GORHAM — Travis Matheson – determined, skilled – led the Rams on Wednesday night, Oct. 30, led them with two goals and an assist as they battered visiting Westbrook, 5-0. Three days later, Matheson stepped up again, tallying Gorham’s second goal in a 2-1 triumph over rivals Portland.

And since it’s tournament time – and since Westbrook and Portland aren’t squads to scoff at – those wins are big wins: They’re a quarterfinals win and a semifinals win, respectively, and now the Rams are onto Tuesday night, Nov. 5’s Regional Championship.

Pt. 1: No. 1 Gorham vs. No. 8 Westbrook
“I felt like, if we played our game, we’d have a good shot tonight,” Gorham head coach Tim King said of his boys’ matchup with the Blazes. “I think Westbrook played – especially in the first half – as well as we did. They had the ball probably more than we did. We just ended up capitalizing on some, you know, mistakes, perhaps, on their part, and got a little hungry in front of the goal and finished a few. That gives you a little confidence.”

Matheson ushered his boys out front 1-0 when Westbrook dropped in, last Wednesday night. He did so on a header in the 24th minute, assisted by Brady King. It was Gorham’s lone strike of the uphill half, however.

“I try and go towards the ball – at all balls into the middle,” Matheson said. “And I got lucky that the goalie didn’t come out and hit it before I did. And I got it right by him.”

“I lost my man,” Matheson went on, “ and the ball just landed on my head, and it skipped right over my head, off of it, into the goal.”

Being up 1-0 can’t be comfortable for any team in any game, but the Rams’ narrow lead vs. the Blazes may have been extra nerve-wracking for them: Westbrook were one of just two teams to get the better of Gorham in the regular season. The Blazes bested Gorham 4-2 back on Oct. 1.

“I think the first game, we really caught (Westbrook) at their best,” coach King said. “And we weren’t. So we had to make some changes after that game, and I hope it’s made us a little more stable.”

That was a month ago, and a month ago is the distant past – at least in sports. The Rams used the intervening time to settle into a new headspace: After the loss of superstar Andrew Rent to a knee injury in the team’s first outing of the fall (vs. Portland, coincidentally), Gorham faced the challenge of regrouping. To a man, they’ve met that challenge.

“I do,” Matheson said, asked if he felt like Gorham’s pieces have fallen into place. “It’s a lot more equaled-out now. I feel like we replaced the hole that Rent left pretty well – as well as we can, anyway.”

A number of guys produce offense for the Rams nowadays, and 12 minutes into the second half vs. Westbrook, three of them combined for 2-0.

Brady King, who takes most of Gorham’s corners – he’s better at it than anybody this sportswriter has seen in a while – fired one inward. Matheson got a foot on the feed; the ball deflected – but it looked sure to fly wide. Or, it looked that way until Ryan Farr headed it, near the right post. Farr’s effort sent the ball past Westbrook netminder Logan Orr: 2-0.

“It was going wide, and then Ryan was there and headed it back-post into the goal,” Matheson said.

Coach King praised Matheson: “He’s got a lot of speed, he’s relentless, he’s tenacious up front. That’s what we needed. We weren’t really getting that up top, so we moved him up front, and it’s worked so far. He had a good game tonight, and that’s what we expect out of him. He’s a senior Captain, and it’s his time. He produced tonight.”

A mere 82 seconds later, Matheson figured in the Rams’ third goal of the evening. Westbrooker Shawwal Shueyb tripped him up on the run; Matheson posted his direct kick, which bounced outward and landed in front of the Blazes’ net – easy pickings. Teammate Curran Bassingthwaite swooped in for the rebound notch: 3-0.

Westbrook didn’t rise to their potential in the contest, but they did create good chances. With 23:15 remaining, Shueyb danced in the Rams’ end, ditching his defender long enough to find space and pull the trigger. Gorham keeper Romain Salvi, however, made the grab.

Two minutes after that, the Rams’ earned another DK when Javin Stickney collided with a Blaze and tripped to the turf like Matheson had. Brady King took the kick, which landed in a crowd out front. Ravenous, Matheson pounced – and pounded the ball past Orr. 4-0.

“Brady put in a good ball, once again,” Matheson said. “Once again on the corner, and it landed at my feet and I just slotted it right by the goalie.”

Westbrooker Mohamed Mohamed launched a powerful shot left-to-right vs. Salvi with 16:40 to go, but the ball sailed a bit wide.

Four minutes later, King unwound into yet another pretty corner kick – really, the prettiest corner kick you’ll ever see, since it curled into the Blazes’ net. King found the top corner on the far side: 5-0. It was like watching a trick-shooter at a Wild West show throw a silver dollar in the air and nail it with a .45 slug just as it approaches the apex of its ascent.

