SACO — Two football games between Thornton Academy and South Portland this season, and the scores were almost identical.

There certainly wasn’t much to choose between these teams, and that was never more evident than at the end of their Western Class A semifinal Saturday.

Thornton rose up to stop Red Riots running back Joey DiBiase inches short of the goal line on fourth down with 2.1 seconds left, preserving a 20-15 victory that sent the Golden Trojans to the regional final next Saturday at top-ranked Cheverus.

“It was do or die,” said Bobby Begin, Thornton’s stellar linebacker. “We knew South Portland was going to try to run outside because they had been successful all game.”

DiBiase went left off tackle. Thornton got good penetration, and the right side of the defense came up big.

After the change of possession, Thornton quarterback Eric Christensen bulled his way forward as time expired.

Thus ended a back-and-forth game. Thornton (9-1) never trailed but couldn’t feel comfortable, as South Portland (7-3) kept coming back.

South Portland won the regular-season game, 20-16 in Week 2.

“We overcame penalties and our offense did enough,” said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal. “We gave up yards on defense but we held on.”

While all of the Golden Trojans were ecstatic, Begin may have been the happiest. He was called for pass interference in the end zone with 36 seconds left, negating an interception and giving the Riots first-and-goal at the 5.

“When I saw the flag, I knew it wasn’t good,” he said.

South Portland quarterback Mike Salvatore lost a yard on first down, but Thornton was then called for encroachment. DiBiase gained a yard to the 2 on second down, and Salvatore had to spike the ball to stop the clock on third down, setting up the all-or-nothing play.

Earlier in the drive, the Riots converted a first down on fourth-and-14 from the Thornton 40. Salvatore passed to Dan Medici, who made a diving catch near the sideline for a 26-yard gain.

Medici returned to the lineup after missing 21/2 games because of a sprained knee.

Early in the game he returned a kickoff 70 yards to the Thornton 29, but the Riots failed to take advantage, fumbling it away three plays later.

“I thought the kids did awesome,” said South Portland Coach Steve Stinson. “We overcame our early mistakes and settled down.

“We don’t just have a football team at South Portland, we have a football program. We were inches from going to the Western Maine final.”

Medici recovered a bobbled Thornton punt early in the game at the Trojans’ 35, but the Riots gave it right back on an interception that led to Thornton’s first touchdown, an 11-yard run by Andrew Libby. Brandon Briggs kicked the extra point.

The score was set up by Chris Madden’s interception of a tipped ball and his 67-yard return. Liam Rottkov’s shoestring tackle prevented Madden from scoring.

The Riots scored early in the second quarter on a 2-yard run by Salvatore. Libby blocked the conversion kick.

With 33 seconds left in the half, Libby scored on fourth down from the 1 to give Thornton a 14-6 lead.

South Portland took the second-half kickoff and drove inside the 10 before settling for Brandon Horton’s 21-yard field goal.

Thornton responded with a touchdown to open a 20-9 lead with 43 seconds left in the third. Christensen passed to Dakota Tarbox for a 22-yard score.

The Riots quickly answered again.

Aided by three facemask penalties on Thornton and a 20-yard run by Salvatore, the Riots crept to within 20-15 on a 1-yard run by DiBiase with 8:23 left.

DiBiase carried 31 times for 108 yards. Libby had 70 yards on 17 carries.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: TomChardPPH