PORTLAND—The Cheverus football team has treated its fans and tortured its coaches with a highwire act in recent weeks, but the Stags continue to find a way to win.

Saturday afternoon, Cheverus and upstart Scarborough went toe-to-toe in the Western A semifinals and once again, the Stags made just enough big plays at the right moments to live to play another day.

Cheverus never trailed, but never led by more than seven and didn’t take the lead for good until 7:38 remained when senior workhorse Evan Jendrasko bulled in for a 2-yard touchdown run. The Stags came up with a defensive stop, then ran out the final 5 minutes, 6 seconds to hold on and beat the Red Storm, 21-14.

Cheverus improved to 10-0 and will meet city rival Deering (8-2) in the Western A Final, Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Scarborough’s best-ever Class A season by a mile came to a close at 8-2.

“It was a battle,” said Jendrasko. “A little messy and sloppy, but that’s how our team does it. Usually with our grit and determination, we pull it out.”

Compelling duel

Cheverus has stolen headlines all season. After last year ended in agony with a one-point loss at Windham in the slop in the regional final, the Stags have passed every 2010 test and earned the top seed for the playoffs. Last weekend, Cheverus rallied from a 27-14 third period deficit to defeat No. 8 Windham, 34-27, in the quarterfinals.

Scarborough, meanwhile, was nowhere near the postseason in 2009. In fact, the Red Storm had to rally to beat Kennebunk in the finale just to finish 1-7. In the offseason, Scarborough brought in longtime Portland assistant coach Lance Johnson to lead the program and it’s paid immediate and seismic dividends as the Red Storm reversed last year’s mark, going 7-1, earning the No. 5 seed for the Western A playoffs, then rolling, 48-14, at No. 4 Biddeford last Saturday, setting the tone with a kickoff return for a score to start the game.

The Stags and Red Storm hadn’t met since the 2004 season and split the two prior encounters. They had no playoff history.

Saturday, Scarborough had its chances, but ultimately, Cheverus moved on.

The Red Storm got the ball first and picked up a first down on an 11-yard pass from senior Jack Adams to classmate Kyle Kelley. The Stags’ defense would stiffen, however, and forced a punt and the hosts took over at their 17.

Nine plays and 3 minutes, 39 seconds later, Cheverus had the lead.

A 10 yard run from Jendrasko set the tone. After senior quarterback Peter Gwilym rushed for 12 yards and Jendrasko followed with a 14 yard scamper, the Stags were in Scarborough territory. Four plays later, Gwilym broke two tackles and raced 25 yards to the 6, setting the stage for a 6-yard TD run from junior Spencer Cooke. Junior Louie DiStasio added the point-after and the Stags were ahead, 7-0, with 4:42 to play in the opening quarter.

The Red Storm went three-and-out and were forced to punt on their next series, but junior Matt Brown was roughed and the visitors retained possession. They would meticulously march down the field and as the first period gave way to the second, were in Cheverus territory.

Adams’ passes of 12 yards to junior Scott Thibeault and seven to senior Joe Viola set the stage for a 16-yard Thibeault TD run down the left sideline on the 17th play of a nearly seven minute drive. Senior Nathan Provencher added the extra point and the game was tied, 7-7, with 9:36 to go in the first half.

After a Cheverus punt, Scarborough moved again, but on fourth-and-2 from the Stags’ 41, with Cyr in behind center, he was thrown for a three-yard loss after a bad snap.

“In the first half, we worked on some new things,” said Johnson. “We thought we had something, but it didn’t work out. We had a direct snap to Mike Cyr, our best player, and thought we could get a first down, but it was just a bad snap.”

The Stags took over at their 44 and drove for the go-ahead score.

On third-and-8, Gwilym dropped back and hit DiStasio for 22 yards for a first down as the receiver dove to make the catch along the right sideline. Two plays later, Gwilym floated a pass down the middle and DiStasio made a great catch in traffic and landed at the 3. Gwilym took it in on his patented sweep to the left on the next play and DiStasio gave Cheverus a 14-7 lead with 54.6 seconds remaining in the half.

Scarborough got a 13 yard run from Thibeault to start its next series and Adams found Cyr for 19 to the Stags’ 38, but Adams then threw three straight incomplete passes and on fourth-and-10, was intercepted by Cheverus senior Liam Hobbins to end the half.

