stuff to prove,” Leddy said. “We’ve been talked up a lot and we hadn’t been tested until tonight. It felt great. The first four games weren’t a fluke. We can play with top teams.”
“We can still possess better,” said Whipple. “We threw the ball away too much tonight. If the other team doesn’t possess, they can’t score, so we need to possess more. We’re good at possessing when we do.”
“I’m nervous about TA, then we have Yarmouth,” Tom Fiorini added. “It’s a hard stretch for us. We go TA, Yarmouth, then we have a lull before Scarborough. That will be a good wakeup game for us going into the playoffs.”
South Portland senior Ben Bilderback looks to create offense.
South Portland junior goalie T-Moe Hellier prepares to make one of his 16 saves.
South Portland senior Thomas Leddy fights Kennebunk senior goalie Ben Bath for a loose ball.
South Portland junior Chris Mitchell finds some operating room.
South Portland senior Duncan Preston is smothered by Kennebunk junior Keenan Beaudette. Preston did manage to score twice.
South Portland senior Jordan Susi tries to get around Kennebunk sophomore Boden Beveridge.
South Portland junior Andrew Whipple looks to get a step on Kennebunk junior Garrett McGrath. Whipple scored a couple clutch second half goals and had three assists.
@ Kennebunk 8 South Portland 5
Western A quarterfinals
@ Kennebunk 5 South Portland 3
Kennebunk 11 @ South Portland 7
@ Kennebunk 17 South Portland 7
Kennebunk 10 @ South Portland 6
@ Kennebunk 16 South Portland 6
@ Kennebunk 15 South Portland 4
Kennebunk 12 @ South Portland 2
South Portland junior Chris Mitchell (right) congratulates senior Thomas Leddy after one of Leddy’s five goals during the Red Riots’ 14-9 home win over Kennebunk Friday night.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.