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PORTLAND—If you ever wonder why coaches obsess about special teams, Saturday afternoon’s Windham at Cheverus Eastern Class A Final at Boulos Stadium illustrated why.
The Eagles made both field goal attempts and converted an extra point, while the Stags failed to convert a field goal due to a high snap, then suffered an even more horrifying result on the final play of the game.
Cheverus, the top seed in Eastern A, which had lost by 28 points to visiting No. 2 seed Windham back on Sept. 27, controlled play much of the way, but couldn’t put the win away.
After the hosts took a 7-0 lead on junior Justin Johnston’s 1-yard run early in the second period, a 29-yard field goal from Eagles senior placekicker Josh Dugas made it very much a game at halftime.
When Stags senior standout Joe Fitzpatrick broke free for a 63-yard TD scamper midway through the third quarter, Cheverus had a seemingly commanding 14-3 lead, but Windham was far from finished.
With just over seven minutes to go, the Eagles were still down by 11, but a 2-yard touchdown run from sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie, followed by a two-point conversion rush from Leslie, cut the deficit to 14-11 and made things very interesting.
The Stags fumbled the ensuing kickoff and a Windham recovery turned the tide for good. While Cheverus’ defense kept the Eagles out of the end zone, a 29-yard Dugas field goal with 5:24 to go forged a 14-14 deadlock.
Neither team could score the rest of regulation and overtime would be necessary to crown a champion.
Windham got the first chance on offense and needed just one play for junior Dylan Koza to score untouched on a 10-yard run. Dugas added the extra point and the Stags needed a touchdown and extra point to extend the game.
They only got the first part.
A 2-yard Fitzpatrick burst seemingly extended the game, but senior Patrick Mourmouras’ extra point was blocked by Eagles junior Tanner Laberge and just like that, Cheverus’ title dream was dashed as Windham held on for a 21-20 victory, ended the Stags’ season at 8-2, improved to 9-1 and advanced to meet Thornton Academy (9-1) in the Class A state final Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium at a time to be announced.
“There’s nothing I can say,” said Cheverus coach John Wolfgram. “It’s hard when you work from August to get to where you want to be and fall short, but I couldn’t be more proud of my kids. The way we hung tough and the way we played. We stayed within ourselves and played with discipline, but turnovers killed us.”
Whenever Cheverus and Windham square off in the postseason, it’s impossible not to turn back the clock five years to the Western A Final, when the Eagles edged the visiting Stags in a torrential downpour, 7-6.
Cheverus wouldn’t lose again for three years, winning the championship in 2010 after surviving a mighty scare from visiting Windham in the quarterfinals, 34-27, and again in 2011.
This fall, the teams have been on a collision course ever since the Eagles came to Portland on Sept. 27 and shocked the Stags with decisive ease, 35-7.
Windham would stumble two weeks later at home to Portland, 12-6, but that was its only blemish in a 7-1 campaign which gave the Eagles the second seed in Eastern A. Last weekend, a late drive gave Windham a 21-17 home win over No. 3 Portland in the semifinals.
Cheverus, meanwhile, overcame its loss to the Eagles and won out, also finishing 7-1, but the Stags had more Crabtree Points and earned the top seed in the region. After a quarterfinal round bye, Cheverus had no trouble with fourth-ranked Bangor in last Saturday’s semifinals, 35-6.
This time around, rain wasn’t a factor, but it was chilly (37 degrees at kickoff) and this one came down to the wire.
And then some.
The Stags made a statement early with an impressive initial drive, but ultimately had nothing to show for it as the tone was set.
Cheverus turned to Fitzpatrick early and the standout didn’t disappoint, getting the ball on the first four plays and rushing for 10-, nine-, 10- and five-yards to move the ball from the Stags’ 22 to the Windham 44. After Johnston ran for four yards, Fitzpatrick moved the chains again with a nine-yard burst to the 31. Johnston ran for two yards and on the next play, Fitzpatrick got the handoff, but gave it to senior Liam LaFountain on a reverse and LaFountain gained 20 yards to set up a first-and-goal from the 9.
Despite the chance, it didn’t result in points.
After Fitzpatrick ran for three yards, Cheverus junior quarterback Isaac Dunn bobbled the snap before running for two yards on second down. On third down, Fitzpatrick only managed one yard as senior Zach Davis made the tackle and Mourmouras was brought on for a 21-yard field goal attempt.