In the first 24 minutes, the Stags had a narrow 168-166 advantage in total yardage.

The game remained tight in the third and fourth quarters.

After Cheverus turned the ball over on downs to start the second half, the Red Storm drove 65 yards to tie the score.

A 14-yard Adams-to-Viola pass moved the ball into Stags’ territory. After gritty senior running back Mark Pearson rumbled for 11, Adams hit Cyr with a pass to the left and the talented senior broke a tackle and raced 37-yards for paydirt. Provencher’s extra point tied it at 14-14 with 6:12 to go in the third quarter.

Scarborough’s defense forced a punt and the visitors got the ball right back with a chance to take the lead. The Red Storm would move to the Cheverus 29, but on second-and-9 from the 29, Adams was sacked by Jendrasko, fumbled and senior A.J. Bennett made a crucial recovery for the Stags, sending momentum back to the home sideline.

“We slanted perfectly and I got through the line,” Jendrasko said. “I was determined to get the quarterback. I knew we needed a big play. It was a big shift in momentum. We came up big with some big plays on defense.”

“That sack was huge,” Wolfgram said. “It turned the game. They actually had eight guys in blocking consistently. It was tough to get at the quarterback.”

Starting at Scarborough’s 45, the Stags drove for the lead.

Two Jendrasko rushes moved the ball to the 32 as the third period ended and the fourth began. After Cooke and Jendrasko ran three times for 14 yards and another first down, Cheverus bogged down and faced fourth-and-7 at the Red Storm 15.

Wolfgram could have opted for a DiStasio field goal attempt as he’s emerged as one of the finest kickers in the area, but the legendary coach decided to roll the dice and came up a winner as Gwilym hit senior Jack Bushey on a quick hitter for seven yards and a first-and-goal at the 8.

“I thought we were a little far for (the field goal),” said Wolfgram. “I didn’t have a good feel for it.”

After Jendrasko rushed for six yards, he capped the 11 play, 5:13 drive with a 2-yard run. DiStasio’s extra point with 7:38 to go made it 21-14 Stags.

To its credit, Scarborough didn’t wilt.

The Red Storm made immediate noise when sophomore Merrick Madden returned the kickoff 39 yards to the Scarborough 41. Two plays later, Adams found Kelley for 28 yards, as the receiver hauled in the ball while falling to the ground with Gwilym breathing down his neck. Pearson gained seven yards and Thibeault two, but on third-and-1 from the 15, Pearson was held for no gain. Scarborough went for it on fourth down, but again the Stags’ defense rose to the occasion, holding Pearson to no gain and with 5:06 left, the hosts took over at their 15.

“It could have been very different,” Johnson lamented. “If we scored, we could have tied it up.”

Scarborough never saw the ball again.

On third-and-8 from the 17, Gwilym again found Bushey, this time for 29 yards and the Stags had some breathing room.

“The passes to Bushey were big,” Wolfgram said. “He’s a good receiver for us.”

From there, Jendrasko, Hobbins and Gwilym salted away the victory.

After Jendrasko ran for eight yards, Hobbins picked up 11 for a first down at the Red Storm 35. Two Jendrasko runs picked up another first down to the 24. Cheverus soon faced fourth-and-6 at the 20 with just over a minute to play, but Gwilym gained all six on a sweep left and that was that.

The quarterback took a knee twice and time ran out on the hard-fought 21-14 triumph.

“It was confusing because we hadn’t seen (Scarborough) before,” said Jendrasko. “We prepared well and were ready for what they threw at us. We have a lot of heart and young men ready to play physical football for 48 minutes.”

“I thought our kids hung tough,” Wolfgram said. “Defensively, we made the plays when we had to. We ran out the clock. We had key passes. We threw in the first half basically to get ahead. We moved the ball well in the second half, but made mistakes and hurt ourselves. We didn’t have the continuity we needed. We made mistakes that hurt our rhythm. (Scarborough) played efficient football. We like to play like that way too, but we weren’t as efficient as they were. They’re a very good team.”

Statistically, Cheverus gained 328 yards, 30 more than the Red Storm. Jendrasko rushed for 128 yards and a TD on 24 carries. He also caught a pass for eight yards. Cooke managed 56 yards and a score on 12 attempts. Gwilym rushed for 39 yards and a TD on eight carries. Through the air, he was a perfect 7-of-7 for 100 yards.  Bushey had three catches for 38 yards, DiStasio two for 54.

