(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared June 21, 2007)

PORTLAND—The North Yarmouth Academy boys’ lacrosse team was almost unbeatable this spring and it capped a year of dominance with a brilliant performance in the Class B state championship game Saturday afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

The Panthers, riding high after finally ridding themselves of their long-lasting Yarmouth Clippers albatross, had an answer for everything the Western B champion Kennebunk Rams tried and pulled away in the second half for a 10-3 victory, ending their year at 14-1 with the program’s second state championship and first since 2001.

NYA got scoring from eight different players, allowed just one goal after the first period and gave its long-suffering senior class a reason to exult.

“It feels amazing,” said senior standout All-American Than Wellin. “Four years in the making. We’ve been thinking about this since I was in the sixth grade.”

“I’m at a loss for words,” added senior Nick Lolar, who scored twice. “It’s great.”

Back on top

In 2001, the Panthers became the first team to beat Cape Elizabeth in a state final, as they won their initial championship with a 13-10 victory. Every year since, however, NYA was eliminated by crosstown rival Yarmouth in the postseason.

This spring was different. The Panthers opened the year with a decisive home romp over Cape Elizabeth and rolled to an 11-1 mark, with the only blemish coming May 4 at Yarmouth (a thrilling 12-11 loss). NYA avenged that setback with a 9-6 home win May 30 in the regular season finale to earn all-important homefield advantage for the Eastern B playoffs.

After a 17-4 semifinal round drubbing of No. 4 Oak Hill, the Panthers were finally able to defeat the Clippers, rallying for a 10-9 win on Wellin’s late goal.

That sent NYA back to the championship game. This time, however, Cape Elizabeth wasn’t waiting. The Rams of Kennebunk were.

NYA didn’t face the Rams during the regular year and hadn’t met them in the playoffs since a 15-7 victory in the 1999 quarterfinals. The teams also squared off in the quarterfinals the year before (a 14-6 win for the Panthers).

Kennebunk was playing in its second state final and second in succession (the Rams lost 8-5 to Yarmouth last spring) and was hoping to slow the NYA offense enough to earn the win.

The Panthers went a whole quarter (the second) without scoring, but they turned it on in the second half and got a stellar game-long dominant effort from their defense.

Kennebunk actually scored first. With 9:58 to go in the first quarter, junior Conor Finn fed senior Chris Gassman, who beat NYA senior goalie Stephen Hansel for a 1-0 lead.

Less than two minutes later, the Panthers drew even when senior faceoff man extraordinaire Peter Bates passed to Wellin, who sent a patented rocket past Rams sophomore goalkeeper Cullen Finn.

“Than gets a lot of press and he’s great,” Lolar said. “He’ll still score even with the other team’s best player on him.”

The squads then traded opportunities.

For NYA, Bates shot wide and senior Henry Gerrity was denied. Conor Finn then had a pair of shots denied by Hansel.

With 5:02 to go in the first, the Panthers took the lead for good. Wellin passed to junior Taylor Gorman, whose shot hit the inside of the right post and trickled in.

NYA kept the pressure on. After senior Kevin Catir shot high, he took a nice pass from Wellin and beat Finn to make it 3-1.

“Than was instrumental in finding the openings and finding the open man,” Panthers coach Jeff Thoreck said.

With 3:04 to play in the first quarter, Conor Finn scored unassisted to make it a 3-2 game, but 23 seconds later, Gorman set up Catir for a goal to give the Panthers a 4-2 lead. With time winding down in the quarter, Hansel made a spectacular save on a bid by Kennebunk senior Ben Kelly, maintaining the two-goal advantage.

Neither team would score in the second quarter, but both had chances.

Early on, Catir, Gorman and junior Graham Bartlett were denied by Finn. With 10:04 to play in the first half, a disturbing trend began when a Bates shot hit the post. It wouldn’t be the last NYA bid to have that result.

With 8:05 left in the half, Finn’s shot was saved by Hansel.

NYA then took a couple of penalties, but Kennebunk couldn’t take advantage as junior Noel Graydon and senior Chris Kain had shots go wide.

With 2:56 left before halftime, Wellin hit the post. After Finn shot wide for Kennebunk, the Panthers moved back down the field and were frustrated again when Gerrity’s bid ricocheted off the crossbar.

Despite forcing 14 Rams turnovers and having myriad good scoring chances, NYA still clung to a 4-2 lead at the break.

“We took a few penalties, but we settled it down,” Thoreck said. “We killed the penalties. It was hard to get in a flow playing man-down like that.”

At the half, NYA’s seniors took command of the situation.

“It was 4-2 at halftime and the seniors stood up and said, ‘Hey guys, just play the game and relax,'” Thoreck said. “It wasn’t just one or two of them. It was all nine.”

Just 53 seconds into the third period, Lolar scored unassisted for a 5-2 lead. He faked a pass to Wellin, eluded a defender and beat Finn to snap a 15 minute, 34 second drought.

“We all stepped up today,” Lolar said. “This year’s seniors wanted to bring it home. It?s a great way to go out.”

Over the next four-plus minutes, the Panthers hit the post again (Bates), shot wide once and high twice. Hansel also made an amazing save on Rams senior Aaron Bassett in the stretch.

With 6:45 to play in the third, Lolar took a pass from Gerrity and scored man-up for a 6-2 lead. At the 5:05 mark, senior defensive standout George Reiche got in on the offensive fun.

Reiche collected a turnover, raced through the defense and fired a shot past Finn to make it 7-2.

Those who remember the 2001 victory had to see Reiche’s goal as fitting. In that year’s title game, Chris Chalke, also wielding a longstick, stole the ball and scored a pivotal late goal to seal the title. Reiche’s goal was huge as well.

Kennebunk finally got back on the scoreboard with 4:19 left in the third when Finn (from Kain) snapped a 22 minute, 45 second drought. Moments later, senior Jeff Dube had a good look at the goal, but Hansel stood tall, allowing the Panthers to take a 7-3 lead into the final period.

Early in the fourth, the Rams tried desperately to climb back in the contest. Graydon, Finn and Kelly all had good looks, but Hansel saved each shot.

After Bartlett was robbed at the other end and Bates hit yet another post, NYA iced its victory with two goals in 33 seconds. Bates (from Gerrity) finally found net and not iron with 3:50 to play and Gerrity (from Lolar) scored at the 3:17 mark for a 9-3 lead.

Two seconds after hitting the post, junior Henry Gleason capped the scoring at the 2:06 mark with a goal which accounted for the 10-3 final score.

After so many close calls and heartbreaks, the Panthers danced on the field and celebrated their win and long-awaited crown.

“Everyone stepped up big,” Wellin said. “We were ready for this game. We scouted them and saw how they played and what we needed to do. We came up huge. We got so close before. I sat in the stands for the other finals and thought that had to be me. What a way to finish.”

“We were struggling, but everybody came through at the end,” Catir said. “The defense was amazing. We’ve worked for this all year. Hard work in practice and games.”

“It feels great,” Reiche added. “We waited seven years. We’ve been together since middle school. We never got past Yarmouth before. That really drove us. Beating them felt like a state title. We were a little slow at the beginning, but we picked it up. We only let one in in the second half and got the groundballs. Overall, we picked it up as a team. We weren’t going to be denied.”

Thoreck paid tribute to his players, especially his seniors.

“The seniors have been able to teach the younger guys what it takes to be successful,” he said. “That’s a great message to send the underclassmen. I’m so proud of these guys. They worked so hard all year. The nine seniors played so hard. They have excellent leadership qualities. It came down to them stepping up in practices and on game day.”

For NYA (14-1), Catir and Lolar both scored twice. Six others (Bates, Gerrity, Gleason, Gorman, Reiche and Wellin) had one goal apiece. Wellin and Gerrity both had two assists. Bates, Gorman and Lolar had one each. Hansel made 11 saves.

Kennebunk won 11 of the 17 faceoffs, but NYA forced the Rams into 30 turnovers and corralled numerous groundballs (led by Bates, Gorman, Lolar, Pilitsis, senior Alex Preston, and Reiche). The Panthers were even able to prevail despite hitting the post five times and the crossbar once.

“The important thing for us was coming out and winning faceoffs and groundballs,” Thoreck said. “We focused on what we needed to do to win.

“The defense played well. It’s been a good group all year. A lot of these guys have played together for six years. They communicate well. They slide well. We worked all year on putting pressure on the ball. We’re athletic enough to extend out and force turnovers. This veteran group was able to recognize double-team situations and avoid mistakes. We were able to transition it down the field. With a veteran group of six guys who can score, we were tough to stop.”

Kennebunk (12-3) got two goals from Conor Finn and one from Gassman. Cullen Finn stopped six shots.

Back for more?

The Panthers will be hit hard by graduation as nine depart. Bates, Catir, Gerrity, Zach Garcia, Hansel, Lolar, Preston, Reiche and Wellin returned the program to the pinnacle and will long be hailed.

Those writing off NYA for next spring, however, could be in for a surprise. The program returns such stalwarts as Bartlett, Gleason, Gorman and Pilitsis and should be hungry to attempt to become the first squad in program history to repeat.

“Hopefully, the younger guys can take this experience and make it back,” Wellin said. “I’ll come back to see it.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Sidebar Elements

NYA junior Alex Pilitsis won possession of a ground ball and raced past a Kennebunk defender during Saturdays Class B state final. Pilitsis and his teammates dominated virtually every facet of the contest as the Panthers pulled away for a 10-3 victory.