Portland freshman third baseman Grace Stacey congratulates sophomore pitcher Jess Brown after Brown strikes out the side early in the Bulldogs’ 6-2 home win over Deering Friday night.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.


PORTLAND—Portland’s quest for its first playoff berth in eight seasons is drawing nearer to fruition, but the Bulldogs knew that rival Deering wasn’t going to make life easy when the teams battled Friday evening at Payson Park.

While the playoffs are still a future aspiration for the Rams, they made Portland battle for seven innings in the teams’ second meeting in just over a week.

While Deering couldn’t do anything with Bulldogs sophomore ace Jess Brown in the first three innings, striking out eight times, Rams senior pitcher Kaytlin DiBiase held Portland at bay as well.

The Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third, when junior shortstop Morgan Boyle scored on a wild pitch, but Deering had an opportunity to answer in the fifth, when it loaded the bases with no outs.

Luckily for Portland, Brown is well seasoned in getting out of such jams, having done so twice Wednesday in a landmark win over top contender Biddeford. Brown bore down, got the first out on an infield pop-up, then fanned two straight hitters to preserve the lead.

The Bulldogs then opened it up in the bottom of the fifth, as senior first baseman Isabelle DiMillo walked with the bases loaded, senior catcher Gianna Gaudet hit a two-run double and freshman third baseman Grace Stacey walked with the bases full to extend the lead to 5-0.

The Rams wouldn’t go quietly, however, as in the sixth, senior second baseman Siobhan Densmore stole home and freshman catcher Mackenzie O’Donnell hit an RBI single to cut the deficit to 5-2.

In the bottom half, DiMillo produced an insurance run when her single plated Boyle and Brown slammed the door in the seventh, setting Deering down in order as Portland went on to a 6-2 victory.

Boyle had two hits and scored three runs, DiMillo and Gaudet both drove in two runs and Brown allowed just four hits and struck out 12 as the Bulldogs improved to 7-6, extended their win streak over the Rams to eight and dropped them to 2-11 in the process.

“We’re a game over .500 after 13 games and these girls haven’t been here before,” said Portland coach Robbie Ferrante. “I’ve told them Portland used to have a good tradition and that the people who played here still follow them.”

Return to prominence

Deering and Portland combined to win 12 Class A state championships between 1984 and 2004, but the programs fell on hard times over the past decade.

Entering the season, the Rams had won just six games in five seasons and suffered through a 50-game losing streak in that stretch. 

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, won just six total games between 2009 and 2013, but posted victory totals of five and four the past two years.

This spring, while Deering has often been competitive but doesn’t have the wins to show for it, Portland has turned heads.

The Rams started strong with a 6-4 home win over Westbrook, but then lost at Gorham (5-3), at home to defending regional champion Scarborough (34-0, in five-innings) and at Noble (15-1, in five-innings), before bouncing back to win at Cheverus, 8-6. Deering entered play Friday not having won since, however, as it lost at home to Marshwood (16-3) and Sanford (19-5, in six-innings), at Windham (17-0, in five innings), at home to Portland (11-5) and Biddeford (29-10, in six-innings), at South Portland (5-2) and at home to Thornton Academy (15-1, in five-innings).

The Bulldogs started with a 7-1 loss at Sanford, then beat visiting Cheverus (9-0), host Westbrook (11-2) and host McAuley (13-1, in five-innings). After a 12-3 home loss to Thornton Academy (Portland led that game, 3-2, going to the seventh inning), the Bulldogs won at South Portland, 10-4, for their first victory over the Red Riots since May 28, 2005. Home losses to Noble (7-2) and Scarborough (14-2) were followed by an 11-5 victory at Deering, a 7-1 setback at Massabesic and a 5-0 home loss to Marshwood. Then, Wednesday, Portland blanked visiting Biddeford, 2-0, its first win over the Tigers since May 9, 2005.

“Beating Biddeford was huge,” Brown said. “We came close last year and lost at the end, but we finished it this time. This whole year has been a turning point. Last year, we had a really young group of girls. This year, we’re all working together.” 

Last week’s victory over Deering was the Bulldogs’ seventh in a row in the series, which follows an eight-game run by the Rams.

Friday night, Deering was seeking its first win over Portland since April 25, 2011 (14-6), but the Bulldogs got the job done once more.

Brown set the tone in the first inning, fanning Densmore looking, getting junior shortstop Kaylee Helmick to chase strike three, then fanning junior centerfielder Sydney Giroux.

DiBiase worked out of a jam in the bottom half.

After Boyle popped out to Densmore, who fell down but held on to the ball, Brown tripled over the head of Rams sophomore rightfielder Shayla Skinner. DiMillo drew a walk, then stole second, but Gaudet looked at strike three and sophomore centerfielder Kitiara Rosmus popped out to short to end the threat.