The Stags didn’t turn the ball over and were penalized only twice for 11 yards.

Scarborough sparkles

Not to be lost in the aftermath of defeat was just how amazing Scarborough’s turnaround was. The Red Storm certainly earned the Stags’ respect.

“Scarborough played very well,” said Wolfgram. “They have a lot of good pieces and coach Johnson’s done a good job putting them together. They weren’t 8-1 with smoke and mirrors. They run well and do sound things. They gave us all we wanted for sure. It was different because we hadn’t seen them all year. We hadn’t even seen them on tape. The teams in our division we see all the time. We didn’t have a feel for them, not seeing them live. We face mostly spread teams. We don’t see a lot of I-formation football.”

Johnson was emotional after the loss, but still had plenty of praise to bestow.

“The kids played hard and gave it everything they had,” he said. “They did everything we asked them to do. We just came up a little bit short. Cheverus is a good, physical team. I think we gave them everything they could handle. With all the spread offenses, how many teams run at people anymore? We’re one of the teams that can do that. Nobody had run at them or even tried. I thought we could. I think we had some success and play-actioned off it. We had chances. We just couldn’t capitalize.

“A ton of people told me not to take this job, but I watched film and said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I’m not surprised at all, I’m only surprised we didn’t win this game. They’re good kids. They work hard. They’re very coachable. They gave me a terrific effort mentally and physically the whole year.”

Pearson rushed 23 times for 96 tough yards. Thibeault added 40 yards and a score on seven tries. Adams completed 11-of-22 passes for 155 yards, a TD and an interception.

“Jack played great,” said Johnson. “He kept us in it and kept the ball moving.”

Viola caught three passes, good for 32 yards. Cyr had two catches for 56 yards and a TD. Kelley caught a pair for 39 and Thibeault had two receptions for 19. Senior Kevin Pitts (7 yards) and senior Dennis Liu (2) also caught passes.

Scarborough was flagged three times for 15 yards and turned the ball over twice.

The Red Storm lose several key contributors to graduation, but figure to remain a contender going forward.

“We have linemen in every class,” Johnson said. “A lot of players. We dressed 16 freshmen today. We should be over 50 kids next year and have a lot of athletes and more depth at line next year.”

Another regional final

Cheverus will play in the Western A Final for the second year in a row. The Stags will host a Deering team that is on a high after upsetting No. 2 Bonny Eagle, 28-6, in its semifinal. Just two weeks ago, Oct. 23, host Cheverus pummeled the Rams, 44-14.

The Stags know that the next meeting will be much tougher.

“It’s like playing a completely different team,” said Jendrasko. “There are ups and downs, but we’ll defend the hill one more time in the Western Maine final and that feels good. It should be a good one. We have to step it up every play.”

“I just think the kids have a lot of resolve,” Wolfgram said. “They’re good competitors and play the game they way it’s supposed to be played. We work hard for 48 minutes. We’ll start thinking about (Deering) tomorrow.”

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

Cheverus junior Spencer Cooke races through the Scarborough defense.

Scarborough senior Kyle Kelley makes a diving catch in front of diving Cheverus senior Peter Gwilym in the fourth quarter.

Scarborough senior Mike Cyr races downfield with Cheverus sophomore Ryan Casale in pursuit.

Scarborough senior Mark Pearson breaks through a hole while Cheverus senior Liam Hobbins dives to attempt a tackle.

Scarborough senior Scott Merrill tries futilely to prevent Cheverus junior Louie DiStasio from making a clutch catch near the end of the first half. DiStasio’s grab led to a go-ahead touchdown.

Scarborough junior Scott Thibeault falls into the end zone as he ties the score with a second quarter TD.

Sidebar Elements

Cheverus senior Peter Gwilym soars through the air as he attempts to block Scarborough senior Nathan Provencher’s extra point. The Stags eked out a 21-14 win and will host Deering in next weekend’s Western A Final.

More photos below.

S- 0 7 7 0- 14
C- 7 7 0 7- 21

First quarter
C- Cooke 6 run (DiStasio kick)

Second quarter
S- Thibeault 16 run (Provencher kick)
C- Gwilym 3 run (DiStasio kick)

Third quarter
S- Cyr 37 pass from Adams (Provencher kick)

Fourth quarter
C- Jendrasko 2 run (DiStasio kick)