BOX SCORE

South Portland 27 Sanford 21

S- 7 6 0 8- 21
SP-7 7 7 6- 27

First quarter
SP- Poole 7 run (Tierney kick)
S- Bickford 17 pass from Levine (Pease kick)

Second quarter
SP- Poole 14 run (Tierney kick)
S- Shain 42 run (kick failed)

Third quarter
SP- Poole 1 run (Tierney kick)

Fourth quarter
SP- Shain 4 run (Levine rush)
SP- Poole 3 run (kick failed)

SOUTH PORTLAND—If there were any doubts remaining that South Portland’s football team is something special, or that Red Riots’ senior quarterback Anthony Poole is one of the toughest, most resilient and best players in the state, those doubts were dispelled Friday evening at Martin Memorial Field.

South Portland, in its regular season finale, welcomed Class A contender Sanford in a game that came down to ball control and the ability to make plays on third and fourth downs.

Poole and Company set the tone in the first quarter, driving 79 yards in nearly six minutes to grab the lead, on a 7-yard Poole touchdown run.

The Spartans pulled even at 7-7 when senior quarterback Xavier Levine lofted a 17-yard TD pass to senior Leyton Bickford.

Midway through the second period, Poole capped a nearly seven-minute march with a 14-yard run to put the Red Riots back on top and even though Sanford got a 42-yard TD run from senior Ethan Shain, it couldn’t convert the extra point and South Portland held a 14-13 halftime lead.

Poole, who rushed for 141 yards on 21 carries in the first half, was just getting warmed up and after a seven-plus minute drive, Poole scored for the third time, on a 1-yard sneak, to stretch the lead to eight.

The Red Riots took that advantage to the final quarter, but there, Sanford got a 4-yard touchdown run from Shain, followed by a two-point conversion rush from Levine to draw even at 21-21 with 9:42 remaining.

South Portland then milked over nine minutes off the clock, twice converting on fourth down and three times moving the chains on third down and with 34 seconds to go, Poole scored on a 3-yard rush. The PAT was missed and the Spartans had one final chance, but after an apparent long go-ahead touchdown pass was called back for offensive pass interference, Poole, fittingly, ended the drama with an interception and the Red Riots prevailed, 27-21.

Poole had an all-time, heroic effort, rushing for 234 yards and four TDs on 44 carries, as South Portland won its fourth game in a row, capped the regular season at 6-2, its best mark since 2011, and in the process, dropped Sanford to 4-4.

“We felt like this would be a big test for us in terms of whether or not we had what it takes to make a playoff run,” said Red Riots’ first-year coach Aaron Filieo. “We knew it would be a tough game.  It’s a great way to go into the playoffs for sure.”

Return to form

South Portland welcomed back Filieo this fall as head coach and the turnaround has been immediate and dramatic.

The Red Riots dropped their opener, 30-14, to visiting Deering, then rallied to win at Cheverus, 19-14, before dominating visiting Noble, 49-7. After falling at home to Massabesic, 26-14, South Portland came from behind to edge host Gorham, 31-28, rolled at Portland in the “Battle of the Bridge,” 35-7, then blanked host Westbrook, 35-0.

“It started day one at camp,” Poole said. “We knew coming off last year we needed a change and that’s what Coach Filieo and his staff brought and we’ve embraced it.”

“It’s been incredible,” said senior two-way lineman extraordinaire Nate Ellington. “Coach Filieo came in and changed the culture. He brought back a lot of South Portland traditions. He’s done a fantastic job bringing the brotherhood together. We went 1-7 last year, but we were in games. We just needed him to bring it all together and he has.”

Sanford, meanwhile, has shown flashes of excellence this fall, but hasn’t been able to take the leap and join the “big three” of Class A, defending state champion Thornton Academy and perennial contenders Bonny Eagle and Scarborough.

The Spartans started with a 27-13 home loss to the Golden Trojans, then beat visiting Oxford Hills (35-14), host Edward Little (42-7), visiting Biddeford (20-12) and host Lewiston (39-18). After falling at home to Scarborough (28-0), Sanford was upset at Bangor last week, 24-12.

A year ago, the host Spartans dominated the Red Riots, 46-7.

Friday, on a rain-free, 51-degree evening, South Portland returned the favor, but it was a 48-minute battle, full of palpitating twists and turns.

The Red Riots won the opening coin toss, but deferred possession to the second half.

South Portland’s defense then forced a three-and-out, as Sanford, which started at its 39, went backwards on first down, as Levine was dropped for a two-yard loss by junior Connor Dobson and senior Elijah Azimi. After senior Ryley Bougie ran for five yards, Levine threw incomplete on third-and-7.

