Joe Esposito, the Portland High senior who helped carry the Bulldogs’ football team to an undefeated regular season, was honored Sunday as the 45th winner of the James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy during a ceremony at the Holiday Inn By the Bay in Portland.

The trophy is awarded to the top senior high school football player in the state, based on voting by coaches and media.

A running back, linebacker and special teams stalwart, Esposito was among three finalists for the award, along with running back Will Bessey of Brunswick and quarterback Austin McCrum of Thornton Academy.

“Hearing all their accomplishments – and I know how great they are – sitting next to them was an honor,” Esposito said of Bessey and McCrum. “It was a shock hearing my name.”

It was never a shock when Portland Coach Jim Hartman called Esposito’s name. Esposito was sent out for offense, defense and everything else.

“He never took a play off in practice and never took a play off in the game,” Hartman said. “I certainly wasn’t going to take him out.”

Like McCrum and Bessey, Esposito became known for his offense. According to Hartman, Esposito rushed for 1,789 this season, including the playoffs.

“But we think more of his ability to play defense,” Hartman said. “He was a three-year starter at middle linebacker.”

And he was not just a tackler – making 142 of them – but a leader. Esposito called the defenses during the game.

“As a defensive coordinator, it was so easy,” said Portland’s defensive coordinator Mike Rutherford. “We put in the game plan during the week and (Esposito) would have the authority to move guys around, of calling the blitz … he had a real feel for the game, which very few high school kids could do.

“He did an excellent job. You didn’t see a lot of hand signals from me … I’ve been coaching football since 1986 and he’s one of the top three football players I’ve had.”

Esposito became the first Portland player to win the Fitzpatrick Trophy since Carl Frye in 2002, and the fifth Bulldog overall – along with Joe D’Andrea (1995), Shaun Hawkins (1983) and Rutherford (1982).

Esposito’s cousin, former Portland running back Justin Zukowski, who was a finalist two years ago.

Esposito ran the football, made tackles, was the long snapper on punts and place kicks, led the Bulldogs in tackles on kickoffs and was on both kickoff and punt returns. His efforts led Portland to the Class A state championship game, where the Bulldogs lost to Thornton Academy.

Previously, Esposito was named the Maine Sunday Telegram Player of the Year.

Esposito is playing basketball for the Bulldogs and said he will play baseball in the spring, although he last played baseball in eighth grade.

Next year is somewhat of a mystery.

“I still have to find a college that’s right for me,” said Esposito, who mentioned four potential schools – Bates, Endicott, Maine and Rhode Island.

If he attends Division III Bates or Endicott, Esposito said he would play football. At Maine or URI, “I’ll just play intramurals,” he said.

Esposito, an A student, plans to major in business.

But the future can wait. Esposito was still trying to soak in the honor Sunday.

“Maybe later on, I can grasp what it all means. It’s such a great feeling,” he said. “Feel pride for my school, my teammates and myself.”

As is tradition, the award was announced by the Fitzpatrick winner from 25 years ago, John St. Onge of Biddeford High.

The ceremony was attended by families of the finalists, the other nine semifinalists and relatives of the trophy’s namesake, the late James Fitzpatrick, a longtime football coach and athletic director at Portland High. Also in attendance was Rob Elowitch, son of the late Julius (Yudy) Elowitch, who played for Fitzpatrick and founded and funded the Fitzpatrick Trophy.