Cheverus’ defense rose up when it had to. Quarterback Ethan Jordan, who took two varsity snaps last season, put the ball on the money when he had to. And sophomore Kenny Drelich hauled in the biggest catch of his young career when he had do.
Poise, discipline and execution are cornerstones of John Wolfgram’s coaching philosophy and his players learn them well.
The top-ranked Stags put them to use in the second half Saturday, rallying from a 12-point halftime deficit to beat second-seeded Portland 22-19 in the Eastern Class A final at Boulos Stadium.
Cheverus (10-0) will play Bonny Eagle (9-1) for the state title Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium at a time to be announced. The game will have two southern Maine teams competing for the first time since 1983, when Biddeford beat South Portland 27-7 at Saco.
Trailing 7-0, Portland scored 19 points in the second quarter, the first two touchdowns within 10 seconds, and led 19-7 at the half.
The Stags took control in the second half and didn’t allow a first down to a team that averaged 44 points this season.
“We kind of took stock of things,” said Wolfgram. “We controlled our nerves. We concentrated in the second half, stayed within our game plan and were able to climb back in. We swung the momentum around on the first series in the second half.”
After failing to move the ball to start the second half, Cheverus punted. Portland then fumbled on third down and defensive tackle Dan O’Brion recovered at the Bulldogs’ 10. On first down, Joe Fitzpatrick gained 9 yards. Cody O’Brien scored on the next play, Patrick Mourmouras booted the point after and it was 19-14.
“That was a huge change of tempo,” said Fitzpatrick.
After Portland couldn’t move on its next series – a second-half theme – Jordan lofted a 65-yard scoring pass to Drelich, who had split the secondary. Jordan passed to Zordan Holman cutting across the middle for the 2-point conversion to make it 22-19.
“Kenny got open, I put the ball up and he finished the play,” said Jordan. “We made corrections at halftime and executed just like we knew we could. We knew we could come back. We just needed to compose ourselves.”
Portland’s only chance to regain momentum came on the first play of the fourth quarter when Justin Zukowski blocked a Fitzpatrick punt.
The Bulldogs got the ball on the Cheverus 36, but two running plays gained 4 yards and two passes fell incomplete. The Stags were content to give the ball to Fitzpatrick after that to run the clock.
“When we had our hiccups, we forgot about it,” said Fitzpatrick, the second-leading rusher in Eastern Class A with more than 1,400 yards. “When we got the momentum, we started rolling.”
Fitzpatrick carried 24 times for 97 yards. Zukowski, the leading rusher in Eastern Class A with 1,531 yards, finished with 60 yards on 20 carries.
Cheverus scored on its first series, running sweeps and straight ahead. Liam LaFountain had runs of 15 and 8 yards. The drive ended with a 1-yard score by O’Brien, who was upended but broke the plane with the ball.
A 43-yard pass from Portland quarterback Jordan Talbot to Brett Howell covered 43 yards to the 11. Zukowski scored from the 2 moments later.
The Bulldogs then pinned Cheverus on its 1 on the kickoff when LaFountain slipped while catching the ball. Cheverus fumbled on first down and Ryan Ruhlin recovered in the end zone for a Portland touchdown.
Portland made it 19-7 with 26 seconds left in the half when Talbot passed 17 yards to Ron Hargrove in the end zone. Defensive back Isaac Dunn slipped in the end zone, leaving Hargrove wide open.
Cheverus helped to dig its early hole with penalties and misplays.
“We had situations that hadn’t happened to us all year,” said Wolfgram. “We had more penalties than we did all season. The most important thing is that we stayed the course and played our game.
“Justin Zukowski is one heck of a back. We did a good job containing him. He didn’t break any big ones.”
The Stags are in their third state final in four seasons, winning in 2010 and 2011. Portland was bidding for its first state final since 2002, when it beat Edward Little.
“To come so close is tough,” said Portland Coach Jim Hartman. “You have to make the plays in a game like this. We didn’t and Cheverus did. It’s been a great year for the kids. We just fell a little short.”
Jordan hit 6 of 11 passes for 128 yards. Talbot was 4 of 10 for 67 yards.
Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:email@example.comTwitter:TomChardPPH