With 10:46 to go in the first period, the Red Riots took possession at their 21 and a dozen plays and 5:40 later, they’d score the game’s first points.

South Portland’s first carry went to senior Keenan Jones, who ran for four yards. Poole then hinted at big things to come by rushing for 14 yards and a first down at the 39. After Poole ran for six yards and Jones gained five for a first down at midfield, Spartans’ coach Mike Fallon called timeout, but it didn’t help slow the Red Riots Express.

After Poole ran for nine yards, Dobson picked up nine more for a first down at Sanford’s 32. After Poole gained six yards, he stumbled and picked up two, but on third-and-2, Poole kept the ball again and ran for seven yards and a first down at the 17. Jones ran for five yards, then Poole picked up five more for a first-and-goal at the 7. Poole then rode a pair of terrific blocks into the end zone on a run to the left and scored a 7-yard TD with 5:06 to play in the opening stanza. Junior Frank Tierney’s extra point extended the lead to 7-0.

The Spartans’ second possession produced a quick answer.

Starting at its 31, Sanford used nine plays and 3:17 to march 69 yards for the equalizer.

Shain gained eight yards on first down, then senior Caleb Saucier rushed for 12 and a first down at the South Portland 49. Shain then broke free for 25 yards to the 24. After Saucier was held to no gain, Levine hit Saucier for nine yards and on third-and-1, Shain picked up two to move the chains to the 13. After a false start backed the Spartans up five yards, sophomore Jeremy Ollennu rushed for a yard and Levine threw incomplete, but on third-and-12 from the 17, Levine lofted a pass to the end zone where Bickford, who stands 6-foot-5, outleaped Jones for the touchdown (the Red Riots lobbied for an offensive pass interference penalty and while they didn’t get it, the seed was planted for later in the game). Junior Parker Pease added the PAT to tie the score, 7-7, with 1:42 remaining in the first period.

South Portland got the ball for its next possession at its 35 and in another long, impressive march, drove 65 yards in 14 plays and 6:45 to go back on top.

After Poole threw incomplete, Poole ran for four yards and Sanford jumped offsides. On third-and-1, Poole gained seven for a first down at the Spartans’ 49 and that’s how the first period (which saw the Red Riots enjoy a 95-72 edge in yardage) came to a close.

The second quarter started with Jones gaining two yards and Poole picking up five. On third-and-3, Poole gained four for a first down at the 38. After an incomplete pass and a two-yard Jones run, Poole kept the ball and picked up 10 yards for a first down at the 26. Jones ran for five-yards, then gained two and on third-and-3, Poole bulled his way for six yards and a first down at the 13. Jones was thrown for a one-yard loss by Sanford sophomore Corbin Robertson, but on the next play, Poole kept the ball, ran to his right and didn’t stop until he crossed the goal line with 6:52 to go in the half. Tierney’s extra point gave South Portland a 14-7 lead.

Again, back roared the Spartans.

A 35-yard kickoff return by Saucier set Sanford up at the Red Riots’ 45 and the visitors needed just two plays to score.

After Levine kept the ball for three yards, he handed off to Shain, who ran to the right, turned the corner and left the Red Riots’ defense in his wake as he scored on a 42-yard scamper with 5:59 remaining before halftime. Pease’s PAT was wide right, allowing South Portland to cling to a one-point lead.

The Red Riots’ third drive began at their 21 and again, they moved down the field looking to score, but this time, they would shoot themselves in the foot.

After Poole ran for a yard on first down, a personal foul penalty was called for leading with the helmet, tacking on 15 yards. Poole then ran for eight yards and at the end of that play, another flag was thrown, this time for a five-yard facemask penalty, putting the ball at midfield. Poole then ran for six yards and Jones gained six more for a first down at the 38. After Poole was held to no gain and threw incomplete, Poole took off for 17 yards and a first down at the 21. Jones then ran for five yards, but just when it appeared South Portland was primed to score again, Poole fumbled and senior Alex Winchell recovered for Sanford at its 11 with 2:04 on the clock.

Poole quickly shook off his miscue.

“We were down there about to open it up, but it was on to the next play and my guys picked me up,” Poole said. “That’s what being a team is all about.”

“Part of what makes (Anthony) great is mentally, he’s as tough as it comes,” Filieo said. “He knows that turnovers, mistakes will happen, but it’s about going on to the next play.”

The Spartans looked to drive for lead, but ran out of time.