The kick never happened, however, as the snap was high and only a heads-up play from Mourmouras prevented the Eagles from returning the ball the other way for a score.
A personal foul call on the Stags allowed Windham to take over at its 32.
The Eagles quickly went three-and-out, as Koza gained three yards on first down, Leslie was sacked for a three-yard loss by senior Zordan Holman and junior Frank Curran on second down and after a hold, Holman threw Koza for a four-yard loss on third down, forcing a punt.
The hosts got the ball back at their 41 and embarked on a nearly six-minute drive to take the lead.
An eight-yard pass from Dunn to Holman moved the chains on third-and-4. After a penalty backed the Stags up 15 yards, LaFountain ran for 10 yards and after Dunn threw incomplete, Johnston gained 14 yards on a screen as the first period came to an end.
In the first 12 minutes, Cheverus gained 84 yards while Windham had negative-16 yards of offense. The Stags ran 18 plays to the Eagles’ three and held the ball for 9 minutes, 26 seconds.
On the first play of the second quarter, on fourth-and-1 from the Windham 36, Fitzpatrick’s’s second effort resulted in a two-yard gain and a first down. A holding penalty backed Cheverus up further, but Fitzpatrick rushed for 15 yards and Johnston gained eight to set up a first down at the 23. After a facemask penalty gave the Stags a first down at the 11, Johnston was thrown for a one-yard loss, but Fitzpatrick rumbled to the 1 and on the next snap, Johnston soared over the line for the first score of the game, capping a 13-play, 59-yard, 5:59 march.
Mourmouras added the extra point and with 9:52 to go in the first half, Cheverus had a 7-0 lead.
Windham got its offense going on its next series.
On the first play, Koza rumbled for 22 yards. On the next snap, Leslie kept the ball and gained 22 more yards to the Stags’ 44. After Koza gained five yards, Leslie threw incomplete and after a holding penalty, the Eagles only got 10 yards (as Leslie hit Laberge) on third-and-16 and had to punt again.
Cheverus had a chance to extend its lead, but a 27-yard run by Fitzpatrick was negated by a hold and the Stags went three-and-out.
Starting at midfield with 4:57 to go before halftime, Windham marched for its first score.
After Leslie hit junior Eric Webb for a six-yard pass, Leslie kept the ball and gained four yards to move the chains. After Laberge gained 13 yards on a sweep, Koza picked up 15 more to the Cheverus 12.
A hold backed the Eagles up and on fourth-and-11 from the 13, Windham coach Matt Perkins turned to Dugas, who calmly booted a 29-yard field goal with 1:17 remaining before halftime, cutting the deficit to 7-3.
The Stags hoped to answer before the break, but after Fitzpatrick ran for 18 yards, a sack by Eagles junior Patrick Leavitt sent the hosts backwards and that did it for the first 24 minutes, which saw Cheverus enjoy a 134-69 edge in yardage.
In the first half, Fitzpatrick gained 104 yards on 15 carries, while Koza paced Windham’s offense with 50 yards on eight rushes.
Each team was hindered by penalties, however, as the Stags were flagged four times for 47 yards, while the Eagles also saw yellow four times for 45 yards.
Things remained taut in the second half.
Windham looked to be in good shape when sophomore Kyle Houser returned the kickoff to the 48, but a holding penalty moved the ball back to the 26. The Eagles got things going when Leslie hit junior Eric Webb for 14 yards, with a late hit penalty tacking on 15 more, but after Dunn tackled Webb for a two-yard loss on a reception and a Leslie pass to Webb only gained seven, Koza was stuffed by Cheverus seniors Zach Handley and Dan O’Brion on third-and-5 and the visitors had to punt.
The Stags then got some breathing room, courtesy the state’s elite running back.
Starting at its 14, Cheverus got a first down as Johnston ran for three yards and Fitzpatrick ran for five, then three more to move the chains. After Johnston was stopped for no gain, LaFountain caught a pass for nine yards and Fitzpatrick again moved the chains with a three-yard rush. Fitzpatrick got the ball again on the next snap, ran left, found a hole and as he patiently waited for a lineman to clear a defender, Fitzpatrick roared into the hole, broke free and outran the pursuit for a 63-yard touchdown. Mourmouras added the PAT and with 5:59 to go in the third period, the Stags had a 14-3 lead.
