SOUTH PORTLAND—Portland’s field hockey team saved its best for last Thursday afternoon and as a result, reinserted itself into the middle of the playoff hunt.

Playing dangerous South Portland at Wainwright Farms, the Bulldogs found themselves behind just 63 seconds in when Red Riots senior Michelle Medici scored on a penalty corner.

Portland drew even on an unassisted goal from junior Lauren McIntyre (more on her to come), but it dug a 2-1 halftime deficit after South Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson (another player we’ll hear more from) scored in transition.

When the Red Riots took a 3-1 advantage on Henderson’s second goal five minutes into the second half and still held that lead with 15 minutes to play, the Bulldogs appeared doomed to a third straight loss.

Instead, Portland was about to roar to life.

A McIntyre goal with 14:57 to go turned the tide and the standout completed her hat trick with 13:01 to play, tying the contest, 3-3.

The Bulldogs weren’t done, as sophomore Taylor Sargent finished a feed from McIntyre off a corner to give her team its first lead, 4-3, with 7:49 remaining.

If that wasn’t enough, Sargent iced it with just under two minutes to play and Portland went on to a 5-3 victory.

The Bulldogs snapped a two-game skid, improved to 3-2 and dropped South Portland to 1-4 in the process.

“We came together as a team,” said McIntyre. “We started playing like we know how to play. It took a goal to get us back into it. Once we got back into it we were good. As soon as we tied it, we knew we could definitely win it.”

Teams on the rise

Portland and South Portland both missed the playoffs in 2013, but each squad thinks it can be a factor this fall.

The Bulldogs got off to a strong 2-0 start with home wins over Noble (3-0) and Windham (7-2). After falling at Sanford, 3-1, Portland lost at home to defending Western A champion Scarborough Monday, 7-0.

The Red Riots began with losses to visiting Gorham (4-0), at Marshwood (5-0) and at home to Massabesic (3-2) before getting in the win column Tuesday at Noble, 2-1.

Since 2001, South Portland had won seven of 11 meetings against Portland (see sidebar, below).

Thursday, the Red Riots sought their third consecutive victory over the Bulldogs, but Portland prevailed in come-from-behind fashion.

South Portland came out strong, earned a penalty corner and 63 seconds in, went ahead.

After Bulldogs senior goalie Tara O’Neal stopped an initial shot from sophomore Sophia Cummings, junior Kelby Doyle got the ball to Medici, who banged it home for a 1-0 lead.

O’Neal, who is normally a field player, but who has been pressed into service as goalie this week with junior Gianna Gaudet unavailable, then did a great job keeping the score 1-0, as she denied a pair of bids from Red Riots junior Maddie Hasson.

Then, with 11:34 to play before halftime, McIntyre brought the ball up the field, got a break when a defender fell down, then shot past South Portland junior goalie Grace Chitam to tie the score.

Red Riots coach Leslie Dyer called timeout and out of it, her team went back on the attack.

After Portland junior Alysha Alling kept the game tied with a pair of defensive saves, the hosts retook the lead, as sophomore Amelia Papi set up Henderson for a transition goal which made it 2-1 South Portland.

O’Neal made sure the score stayed that way, as she denied a Medici shot on a corner, then as time wound down, she robbed Papi on a rush, then turned aside a rebound shot from  sophomore Sophia Cummings and while they could have and probably should have had more, the Red Riots clung to just a one-goal lead at the break.

The fun was just beginning.

After Chitam preserved the lead by denying Portland senior Georgia Drew on a corner early in the second half, Henderson’s second goal, unassisted, put South Portland ahead by a seemingly safe 3-1 margin with 24:57 to go.

After Chitam denied a shot from senior Renata Serio and broke up a rush from junior Holly Hinchliffe and a cross from Sargent, the Red Riots appeared destined for victory, but the Bulldogs offense was about to erupt.

With 14:57 to play, McIntyre took a pass from junior Ashley Paisley, found some operating room and launched a blast past Chitam to make it 3-2.

Portland kept the pressure on and with 13:01 left, on a corner, McIntyre got a pass from junor Catherine Brewer and rattled the cage again and just like that, the game was deadlocked, 3-3.

“Lauren had a hat trick,” said Bulldogs coach Beth Arsenault. “She shot hard. She was where she was supposed to be.”

Dyer called timeout, but this time, it didn’t help.

On another corner, the Bulldogs almost took the lead, but Paisley shot just wide.

After O’Neal broke up a rush from South Portland senior Sarah Speeches, Hasson had a long shot deflected wide.

Portland went back on the attack and earned another corner which produced the winning goal.

This time it would be McIntyre setting up the tally, as she passed the ball to Sargent, who finished for a 4-3 lead.

“The ball came to me and I didn’t even think,” Sargent said. “I just shot it and it went in.”

Dyer tried one last timeout, but the Red Riots couldn’t come from behind.

They did have one last chance, but a long feed from Hasson to Doyle was just long.

After Chitam saved a Drew shot on a corner, the Bulldogs clinched it when Sargent scored with 1:47 remaining.

“That was a rebound,” Sargent said. “It was just sitting there for me.”

Portland slammed the door from there and celebrated its 5-3 triumph.

“I knew we could do it,” Sargent said. “This is a confidence booster. We know we can come back if we’re down.”

“We’ve had a rough week and we really needed this for our own psyche,” said Arsenault. “We had to go out and get our confidence back. We had an immense amount of confidence after our first two games. We got taken back to earth a little bit, but the girls came together today and did what they needed to do.

“South Portland has a ton of heart and always plays us tough. It’s hard to beat a team like that. Our senior leaders stepped up. Georgia, Meggie (Parker) and Gabby (Wagabaza), our three senior captains, led the way. We had some big defensive stops at the end.”

The Bulldogs finished with a 9-8 shots advantage and a 9-3 edge in corners (three of which resulted in goals). O’Neal made five saves.

“I can’t say enough about Tara,” Arsenault said. “She’s been great. I couldn’t ask for more out of her. The only downside is that I miss her out on the field. She’s a great field player as well.”

Chitam made four saves for South Portland, which could only lament the win that got away.

“We’ve been working really hard to gain a big lead, but in the second half, the girls just went back to their old ways of just swinging and not working together as a team,” Dyer said. “(Portland) had players wide open in front of the net. Portland’s developed into a good team. They got fired up. I’m hoping this is something the girls will learn from. I hope it doesn’t happen again. I have a very young team. Playing against seniors who have game experience is tough.”

Eye on the prize

South Portland (15th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is at Sanford Monday, hosts Scarborough Wednesday and also plays at Windham next week. Home games against Westbrook, Bonny Eagle and Cheverus will also provide the opportunity for key victories.

The Red Riots are capable of competing with anyone.

“We’ll move forward,” Dyer said. “We’ll get there, but we have to show up for 60 minutes. Making playoffs is our goal.”

Portland (ninth in Western A) has its next test Monday when Thornton Academy pays a visit. The Bulldogs also go to Westbrook and host Biddeford next week. Portland still faces tests at Cheverus and Marshwood and a potentially pivotal home game versus Deering.

The Bulldogs expect to continue to turn heads.

“We have a lot of potential,” McIntyre said. “We just have to go out and work hard. We have great leadership. Playoffs is the goal.”

“We can’t go into a game thinking we’ll win,” Sargent said. “We have to go out and play to the best of our abilities.”

“This taught us if we’re not coming out and playing good field hockey, we’re not going to win,” Arsenault added. “You can’t always turn it on with 15 minutes to go. We’re in a good position. We have firepower. We can score. We have solid defenders and a solid midfield. We hope to keep the good times rolling.”

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

South Portland junior Maddie Hasson gets a step on Portland junior Ashley Paisley.

South Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson fires the ball past Portland senior Georgia Drew for one of her two goals.

Portland junior Kaylyn Madore and South Portland junior Kelby Doyle fight for possession.

Thursday’s hero, three goal scorer junior Lauren McIntyre, tries to elude South Portland freshman defender Grace Soucy.

Portland junior Ashley Paisley plays the ball past a South Portland defender.

Portland senior Renata Serio fires the ball up the field.

South Portland sophomore Sophia Cummings fires a shot.

Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza fights South Portland junior goalie Grace Chitham and senior Michelle Medici in front of the goal on a penalty corner.

South Portland junior Maddie Hasson fires a shot.

Recent Portland-South Portland results

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@ Portland 3 South Portland 2 (OT)

@ South Portland 3 Portland 2 (2 OT)

Portland 1 @ South Portland 0

@ Portland 2 South Portland 0

@ South Portland 4 Portland 3

South Portland 4 @ Portland 0

@ South Portland 3 Portland 0

South Portland 3 @ Portland 1

Sidebar Elements

Portland’s field hockey team mobs senior goalie Tara O’Neal after Thursday’s 5-3 come-from-behind win at South Portland.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.