Shain ran for six yards, then picked up two before Saucier’s six-yard run moved the chains to the 25. After Levine scrambled for nine yards, he scrambled for seven more and a first down at the 41. Levine then threw consecutive incomplete passes before gaining 12 yards and a first down at the Red Riots’ 47. Levine spiked the ball to stop the clock, then scrambled for 15 more yards, but on the play, the clock hit 0:00 and South Portland took a 14-13 lead to halftime.

In the first 24 minutes, Poole gained 141 yards and scored twice on 21 carries, but he was just getting warmed up.

The Red Riots got the ball to start the second half and would again embark on a lengthy drive, this one 15 plays, 70 yards and 7:13.

Jones got the first carry of the third quarter and rushed for three yards. Poole then gained two and on third-and-5, Poole kept the ball for eight yards and a first down at the 43. After Poole rushed for six yards, Jones gained four to put the ball at the Spartans’ 47. Poole ran for four yards, Dobson gained two, then Poole, thanks to a nice second effort, picked up six more for a first down at the 35. After Jones ran for two yards, then picked up one, Poole scrambled for four yards. Filieo decided to go for it on fourth down and Poole barely gained the necessary three yards, stretching the ball out while being tackled. After an incomplete pass, Jones broke free and wasn’t stopped until he reached the 1 and on the next snap, with 4:39 to go in the third quarter, Poole snuck the ball across the goal line. Tierney’s PAT stretched South Portland’s lead to 21-13.

This time, Sanford didn’t answer, as it went three-and-out.

The Spartans started at their 41, but after Shain gained six yards and Levine picked up three, a bad snap over the quarterback’s head resulted in a 16-yard loss, forcing a punt which only went 16 yards, giving the Red Riots possession at midfield.

South Portland had a chance to break it open, but this time, Sanford managed to force the Red Riots’ lone punt of the night.

Jones ran for six yards and Poole gained nine to move the chains, but senior Reese Boucher dropped Jones for a two-yard loss, then Boucher held Poole to no gain before a Poole incomplete pass set up fourth down.

Disaster then struck for South Portland, as the snap to sophomore punter Jackson Juers was way over his head and resulted in a 23-yard loss.

That gave the Spartans the ball at the Red Riots’ 40 to begin the fourth quarter.

Six plays and 2:18 later, Sanford would tie it up.

Levine gained a yard on first down, then senior Isaac Sobey sacked Levine for a one-yard loss, but on third-and-10, Levine hit Saucier for 10 yards on a screen pass for a first down at the 30. Shain then rushed for 11 yards, Levine kept the ball for 15 and with 9:42 remaining, Shain swept right and strolled into the end zone untouched for a 4-yard touchdown. The Spartans then went for two and Levine fought his way across the goal line to tie the score, 21-21.

After a 17-yard kickoff return from sophomore Antonio Romero, South Portland took possession at its 35 with 9:35 to play.

The Red Riots then not only marched 65 yards for the winning touchdown, they did so by taking 9:01 off the clock in 17 plays.

After Poole ran for six yards on the first play, Jones gained two and Poole was held to one, setting up fourth-and-1 from the 44. It was decision time for Filieo, but he never hesitated and decided to go for it. To no one’s surprise, Poole kept the ball and rushed for four yards and a first down at the 48. After a three-yard Poole run and an incomplete pass, Poole dropped back as if to pass, then took off up the middle for 11 yards and a first down at Sanford’s 38. After a three-yard Jones run, Poole picked up two, then he converted another third down with a 13-yard burst to the 20. After Jones gained four yards, Poole rushed for three, then gained just one, setting up fourth-and-2. Again, it would be Poole keeping the drive alive by rushing for three yards, setting up first-and-goal from the 9.

“Coach Cooke (offensive coordinator Jason Cooke) had trust in us,” Poole said. “Before each big play, we talked to each other and turned it up. We knew which play we wanted to run.”

“Coach Cooke is one of the best coaches in the state as far as his offensive mind and I thought he called an unbelievable game,” Filieo said. “It’s just a belief in what we’re doing and believing in each other and what the coaches are dialing up that helped us convert.”

Poole was dropped for a one-yard loss by senior Dante Sawyer and sophomore Jack Callis, but Jones rumbled for seven yards to the 3, forcing the Spartans to use their final time out with 37.4 seconds showing.

Then, it would be Poole capping the drive with a 3-yard rush up the middle.

“If we didn’t get (the touchdown), we’d let the clock run down because we had faith in our kicker, but I took it a little outside, saw the hole and took it in,” Poole said.

“We were preparing for a field goal just in case,” said Filieo. “We talked about getting the ball in the middle of the field, but Coach Cooke asked the players what they wanted to do and that play got us in.”

Tierney missed the extra point wide left, but with just 34 seconds to go, South Portland was up by six.

Yet the game was far from over.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Red Riots squibbed the ball and Saucier was tackled at the 31.

Levine then dropped back to pass and in a similar play to the first quarter touchdown, lofted a jump ball deep down the field to Bickford, who came up with the ball in traffic, then ran all the way to the end zone for an apparent touchdown.

Except it wasn’t a score.

Instead, offensive interference was ruled and not only did Sanford have the possible go-ahead score erased, it lost a dozen seconds and 15 yards in the process.

“That was a scary moment,” Poole said. “I was mad at myself for not getting over the top, but fortunately it worked out.”

“We were in the wrong coverage there and thankfully, we were able to survive,” Filieo said. “Keenan forced Bickford to have to get his hands on him. He’s played well at that position and he’s underrated as a cornerback.”

After Levine threw incomplete, he again tried a deep pass down the right side, but fittingly, Poole was there to intercept the pass with under a second on the clock, causing Filieo to exult on the sideline, “He’s one of the best players in the state!”

“That accentuates what kind of player (Anthony) is, willing the team to win the game,” Filieo said.

All that was left was for Poole to take a knee and at 9:09 p.m., South Portland was able to celebrate its exhausting and exhilarating 27-21 victory.

“It was high-energy the entire game, both teams competing,” Ellington said. “It was just a great team victory. We’ve worked hard all week putting in two-and-a-half hours a day of practice and it showed. It’s been an amazing season. I’ve never seen so many people at games before. It’s so rewarding to have a senior season like this. We just play for each other. I didn’t know what it would be like at the beginning of the season. If you told me at the beginning of the season we’d be 6-2, I don’t know if I’d believe you, but our coaching staff instilled belief and it’s amazing.”

“Our offensive line played physical and played well,” Filieo said. “Sanford answered the bell, so Anthony had to dig a little deeper and the line had to dig deeper. Keenan kept grinding and we needed that to keep Anthony a little more balanced.

“It’s been a lot of work, but these guys have been fun to coach. The coaching staff jelled immediately, because a lot of us are South Portland guys. The community support has been incredible. They like how these guys compete. (The tradition) never went away. It was just in hibernation for awhile.”

Poole had the game of his young life and in a transcendent season, that’s no hyperbole. Poole didn’t complete a single pass (in six attempts), but he kept the ball 44 times and gained 234 rushing yards with four touchdowns.

“I’m a little tired, but there aren’t many Friday nights left, so anytime Coach calls my number, I’ll give everything I have,” Poole said. “My guys up front, they played a great game. My center (senior Caleb Viola) had a big job taking on (Boucher) and Nate is such a great blocker. We knew Sanford had a tough defense to throw against with great athletes back there. Our line was prepared and we pounded it up the gut. Winning means so much.”

“Anthony’s an absolute animal,” said Ellington. “He’s so good. The other team doesn’t want to tackle him. He wears them down. He keeps running. He doesn’t show any signs of stopping. He just leads the team to victory. If I can get him extra yardage it’s great, but when there’s nowhere for him to go, he’ll cut between defenders and find yards.”

“Anthony is a special player for sure,” added Filieo. “One of the best players in the state, no question about it. On film, watching him from last year, I thought he was a really good football player. It made sense he was the focal point of the offense. In the Cheverus game, I thought there was something different about this kid, that he was more than just a very good football player.”

Jones quietly had a solid night as well, gaining 88 yards on 21 carries.

South Portland managed 336 yards of offense, held the ball for nearly 36 minutes, converted 11-of-15 third downs and all three fourth down opportunities, turned the ball over one time and was only penalized once for 2 yards.

Sanford finished with 192 yards, but was penalized six times for 46 yards and turned the ball over once.

Shain rushed for 106 yards and two scores on nine attempts.

Levine threw for 36 yards on 3-of-10 passing. He had a TD and an interception. Levine also rushed for 63 yards on nine carries.

November drama

Sanford (fourth in the Class A Crabtree Points standings) still has one regular season game remaining, Friday at home versus 7-1 Bonny Eagle.

South Portland. meanwhile, awaits its final seeding in Class B South. The Red Riots were fifth at press time and might not have an opportunity to play a postseason game at home. South Portland will likely face Biddeford or Massabesic next weekend in the quarterfinals.

Regardless of who awaits, the Red Riots will be ready to extend their season.

“We’re not satisfied,” Ellington said. “We’re ready for a playoff game.”

“Making playoffs means so much for the city,” Poole said. “It’s so special. We’re ready to go at it. It’s on to the next practice. We’ll prepare and we’ll ball out on Friday night.”

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

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