PORTLAND — Heading into the 2010 boys’ lacrosse season, many felt that the defending Class A state champion Portland Bulldogs would come back to the pack or possibly struggle after losing a unique core of dynamic and superb players.

But with the new season now one-third complete, the Bulldogs have demonstrated that while the names and faces may change, the winning doesn’t and that they have to be on the short list (once again) of title favorites.

One-sided victories over Noble (18-2), Bonny Eagle (17-4) and Massabesic (16-4) and an exciting triumph at perennial contender Kennebunk (18-10) has Portland 4-0, fourth in the latest coaches’ poll and looking very, very good.

“I’m really happy with where we are right now,” said Bulldogs coach Eric Begonia, The Forecaster’s Coach of the Year last spring. “We’re right where we want to be. We’re holding ourselves responsible to play good lacrosse. When we do that, we’re a fun team to watch.”

Excellence doesn’t graduate

Begonia quickly turned the fledgling Portland program into a power, but the Bulldogs weren’t able to get over the hump and win it all until last spring, when the likes of Erik Casparius, Sam Guimond, Andrew Holt, Dylan Kenney, Igor Radosavljevic, Kyle Roberts, Tyler Sandler, Jason Smith, Nick Sterling and of course, the sensational two-time All-American K.R. Jurgelevich, captured every game but one and downed Brunswick, 9-3, to win the program’s first Class A championship.

With all that talent departing and only a handful of players returning who saw meaningful playing time in 2009, it’s understandable why Portland was overlooked.

But the Bulldogs didn’t respond well to what they perceived as a lack of respect and the rest of the league has been paying for it in early portion of the 2010 season.

“The talk before the season started was that we lost 10 starters, including K.R., and that we wouldn’t be that good,” said senior Kevin Nielsen. “Teams are coming in and playing us and finding out it’s a different story.”

“(The lack of respect) is driving the experienced guys,” added Begonia. “(Senior) Pat (Curran) and Kevin and (juniors) Bronson (Guimond) and Caleb (Kenney), guys that saw significant time last year, were a little insulted by some trash talk in different environments that got back to us. They’ve methodically earned their own respect one game at a time.”

In the opener, Nielsen scored four times, while Guimond and senior Jason Knight each had three tallies. Against the Scots, Guimond scored five goals, while Knight added four. Kennebunk proved to be the lone challenge. Kenney (seven goals) and sophomore Ryan Jurgelevich, who saw limited time in 2009, carried the day, however, and Portland pulled away in the second half.

Saturday night, against Massabesic, the Bulldogs demonstrated their depth and youth.

Despite dominating possession, Portland only led 1-0 after one period on a Kenney unassisted tally. The Bulldogs then erupted for eight second quarter goals to put it away.

Knight fed sophomore Seamus Kilbride, Kenney scored unassisted, Kenney set up Guimond for a goal, Nielsen scored unassisted and Kenney (on a pretty bounce pass) assisted Knight for a score, Portland’s fifth in a four-minute span, to make it 6-1. Goals from Kenney (assisted by Knight), Knight (assisted by senior Gordon Parker) and Knight (from Nielsen) made it 9-1 at halftime and Portland rolled to a 16-4 victory as Knight finished with seven goals and two assists.

“We have slow starts now and then,” Begonia said. “We’re definitely still young in some regards. We think we’re going to do what we did last year, but we’re a different team.”

The Bulldogs are off to a similar start to last year and even many of the uniform numbers and the last names are the same as younger brothers like Bronson Guimond, Ryan Jurgelevich and Caleb Kenney are stepping nicely into their departed siblings’ footsteps.

“It’s a lot alike,” said Nielsen. “We’re doing all the same things. We’re pushing the ball, the offense is doing well and we’re relying on our defense and goalie. A lot of the young guys are stepping up and filling roles. Everything’s clicking.”

Begonia paid tribute to his seniors as well as his newcomers for his team’s hot start.

“We have good upperclassmen leadership,” he said. “We have the luxury of getting scoring from a lot of different guys. Jason barely played last year and had seven goals (against Massabesic). We’re seeing nice things out of Max Pierter, a freshman. It’s still a work in progress for sure. We’re still making mistakes on defense, where we’re still very young, but Jurgelevich is great in goal.”

Eye on the prize

Portland looks to keep the good times rolling Wednesday at Marshwood. Saturday, the Bulldogs visit Lewiston in a possible playoff preview (Portland, along with Cheverus, Deering and Windham were moved to Eastern A for the postseason beginning this year). The schedule isn’t littered with showdowns with traditional powers like Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth, or a rising threat like Falmouth, but that can be viewed as a mixed blessing.

“A schedule like this allows younger, inexperienced guys to develop at the varsity level, but we miss the rivalry games,” Begonia said. “We miss the competition, but we’re going to play the schedule we’re given. We have to go on the road and hope to carry the momentum.”

The biggest test will likely come in the finale, June 1, when Portland hosts Scarborough in what could be a state final preview.

That’s because the Bulldogs are that good once again. Regardless of what anyone thinks. By mid-June, Portland figures to have all the pieces in place for another title run.

Don’t bet against the Bulldogs.

“We’ll be dangerous by the end of the season,” Nielsen warned. “Definitely.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]