PORTLAND — Play big. Whenever Dakota Tarbox felt Saturday’s creep of fatigue and aches, he and his Thornton Academy teammates remembered two simple words preached in a week of practice. Play big.

Because talking big or thinking big doesn’t win championships. A team has to do it on the field amid the sweat and the mud and a few tears.

Thornton Academy stopped Cheverus’ Class A record winning streak at 34 games with a 20-13 victory. Thornton gets to play another week, against Lawrence High of Fairfield in next Saturday’s state final.

Tears? After four quarters of a game that kept ratcheting up the intensity, Coach Kevin Kezal and his assistants didn’t hide their emotions. They wept, briefly. Out of strength, not weakness. They and their players lost to Cheverus Coach John Wolfgram and his players 28-14 in the regular season.

Winning at Cheverus in a playoff game was vindication of their belief in their program. Not the program of past successful coaches at Thornton, whose presence is still felt.

Thornton beat the two-time champs, a team coached by a man whose reputation is legendary. That doesn’t mean John Wolfgram can’t make mistakes or his players can’t fall. It means you have to play big to beat them.

“We had to make the big plays,” said Tarbox. “We had to play physical football. We had to be big on every play.”

That must be why the celebration didn’t match the magnitude of the victory. Certainly Tarbox and his teammates whooped and hollered and embraced. But the feeling seemed more of a job well done.

“It was a hard football game,” said Connor McCrum, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound senior left tackle. He and David LaPauloue, another senior and 6-3, 250, played next to each other for much of the game on offense and defense. When one was down, the other offered a hand. When Andrew Libby ran through the left side for another gain, McCrum and LaPauloue would tap each other on the helmet or shoulder pads. Nice job.

It wasn’t just those two. Up and down the line other teammates were doing the same thing. This is a tight group. Saturday, they wouldn’t let each other fail. Or forget.

Their respect for Cheverus and memories of last month’s defeat were sharp. They believed they had more talent than Cheverus last month. But at the end of the day, Cheverus beat them by two touchdowns. The scoreboard didn’t lie.

Play big. Sure, those two words are part of every coach’s vernacular. But in Tarbox and McCrum and LaPauloue and Cody Lynn (6-3, 220) and Michael Granger (6-1, 230), Thornton literally did. “The coaches are always telling us to get our hands up,” said Tarbox. “We must look 7 feet high.”

After Thornton did its best job containing Donald Goodrich, the quick and durable Cheverus running back, quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick needed to throw strikes downfield. Instead, one of the enduring images of this game will be Fitzpatrick running and squirming while trying to avoid the rush. He was caught about a half-dozen times for losses.

“I think it was a combination of our secondary covering his receivers and our rush,” said Tarbox. “I don’t know if he could see his receivers.”

As Tarbox talked, his teammates walked slowly up the paved path linking the field to the school parking lots and the locker rooms. Thornton fans formed a gauntlet through which the players passed. Hands patted shoulder pads. The sound of cheering rose and fell.

Tarbox was the last player on the field. He picked up his helmet and ran to the noise.

“It’s a win,” said a stoic Kezal. His wife jumped into his arms and his young children stood close next to him as cellphones snapped a family portrait. Kezal allowed a small grin. He and his team have one game left.

“It’s a long journey. We can’t let down.”

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway