SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland’s Brian Cleary is an astute, soft-spoken senior on the Riots’ boys lacrosse team who, at first glance, probably doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wrecks opposing defenses and makes goalies nervous every time he gets close.

How appearances can be deceiving.

With star midfielder Harrison Keithly out indefinitely with an injury, Cleary and other Riot seniors have been asked by Head Coach Tom Fiorini to carry the torch for South Portland (3-3). Cleary has apparently gotten the message. The powerful attacker stepped up in a big way against Westbrook (3-3) on May 2, upending the Blazes’ best-laid plans with a storm of first-half points. Cleary rattled the cage for the Riots’ first four goals, and later tacked on an assist. Thanks to their stifling defense, South Portland enjoyed a 6-0 shutout at the half, and cruised easily to the 9-2 victory.

“I’d say we got off to a pretty good start,” Cleary said. “We were all fired up after we lost to Massabesic, so we wanted to take control early. In that game, we learned that we have to show up to play no matter what. We only played one good half, and even though we scored seven goals in the second half, we just didn’t show up to play.”

Cleary saw to it that there would be no similar early letdown against the Blazes, scoring his first goal just 2:15 in as he cut to the left of the Westbrook net and then whipped a shot across his body. Cleary struck again four minutes later on a long shot from the right side of the half circle, then made it 3-0 when he came out of a scrum near the peak of the circle and drilled the ball past Westbrook goalie Kevin L’Heureux.

“We just tried to play team defense like we always do,” said Westbrook Head Coach Josh Plowman. “Just communicate and slide. But it wasn’t there.”

Cleary put in his fourth 1:02 into the second, and his assault seemed to only open up more opportunities for South Portland as Westbrook over-focused on him. As a result, the Blazes were punished in turn by junior midfielder Mike Salvatore. With 5:11 remaining, Salvatore spotted a ball that popped almost straight up over a crowd in front of the Westbrook cage and flung it home, and he hit a second three minutes later after the Riots emerged from a defensive series by streaking down midfield.

“These are all good players,” Fiorini said. “Brian has worked very hard, and he is really doing a nice job. He’s a big, strong kid, and nobody is going to knock him off the ball, that’s for sure. Michael has been playing varsity now since he was a freshman, and it’s his time to shine. He’s been stepping up without a problem.”

But according to both Fiorini and Cleary, it’s the Riots’ defense that is the driving force behind the team’s growing momentum. For two long stretches in the second quarter, Westbrook controlled the ball on South Portland turf but could find no weakness in the Riots’ armor. The rare shot – usually taken by determined senior attack Derrick Payne – was quickly scooped up by South Portland goalie Connor Igo. Time and again, the Blazes frustrated themselves as their shots broke like waves against Igo’s rock-like edifice.

“South Portland’s defense played great,” Plowman said. “They communicated great, and they played as a unit. They were hard to beat. I felt if our guys had settled down and played offense, we could have played with them just fine. And I even told our guys that I wish our defense played as good as they did; played as a unit like they did.”

“My defense is incredible,” added Fiorini. “I have three seniors back there, and they are just solid. And Connor is doing a great job in the cage. That is the strength of our team right now; our defense. We’re willing to let them make their mistakes and then capitalize on the ground ball.”

Up 6-0 at the half, South Portland continued to dominate in the third, tacking on two more goals – by freshman Thomas Leddy and Salvatore’s third – to make it 8-0. The Blazes finally broke through in the fourth on a pair of goals by Payne, but it was too little too late, especially as the Riots nabbed one more thanks to a parting goal by senior Brandon Holmquist with 4:54 left.

“I think this is a South Portland team people need to look out for,” Cleary said. “You’re going to see a lot more of this; with us trying to control every game like we did in this one.”

Even with Westbrook’s Zachary Crimmin’s stick in his chest South Portland’s Brian Cleary scores his fourth goal of Monday afternoon’s win over Westbrook. (Staff photo by Emory Rounds)

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