When Windham went three-and-out on its next series, Cheverus had a chance to put a stranglehold on the game, but after moving from the 36 to the Windham 40, Johnston ran for nine yards, was stood up and while many expected a whistle after forward momentum was stopped, he was stripped of the football and the Eagles came up with it on a game-saving play.
Windham got an 11-yard run from Leslie, but couldn’t do anything more and punted the ball back inside of the final minute of the quarter.
The Stags only gained eight yards on three plays and as the pivotal fourth period began, they had to punt and with 10:58 to go, the Eagles started from their 20.
Where at last their offense made something good happen.
Windham would need 10 plays and 3:41 to traverse 80 yards, but it would do so and get right back in the game.
Leslie got the drive started with a 10-yard run. He then hit Davis for a dozen yards and another first down to the 42. Two plays later, on third-and-8 from the 44, Leslie found Webb for 25 yards. A 16-yard Leslie-to-Davis pass moved the ball to the 6. After Leslie ran for four yards, he kept it again and burst in from the 2. Leslie then kept the ball on the two-point conversion attempt and broke the plane to cut Cheverus’ lead to 14-11 with 7:17 still to play.
“Leslie is only a sophomore and at the beginning of the year, we didn’t want to put (rushing) on him,” Perkins said. “Today, we knew if we were going to win, we ‘d have to show multiple backs. He was huge.”
Momentum stayed in the Eagles’ corner when, on the ensuing kickoff, Stags sophomore Rylan Benedict fumbled and Houser recovered at the Cheverus 20.
Just like that, Windham was in position to go on top, but the Stags’ defense stiffened.
After Leslie ran for a yard on first down, Koza ran for four-yards, then three, setting up fourth-and-2 from the 12. After a timeout, Perkins sent Dugas out to tie the game and the kicker calmly did so with another 29-yard boot and with 5:24 remaining, the game was deadlocked, 14-14.
“I didn’t like the situation,” said Perkins, of his decision to kick instead of go for the first down. “It was fourth-and-2 and they’re really good at inside blitzing. If we missed a block, the game was over. We’re the away team and I knew (Josh) wouldn’t miss it.”
Cheverus got the ball back with a chance to answer, but a hold backed the Stags up and they had to punt after a three-and-out.
The Eagles took over in good shape at their 41 with 3:13 to play and moved into Cheverus territory when Leslie hit Webb for 16 yards, but a Holman sack sent Windham backwards and with under a minute to go, the visitors punted.
The Stags got the ball at their 23, but had no time to drive and two plays later, the horn sounded and it was on to overtime.
In Maine high school football, each team gets a series of downs from the 10-yard line.
Both teams would score, but special teams sent the Eagles to the state final and Cheverus home.
Windham got the ball on offense first and needed just one play to hit paydirt as Koza ran to the left and found plenty of empty space. He strolled in for a 10-yard score and Dugas’ extra point made it 21-14 Windham.
“It was wide open in there,” Koza said. “I think they expected middle. We went outside. It was a hell of a job up front. We kept up our dominance and we believed the whole time.”
“They set the edge on that side and (Koza’s) quick,” Wolfgram lamented.
The Stags then got an eight-yard run from Dunn on first down and Fitzpatrick bulled in on second down.
Mourmouras came on for the extra point to send the game to a second overtime, but it didn’t get there.
The snap to LaFountain was sound and LaFountain placed the ball on the tee. Mourmouras made solid contact with the ball, but instead of it soaring up through the uprights, the smack of ball against flesh was audible and to the joy of those on the Windham sideline and to the shock of those on the home side of the field, Laberge had broken through and blocked the PAT.
“I didn’t feel it,” Laberge said. “It hit my arm and I looked up and everyone was going nuts on the sideline. When they scored, we knew we had to block (the kick). Me and (junior) Griffin Jacobsen on the end got a great jump and it just happened. There’s no better feeling. We call our kick-block ‘War-horse.’ We did it on their left side all game, then we switched it for the last one and it worked.”
“That was a great job by Tanner Laberge, stepping up and making a big play,” Koza said. “That’s what he does.”
