Aaron Filieo led South Portland to a state championship as a player and is hopeful of doing the same as the Red Riots coach. Contributed photo.

SOUTH PORTLAND—It turns out you can go home again.

And that is very good news indeed for Aaron Filieo.

And perhaps not so good news for the rest of the local high school football world.

Filieo, who led South Portland to its first Class A state title in the playoff era, back in 1992, returns to the Red Riots this fall, this time as head coach, replacing Steve Stinson, and he’s hit the ground running, immediately creating excitement around one of the state’s most accomplished and storied programs.

“It’s been exciting,” said Filieo, who coached Cape Elizabeth to 106 victories and two regional titles in 15 seasons prior to returning home. “I’ve done clinics since March and reconnected with the youth. It’s been busy. Being present in the community is what families want. It goes a long way. We’re trying to get kids excited about playing football in South Portland I think we’ve done that. I had a pie-in-the-sky goal of 70 kids (this fall) and we’re there, if not a little north of that. The kids are excited. We have strong senior leadership, a class that has been together for awhile, and I have 15 coaches on staff who are really talented.”

As a Red Riots player, Aaron Filieo, left, along with teammates Bert Rich (25) and Jay Frank, brought plenty of passion. That hasn’t waned a bit in the intervening years. Contributed photo.

Glory days

Filieo’s modest stature suggested he’d be anything but a football star, but what he lacked in size, he more than made up for in heart, passion, focus and intensity. Filieo made the South Portland varsity as a sophomore, playing for legendary coach John Wolfgram on special teams. A promising junior season was derailed by injury. In the fall of 1992, Filieo’s senior season, everything came together for the Red Riots, who didn’t lose a game. Filieo, a captain and defensive stalwart, helped South Portland hold off Biddeford in an epic 41-36 Western Class A Final, then shut down Lawrence in a 6-0 victory in the state final.

Filieo went on to play rugby at Plymouth State (New Hampshire) University, then returned to South Portland to serve as an assistant with the Red Riots, spending four years under Wolfgram and two more under Bob Zinchuk.

Ambition

Filieo then took on the daunting task of inheriting the nascent Cape Elizabeth program in 2004. Upon his hiring, Filieo announced that he expected the Capers to annually compete for championships, a declaration that seemed outlandish a the time, but in just his third season, Cape Elizabeth was in the regional final and in 2009, the Capers played in the Class B state final.

Cape Elizabeth lost that game, to Leavitt, and fell again in the state final in 2017, this time to MCI in Class C, but Filieo had established his team as elite.

Saying goodbye to the Capers was tough, but taking over the South Portland program was an opportunity Filieo couldn’t pass up.

“Coming back means everything,” said Filieo, who continues to teach at Cape Elizabeth Middle School. “When I was in my early 20s, I crafted my very first bucket list and the first item was to marry (my wife) Kari and have six kids. We have three, so I’m batting .500 there. Number two was to be the head football coach at South Portland High School. That’s something I always dreamed of. I wanted to come back here and coach. I had such a great experience here as a player and as an assistant under John. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It’s extremely rewarding and feels good to come home.”

Work to do

South Portland isn’t the program it was in the 1990s, when it had no peer and won four state championships. In fact, the Red Riots have struggled in recent years, failing to post a winning record four years running. Last fall, South Portland went 1-7 and couldn’t field enough players to take part in the postseason.

Regardless, Filieo believes this year’s squad can turn things around.

And in typical fashion, he’s setting no ceiling.

“I always set the bar high,” Filieo said. “Kids like to dream big and if you help them get excited and give them something to shoot for, there’s a little bit of extra motivation there. Contending right away is the goal, no question. These guys got beat up last year, but they played hard. They were undermanned, playing in the toughest division, but they fought. There’s something there and a lot of those guys will be seniors. They’re chomping at the bit. They want to win now.”

Athletic director Todd Livingston, who, like Filieo, is a South Portland native who vividly remembers the glory years, is excited to have a dyed-in-the-wool Red Riots legend leading the football program.

“I’m a strong believer that having South Portland alumni return and join our coaching staff is a very positive thing,” Livingston said. “You know the community from which you came, the history, the tradition and having the ability to give back to those that provided you with outstanding experiences when you were a student and athlete. Coach Filieo  brings a proven track record of having played a major role in building the Cape program essentially from the ground up. While our football program doesn’t need to be built from the ground up, he will bring his experience to make positive changes to the program to move it forward. I’m already impressed with Coach Filieo’s work ethic. He hit the ground running hiring our coaching staff, implementing off-season programs and working with our student-athlete population to generate renewed enthusiasm for the football program from the youth through high school levels.”

After competing in Class A since time immemorial, South Portland, as part of a dramatic restructuring by the Maine Principals’ Association, will compete in Class B South this year, against many traditional foes, such as Cheverus, Deering and Portland, as well as preseason favorite Marshwood.

The Red Riots open the regular season Sept. 6 at home versus Deering.

“There’s already excitement,” Filieo said. “There’s also a little bit of (an attitude of) waiting to see if things will be different. The alumni are hopeful that having some old South Portland guys back is what the program needs. The community wants to win and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m glad that’s the expectation.

“Winning a championship would mean everything. It’s been a long time. That will be the goal until I decide to quit or until they decide my time is up. It’s tough to get. A lot has to fall into place.”

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


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