PORTLAND—In a balanced playoff field, you have to take seriously the team that boasts great athletes and has plenty of big-game experience.

Portland’s boys’ soccer team fits that description and Tuesday evening at Fitzpatrick Stadium, the Bulldogs had just enough to hold off South Portland in a compelling Class A South quarterfinal.

Portland, seeded fourth in the region, took a 1-0 lead in the 12th minute, when senior Alex Millones scored his latest big goal.

After Bulldogs’ junior Anselmo Tela had a goal disallowed in the first half, he got one to count seven minutes into the second half to give Portland a cushion, but the fifth-ranked Red Riots refused to go quietly.

With 6:50 to play, South Portland senior Anthony Perron got his team on the board and the visitors would have their chances to draw even, but they failed to do so and the Bulldogs held on to survive and advance, 2-1.

Portland won a quarterfinal round playoff game for a program-record fourth year in a row, improved to 11-3-1, ended the Red Riots’ season at 10-5-1 and in the process, advanced to the semifinals this weekend, either at top-ranked Gorham (11-2-1) or at home versus No. 8 Westbrook (8-4-3).

“We knew it would be a tough one,” said longtime Bulldogs’ coach Rocco Frenzilli. “I’m happy for the boys. They’ve been working hard. South Portland is very good. (Red Riots’ coach) Bryan (Hoy) had them ready to play. We knew we were in for a tough game.”

First time

While Portland and South Portland have been squaring off for decades, prior to Tuesday, they had never battled in the playoffs.

Both teams enjoyed regular seasons.

The Bulldogs started with a 2-1 loss at Gorham in a regional final rematch, then blanked host Cheverus (3-0), beat visiting Windham (3-1), host Biddeford (7-1), visiting Thornton Academy (4-0) and host Westbrook (1-0). After a rough patch which saw losses to visiting Scarborough (2-1) and host South Portland (4-2), Portland blanked visiting Sanford (5-0), beat visiting Massabesic (7-1) and downed host Noble (6-1), to give Frenzilli his 250th victory with the program. After a 5-0 home win over Kennebunk, the Bulldogs settled for a 1-1 home tie against Marshwood, then closed with a 1-0 victory at Falmouth.

The Red Riots, meanwhile, began with a scoreless home tie versus Cheverus, then won at Windham (3-1), at home over Thornton Academy (1-0) and at Sanford (2-0). After a 2-0 home loss to Scarborough, South Portland won at Noble (2-1), at home over Portland (4-2), at home over Marshwood (2-1) and at Massabesic (6-0). After a 4-0 home loss to Gorham and a 2-0 setback at Kennebunk, the Red Riots beat host Deering (1-0) and visiting Falmouth (1-0, in double-overtime) before closing with a 2-1 loss at Bonny Eagle.

Saturday, South Portland edged No. 12 Sanford in the preliminary round, 1-0.

In the teams’ regular season meeting, Sept. 26, the host Red Riots got a pair of goals from sophomore Alberto Kissaka and one apiece from junior Damir Brkic and Perron. The Bulldogs got goals from junior Gabriel Panzo and Tela.

Tuesday, Portland again scored twice, but this time, the Bulldogs only allowed one goal as they extended their season.

South Portland earned a corner kick in the second minute, but Portland junior goalkeeper Henry Flynn snared it.

After Tela sent his first look just wide, then had a shot blocked by a defender, he got possession again, dribbled around a defender, passed the ball off to Millones and with 28:54 to go in the first half, Millones ripped a shot to the left of Red Riots’ senior goalkeeper Corey Gagne and into the net for a 1-0 lead.

“It was just kind of instinct,” said Millones. “I didn’t think too much. I just hit it the way it came. We had a good connection.”

“Alex had a great goal,” said Frenzilli. “He’s worked hard this year.”

After Gagne denied Tela, it appeared Portland had taken a two-goal lead with 16:55 left in the half, as senior Elias Antonio served the ball in, Gagne couldn’t handle it and Tela finished, but Tela was ruled offsides to take the goal off the board.

Late in the half, a Perron rush was broken up by Flynn and a rebound shot by senior Miguel Anselmo went wide and Gagne stopped a Tela shot to send the game to the break with the Bulldogs clinging to a 1-0 lead.

In the first 40 minutes, Portland had a 7-1 shots advantage and took three corner kicks to one for South Portland, but six saves from Gagne kept the visitors in the game.

The second half remained closely contested as well.

With 32:55 remaining, Tela put on a show to extend the Bulldogs’ advantage.

After taking a long pass from junior Don Dilamini, which deflected off a Red Riots’ midfielder, Tela made a great move past one defender, dribbled around another, then shot past Gagne just inside the far post for a 2-0 lead.

“It was frustrating when that (first half) goal didn’t count, but I stayed focused and I used it as fuel,” Tela said. “I got another chance. I’ve played soccer my whole life. I just had to put it in.”

“Anselmo draws two or three (defenders) every time he touches the ball, which is a testament to him,” Frenzilli said.

South Portland amped up its attack and after some near-misses, got on the board with 6:50 to go, as Perron got the ball up top and despite being well-defended, he turned and ripped a low shot past a diving Flynn to cut the deficit to 2-1.

The Red Riots had two chances to tie it up, but a corner kick rolled through the box untouched and after a turnover, Perron had a great look, but shot just high and Portland went on to a 2-1 victory.

“Playoffs are a whole new animal,” Millones said. “We couldn’t let off because (South Portland’s) a good team, but we know a thing or two about defending at the end of games.”

“We were just fortunate,” Frenzilli said. “It just worked out. I’d be lying if I didn’t say (the regular season game) wasn’t in the back of my head when they put a four-spot on us last time, but it was grit and trust tonight. I like how we played. We showed resolve, especially after their goal. We knew they were coming hard. We weathered it.”

The Bulldogs out-shot the Red Riots, 13-4, got three saves from Flynn and had a 6-2 edge in corner kicks.

South Portland got 11 saves from Gagne, but fell just short.

“We put a lot of pressure on them at the end,” Hoy said. “First half, we defended a lot, then second half, we took it to them. We had plenty of chances. We didn’t get a ton of shots, but we were right there. We knew we couldn’t really control the game, so we were looking for the over-the-top, one-time thing. (Portland sophomore) Allen (Bemdibe) was unbelievable. He was the difference in the game. He controlled the middle of the field and won every 50-50 ball.

“The eight teams in the quarterfinals, any one could win it. You don’t see that in other (regions). Our tournament is just straight up tough.”

The Red Riots graduate 13 players, but anticipate being a top contender again in 2010.

“We lose some really key pieces,” Hoy said. “Our senior group was very good, but (junior) Damir (Brkic) will be one of the premier players in the conference. (Junior) Noah Dreifus, Alberto and (sophomore) Joey Perron are good players. We have a lot coming back.”

Another trip to the semis

Regardless of who the Bulldogs see next, they know they’ll be in for a battle.

Portland played at Gorham in each of the past three regional finals, losing the most recent, 1-0, last year. The Bulldogs also lost, 2-1, at Gorham in the regular season opener way back on Sept. 5. The Rams have won three of the prior five postseason encounters.

Portland beat host Westbrook, 1-0, Sept. 21. The teams have met three previous times in the playoffs with the Blue Blazes taking two of those encounters. The most recent came in the 2008 Western A quarterfinals (a 1-0 Westbrook win).

“We have to keep working hard and play as a team,” said Millones.

“We want to win really bad,” Tela said. “We have a really good team. We’re confident.”

“Anything can happen,” Frenzilli added. “For now, we’ll enjoy this one.”

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

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