Brown allowed senior first baseman Cassidy Coyne to make contact leading off the second, but she deflected her line drive to junior second baseman Taylor Crosby, who threw to first for the out. Brown then fanned O’Donnell looking and got DiBiase to chase strike three.

In the bottom half, Stacey popped out to the mound leading off, but Crosby walked on four pitches and stole second. She was stranded, however, as sophomore rightfielder Mabel Pence struck out swinging and sophomore leftfielder Sydney Gilbert was out on a bunt back to the mound.

Brown continued to blow away the Rams in the third, fanning junior designated player Abby Elowitch and Skinner, then getting freshman leftfielder Maddy Broda to look at strike three.

Portland finally broke through in the bottom half.

Boyle got things started with a single to center.

“I’m used to faster pitchers, but I adjusted and I think my teammates did too,” Boyle said.

Brown was hit by a pitch and DiMillo singled off Densmore’s glove to load the bases. With Gaudet at the plate, DiBiase uncorked a wild pitch and Boyle scampered home to put the Bulldogs on top to stay. Portland could have had more, but Gaudet popped out to short, Rosmus grounded back to the mound and after the out, when sophomore pinch-runner Carly Peterson broke for home, Coyne threw to O’Donnell who tagged her out to end the frame.

Deering started to make contact in the fourth, but had nothing to show for it.

Densmore worked the count full leading off, then popped out to third. Helmick slapped the ball to short and was thrown out by a step, then Giroux crushed a ball to deep right, but Pence made the catch for the third out.

DiBiase had her best inning in the bottom half, getting Stacey to ground to third and fanning Crosby and Pence.

Brown’s bid for a no-hitter and perfect game quickly went by the wayside in the fifth, as the Rams threatened to take the lead.

Leading off, Coyne hit a fly ball to center. Rosmus raced in to the get to the ball, but dropped it for an error. O’Donnell then ripped a single to right-center and DiBiase walked on four pitches to load the bases.

As it turned out, Brown had the Rams right where she wanted them.

After Ferrante came out for a conference with the whole team, Brown got Elowitch to pop out to third for the first out. She then fanned Skinner swinging and Broda looking to preserve the 1-0 lead.

“(Coach) just said, ‘Don’t let them score,'” Brown said. “We got in the same situation twice against Biddeford and got out of it. We’re getting good in those situations.”

“What helped us is what happened in the Biddeford game,” Ferrante said. “I went out and spoke to (Jess) and said, ‘Calm down.’ She got the pop-up, then we relaxed.”

The Bulldogs loaded the bases with none out as well in their half, but they managed to push runs across.

Gilbert led off with a first pitch single to left. Boyle then blooped a single to center. Brown hit a slow roller up the third base line and reached on the infield hit to load the bags for DiMillo, who drew a walk to score Gilbert for a 2-0 lead. Gaudet then hit a shot to left, which glanced off Broda’s glove for a two-run double, scoring Boyle and junior pinch-runner Annie Twombly. Rosmus then walked to reload the bases.

That did it for DiBiase, who was replaced by Helmick, who immediately walked Stacey on a 3-2 pitch to score DiMillo for a 5-0 advantage.

With the stage set for Portland to completely blow the game open, Deering freshman third baseman Ashleigh Mathisen made the defensive play of the game, snaring Crosby’s line drive in sno-cone fashion, then tagging third to double up Gaudet. Pence struck out to end the eventful inning.

The Rams answered in the sixth to keep things interesting.

Densmore beat out an infield single up the middle, then stole second base. Helmick reached on an infield slap single and when Helmick stole second, Densmore raced for home and reached safely for Deering’s first run. On the play, Crosby’s throw home was high and Helmick got to third. Brown looked to escape further damage when she struck out Giroux and Coyne swinging, but O’Donnell blooped a single over second base to pull the Rams within 5-2.

But with the tying run on deck, Gaudet picked O’Donnell off with a laser to first and Deering’s last, best chance to rally had ended.

The Bulldogs tacked on an insurance run in the bottom half.

Gilbert popped out to the mound leading off, but Boyle walked, then stole second.

“The whole team likes to run, but I love to do it,” Boyle said. “It’s so fun.”

A wild pitch put Boyle at third and after Brown walked and Twombly pinch-ran and stole second, DiMillo singled to center to score Boyle. Twombly was out trying to advance, but DiMillo took second, then moved to third on a wild pitch. Gaudet popped out foul to Coyne to end the inning.

The Rams couldn’t generate a rally in the seventh, as Brown slammed the door.

Leading off, DiBiase popped out foul to first. Elowitch flew out to right, then Skinner’s ground ball to Crosby at second ended it and brought the curtain down on Portland’s 6-2 victory.

“Now, we’re working as a team where before, we just couldn’t communicate,” Boyle said. “It’s a good group.”

“This game was just as exciting as Biddeford,” Brown said. “It’s a rivalry. It’s the most people we’ve had at one of our games.”

“I just told the girls that this was tougher than the Biddeford game,” Ferrante added. “We relied on Jess the other day. Knowing we had beaten Deering once, we knew they’d give us their best game. We only had good offensive inning. We haven’t been scoring. Thirteen games in and I’m still trying to figure out my batting order.”

Brown improved to 6-3 after allowing just two runs (one earned) on four hits in seven innings. She only walked one batter and struck out a dozen.

“I’ve worked on making sure I warm up enough,” Brown said. “I built on what I did against Biddeford. I knew (the Rams) were coming out to play. Getting some runs made me feel better and made the defense feel better.”

“Jess is good,” Ferrante said. “She’s getting smarter too. She’s mature for a sophomore. She’s worked hard in the offseason.”

Offensively, Boyle, Brown and DiMillo all had two hits, Boyle scored three times, DiMillo, Gilbert and Twombly all had one run and DiMillo and Gaudet had two RBI, while Stacey added one. Boyle, Crosby, DiMillo and Twombly all stole bases.

The Bulldogs stranded seven runners.

Deering got two hits from O’Donnell, Densmore and Helmick scored and O’Donnell had an RBI. Densmore stole two bases and Helmick had one steal.

The Rams left three runners on.

DiBiase fell to 2-5 after giving up five earned runs on seven hits in four-plus innings (she faced six batters in the fifth). DiBiase walked four, fanned four, threw a wild pitch and hit a batter.

Helmick gave up an earned run on one hit and three walks in two innings. She struck out one and threw two wild pitches.

“We didn’t come up with the big hit and left runners on,” lamented Deering coach Anthony DiBiase. “We’re only getting four or five hits a game. Jess did well. She had a lot of movement on the ball. She has a great catcher. Kaytlin did well too. It’s one of her better games. 

“I’ve coached 16 years in the city. Before this game, I talked to a couple of the Portland girls and said it will be tough because it’s our last game together. It’s all one family.”

Seeking a strong finish

Deering (17th in the Class A South Heal Points standings, where only 12 teams make the playoffs) hopes to win at least once more to eclipse last year’s victory total. The Rams go to Massabesic Monday, play at Bonny Eagle Wednesday and finish at home versus McAuley Friday.

“We’re definitely making strides,” Anthony DiBiase said. “We’re young. We brought in 15 freshmen this year. Four are on varsity, three are starting. I keep telling them one hit turns a game around. We want to finish strong. We have winnable games. We’ll see how it goes.”

Portland (10th in Class A South) has higher aspirations. The Bulldogs are closing in on a first playoff berth since 2008 but to guarantee it, need to win at least once more and that won’t be easy. Portland goes to Gorham Monday, visits Windham Wednesday and closes at home Friday versus Bonny Eagle.

“I’m glad to be part of the winning this year,” Boyle said. “Playoffs is the goal. It’s all we talk about. It’s been years and years. It feels good.”

“It would be immense if we could keep playing,” Ferrante said. “I’ve told them that I’ve been fortunate to play in June. They’re used to having their uniforms turned in and washed. They’re checking the standings. I wish they didn’t do that. I want us to keep playing. The kids feel comfortable with the pitching. They know they have to make plays. We’re heading in the right direction. They feel good about themselves.”

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

Deering senior second baseman Siobhan Densmore (3) and junior shortstop Kaylee Helmick laugh after Densmore catches a pop out while falling to the ground in the first inning.

Portland sophomore pitcher Jess Brown throws a strike. Brown allowed just four hits and struck out a dozen.

Deering senior starter Kaytlin DiBiase throws a pitch.

Portland sophomore Carly Peterson is tagged out at home by Deering freshman catcher Mackenzie O’Donnell.

Portland sophomore leftfielder Sydney Gilbert lays down a bunt.

Deering sophomore rightfielder Shayla Skinner takes a swing.

Portland junior Taylor Crosby steals second base as Deering senior second baseman Siobhan Densmore tries to reach the throw.

Recent Portland-Deering results

Portland 11 @ Deering 5 

@ Portland 9 Deering 6
@ Portland 17 Deering 4 (5)  

Portland 12 @ Deering 5
@ Portland 8 Deering 5

@ Portland 13 Deering 9 

Portland 9 @ Deering 4 

@ Deering 14 Portland 6 

Deering 20 @ Portland 5 (5) 

@ Deering 8 Portland 4 

Deering 9 @ Portland 2
@ Deering 4 Portland 0 (Western A preliminary round) 

@ Deering 8 Portland 1 

Deering 3 @ Portland 0 

Deering 9 @ Portland 5 

Portland 2 @ Deering 1