SACO – The contrast was amazing, how one team stopped believing it could win and its opponent never lost faith.
Thornton Academy still doesn’t know how good it can be. Cheverus has known for several years how good it is. Each of its two state championships and its 31 straight victories reinforces the confidence. That’s one reason you now know Sam Cross’ name.
He’s the linebacker who intercepted an Eric Christensen pass and returned it 32 yards for the touchdown that made Thornton stop believing. He was the kid on the depth chart, the backup who helped Cheverus prepare for every other game day by playing on the scout team.
Cross got the call to start when Brent Green, a senior co-captain, showed up at school last week using crutches. He had a knee injury. Saturday, Cross was a 16-year-old junior starting the most important game of his high school career in front of a crowd of 4,011, which is large by Maine standards.
A winning streak that would put his team and his coach in the Class A record book was on the line. Home-field advantage in the upcoming playoffs was on the line. Bragging rights were on the line, not that Cheverus Coach John Wolfgram permits that sort of talk.
Making Thornton Academy know it was still No. 2 in Western Class A was on the line.
“They still played us hard after the interception,” said Donald Goodrich, the senior do-everything running back, defensive end and punter. “But not as hard. We could feel it.”
In the full Thornton Academy grandstand, fans left their seats for the exits. It was a big crowd, but not the giant throng that would turn out for games with rival Biddeford some 25 years ago. Then, nearly 10,000 would come to Hill Stadium to sit or stand.
Maybe Christensen and his teammates didn’t look behind their bench to see their departing fans. The best teams regroup after a turnover or a setback. Thornton Academy could not. Christensen was repeatedly sacked in the final minutes, moving in the pocket and searching for an open receiver. Goodrich sacked him twice. Junior linebacker Cody O’Brien got to him.
For three quarters Christensen had rallied his teammates with his passing and his running, an effective complement to junior running back Andrew Libby. After the interception return, Christensen wouldn’t risk another. But time was running out. He couldn’t use up chunks of seconds handing off to Libby or calling his own number.
Cross’ interception return had suddenly limited Thornton Academy’s options.
“I was in the right place,” said Cross, who caught Christensen’s throw cleanly. In stride, Cross looked to the end zone. “It seemed like it was a mile away. I was worried I might trip.”
He didn’t. These are the moments you dream about when your playing time is sporadic because you’re a special-teams guy. Even if he hadn’t done it in a real game, he had the instincts and the practice time to run away from the Thornton Academy players chasing him, and score.
The game was over.
Wolfgram had already huddled with his team, congratulating them. The Thornton Academy players were heading to their locker room across this vast campus. Disappointment hung heavy.
They had believed for so long on Saturday afternoon that this was their moment to join Cheverus on the top of the hill.
The Cheverus players drifted away from their coach, looked around and caught their breath. A Cheverus fan — or a parent — yelled Cross’ name. He looked up, with a ghost of a smile.
They turned deaf ears, they said, to the weeks-long drumbeat of the winning streak and matching the Class A record of 31 set by South Portland — and Wolfgram — in 1997.
“Coach didn’t say anything about it. Nothing,” said Goodrich.
He refused to acknowledge that a win next week would set Cheverus apart from South Portland.
“We play Deering next week. We’re just focusing on playing that game.”
What was it like playing in front of Saturday’s large crowd with so much on the line? “For 48 minutes we concentrated on the game. We didn’t hear anything,” said Goodrich.
Goodrich scored three touchdowns and ran for nearly 200 yards, besides playing stout defense. If he wouldn’t talk about his emotions, what was his body telling him?
Goodrich grinned. “It’s telling me it just played a football game.”
Sports Writer Steve Solloway can be reached at 791-6412 or at: