SACO — After Cheverus got blown out by Windham two weeks ago, there was some talk of this year’s Thornton Academy v. Cheverus football matchup losing some of its luster. The Stags showed vulnerability in losing ”“ Cheverus’ first regular-season defeat in its last 37 games ”“ while the Trojans looked unstoppable in outscoring their opponents 284-13 during a 5-0 start.

How naïve of us. This rivalry has become one of the state’s best in recent history, ever since 9-1 Thornton took on 10-0 Cheverus in the 2011 Western Class A regional final. The Stags won that game, 21-10, en route to their second-consecutive state championship.

The following year was Thornton’s turn to win the state championship, as the Trojans avenged a regular-season loss at home with a regional championship victory at Cheverus. The rivalry soured some last season, as the Stags ran over the Trojans 56-7 in Portland, and the Trojans fell short of a state championship rematch ”“ as Cheverus shifted to Eastern Class A ”“ by falling to eventual state champ Bonny Eagle in the regional final.

Thornton looked like it might run away with Saturday’s clash, as the Trojans jumped ahead 14-0, then 20-6. But the Stags who showed up to Hill Stadium on Saturday weren’t the same ones who got humbled by Windham at home two weeks prior. This was a championship-caliber Cheverus team.

“We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight. We took some (hits) early on the chin, early in the game,” said Cheverus senior Zordan Holman. “We just kept on responding, kept on responding, played with a lot of grit, a lot of heart. It showed at the end.”

“We knew they were a good team,” said Thornton head coach Kevin Kezal. “It’s a great high school football game, and they made a few more plays in the end than we did.”

The game featured many big plays in the first half, as the teams combined to score seven touchdowns in a 6:40 span from the middle of the first quarter to early in the second. That included Cheverus touchdown runs of 54, 54 and 67 yards, and touchdown passes from Thornton’s Austin McCrum of 53 and 60 yards.

“We just had to play with Stag character, one play at a time for 48 minutes,” said Holman. “They’re a very quality opponent, they can throw it, they can run it, they play sound defense, they’re very well-coached.”

After a shootout in the first half that included 61 combined points and 596 combined yards, the second half was surprisingly ”“ or maybe unsurprisingly ”“ a defensive struggle.

Thornton was held to just 101 yards in the second half, while the Stags gained just 74 yards. But more importantly for the Stags, they scored the only points of the second half, which sent the thriller to overtime.

“All the way through our video coordinator to (head coach John Wolfgram), we have a great, excellent coaching staff, (which) I believe is the best in the state,” said Holman. “They help us get ready every week. We had a very good week of preparation. It showed what you do Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday showed on Saturday.”

Overtime came down to the Trojans being unable to consistently stop Cheverus’ running game ”“ which totaled 328 yards in the game ”“ while the Stags’ defense adjusted to the Thornton passing game. McCrum started off the game completing 14 of his first 15 passes, but was just 1-6 after an interception late in the third quarter, including two incomplete passes in double-overtime that ended the game.

“We pride ourselves on grit and blue-collar defense,” said Holman, who had a big sack of McCrum to stall the Trojans’ opening drive of the second half.

Cheverus proved to be Thornton’s most-difficult opponent to date, after facing just one team currently above .500 to date, and that was a season-opening thrashing of 4-2 South Portland. The Trojans’ matchup with Bonny Eagle comes this Friday night in Standish.

“They hadn’t been challenged so far this year, but you can’t take anything away. They’re a very good football team; they’re well-coached, they got a prideful bunch down here,” Holman said of the Trojans. “We knew they could play. We had nothing but respect for them.”

Kezal was happy to face some stiff competition as the season winds down.

“You need games like this,” he said. “If you’re going to be battle-hardened for the playoffs, you need tough games like this.”

There’s a good chance that the two teams could see each other again at Fitzpatrick Stadium in late November ”“ Saturday, Nov. 22 to be exact. Holman said his team ”“ and Kezal would say the same thing about his own team ”“ can’t look past each team’s next opponents (Thornton plays 5-1 Bonny Eagle and Cheverus hosts 4-1 Bangor). But Holman couldn’t completely ignore the impact of a possible rematch with the Gold Ball on the line.

“How fun would it be?” Holman said of a rematch. “The past few years, going back before I was even at Cheverus, it’s been a good rivalry down here. Great coaches all around. I’m just happy to be part of this game.”

The rivalry, unfortunately, may not be the same in the future. Over the past two years, the matchup has been part of a set of crossover games between Eastern and Western region teams. The crossover series will most likely pit two new teams against each other next year, as the matchups rotate. That would mean the rivalry would most likely only occur at the state championship, which for recent history’s sake, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

 — Staff Writer Wil Kramlich can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 323 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @WilTalkSports.

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