“That’s something we’ve worked on all year,” Perkins said. “We’ve worked on inside, outside levels and where we’re coming from. Tanner’s a gamer. He pitched in the Western Maine championship last spring. He’s all heart. He’s one of the toughest football players I’ve ever coached.”
“I think they overloaded that side,” Wolfgram said. “Special teams was a difference. We work hard on special teams, but they made the plays on special teams.”
The Eagles had survived, 21-20.
“To do it here with the mystique they’ve built up over time, says a lot about our kids,” Perkins said. “We believe in each other. We don’t give up. We talked all week about focusing on the moment. Not what’s happened or what’s ahead of us. You have to do that against a veteran team. A Wolfgram-coached team will adjust on the fly and you have to do that too. You can’t get caught in the moment. We felt the big thing we had to do was win third down. In the second half, the pivotal points were third downs where we held and forced a punt, or if they got them, they got them by an inch or two. It was a grind-it-out game.”
Windham mustered 221 yards of offense. Koza rushed for 80 yards and a score on 16 carries. Leslie had 62 yards and a TD on 10 rushes and threw for 111 yards on 10-of-14 passing. Dunn was the top receiver, catching five balls for 52 yards. Davis had three catches for 35 yards. Laberge had one reception for 10 and junior Mitchell Eskilson had one catch for 14.
The Eagles overcame eight penalties for 89 yards.
Windham will play in its second state final Saturday (the Eagles downed Bangor, 35-21, to win the 2009 crown) against Thornton Academy, a powerhouse Windham didn’t face in the regular season.
Once again, the Eagles will be overlooked and in their minds, disrespected, but they welcome the challenge.
“We’ll watch film tonight,” Perkins said. “We look forward to it.”
Cheverus got 205 yards and a two TDs on 27 carries from Fitzpatrick in his swan song.
“Joe’s a warrior,” Wolfgram said. “An absolute warrior. He’s playing with a pulled muscle, but he willed himself. He made plays for us and put us in a position to win.”
Johnston rushed for 34 yards and a TD on 12 rushes. He caught a pass for 14 yards. LaFountain gained 38 yards on five attempts and caught a pass for 9 yards. Holman had a reception for 8 yards.
Dunn finished 3-of-6 passing for 31 yards and rushed twice for 10 yards.
The Stags managed 271 yards of offense, but were penalized six times for 77 yards.
This one will sting for a long time.
“They made some plays at the end,” Wolfgram said. “We turned the ball over. They seized momentum. That was pretty much it.
“To Windham’s credit, they made the plays to win the game. We worked our butts off and played hard. I have tough, hard-nosed kids.”
Cheverus junior Kenny Drelich tracks down Windham junior Dylan Koza.
Cheverus junior quarterback Isaac Dunn scrambles away from Windham junior Patrick Leavitt.
Cheverus senior Joe Fitzpatrick breaks free for a 63-yard touchdown run in the third period.
Cheverus senior Zordan Holman stalks Windham sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie.
Cheverus junior Justin Johnston leaps to try and block the pass of Windham sophomore quarterback Desmond Leslie.
Cheverus senior Liam LaFountain is brought down by a pair of Windham defenders.
Cheverus seniors Dan O’Brion (55) and Zach Handley combine to bring down Windham junior Dylan Koza.
Cheverus senior kick Patrick Mourmouras buries his head in hands in horror as Windham junior Tanner Laberge exults after Laberge’s blocked PAT in overtime secures the Eagles’ victory.
Cheverus coach John Wolfgram and his players look on in dismay and disbelief following the loss.
2010 Western A quarterfinals
Cheverus 34 Windham 27
2009 Western A Final
Windham 7 Cheverus 6
Cheverus senior placekicker Patrick Mourmouras has an extra point blocked by Windham junior Tanner Laberge with the game on the line in overtime of Saturday’s Eastern Class A Final. The block gave the Eagles a 21-20 victory, sent them to the state final and ended the Stags’ season in agony.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
W- 0 3 0 11 7- 21
C- 0 7 7 0 6- 20
C- Johnston 1 run (Mourmouras kick)
W- Dugas 29 FG
C- Fitzpatrick 63 run (Mourmouras kick)
W- Leslie 2 run (Leslie rush)
W- Dugas 29 FG
W- Koza 10 run (Dugas kick)
C- Fitzpatrick 2 run (kick blocked)