It’s not even the first time King’s drained a corner – he scored on one at Scarborough not long ago.

“He’s our corner-kick-taker,” coach King said. “He’s getting pretty good at putting them right in the spot. We pick our spots to try to do that, but he was on again tonight with those and we’ll take it.”

5-0 is where the night finished. Gorham jumped to 12-2-1 on the autumn, while Westbrook retired till 2020 at 8-5-3. The Blazes bested No. 9 Cheverus in the prelims to earn their bout with the Rams.

“I think it was a good motivating factor for us,” coach King said, “knowing that Westbrook handled us so well the first time. We feel pretty good about ourselves – but we also know that, when you move on in the tournament, you’ve got to keep playing better and better and better.”

Pt. 2: No. 1 Gorham vs. No. 4 Portland
“You pretty much know what you’re signing up for, when you come to this game,” coach King said of the Portland bout. “It comes right down to the wire. We feel pretty happy right now. When we played them the first game of the season, and then, to lose our best player for the whole year – to be able to get to this spot, we’re thrilled.”

By “best player,” King of course means Rent. Rent isn’t only the best player on a roster full of outstanding players, he’s arguably the best player in the State. It’s difficult to avoid mentioning him, when recounting the story of Gorham’s season. Luckily, his even his departure helped his teammates out in a way.

“Losing Andrew impacted our season massively,” senior Javin Stickney said. “It gave us a certain drive, and grit, in how we want to prove to everyone that we aren’t just one player. We definitely came together as a team. We all improved drastically throughout the season, and now everything’s paying off with how we’re performing on the field.”

“It’s taken a lot of persevering,” Matheson said of Gorham’s coming-together. “After losing Andrew, we had to fill that gap in the offense. I think we did.”

The Bulldogs pressured early – but Gorham struck first. Stickney did the honors for the Rams: Near the top-left of the Portland 18, Stickney reeled in a feed from the distant right side – a Ryan Farr feed. Stickney arced the ball up, up, up and over Bulldogs’ netminder Henry Flynn, charging forward.

“I saw Ryan making the run down the right side,” Stickney said, “and there was a big gap of space in front of me. I tried to fill up the space and Ryan made a great pass through to me. I worked hard to get there, and got there before the goalie and got a touch around him. I was happy to get that goal.”

Stickney’s strike cost him, though: He and Flynn crashed into each other. Stickney hit the turf. Soon, he came off the field sporting an ugly knee injury.

Stickney stepped up for Gorham after Rent exited the season, so lose him too is a heavy blow.

“Luckily, it softened the blow, because he scored the goal when he got hurt,” coach King said. “But you feel for the kid; I hope he’s okay. It didn’t look great. We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that.”

“We needed that; we need early goals,” Gorham senior Captain Kyle Hamblen said of Stickney’s tally. “That really boosted us for the second half, and even the whole rest of the first half. That’ll help us moving forward. Hopefully he’s fine and can play next game.”

Stickney and Flynn’s collision wasn’t the last of the game; it wasn’t even the last one that injured guys. Barely over nine minutes in, Portlander Jonas Matombo drew a yellow card for barreling into Rams keeper Romain Salvi. Shaken-up, both players left the field; thankfully, both also returned in due course.

Zach Beaumont filled Salvi’s cleats while Salvi sat sidelined. Beaumont did his job – alongside Gorham’s standout defense – keeping the Bulldogs off the scoreboard. But the Rams weren’t pushing further ahead either, and they needed to.

Halfway through the first half, Bulldog Elias Antonio slide-tackled Matheson, thwarting a shot. After that, things got crazy – well, crazier: A Portlander tripped Matheson up just outside the Bulldogs’ 18, handing him a direct kick.

Brady King took the DK. King wasn’t quite as deadly with his kicks vs. Portland – not early in the contest, anyway – as he had been vs. Westbrook. This ball rocketed straight into the Bulldogs’ wall.

A long, bizarre stoppage in play followed – the clock kept a-tickin’, but play ground to a halt as the midfield official dealt with … something.

Turns out, Bulldog Max Cheever had sat on the ball – accidentally, we can assume. Somehow, that proved dangerous, and dangerous play means a DK for the other team. No more than a yard or two from Flynn, Brady King lined up for the shot.

Portlanders piled into the goal like it was a clown car, hoping to keep the ball out. They did – but one of them moved early, and the official awarded King a re-kick. Still, a goal stuffed with warm bodies is hard to penetrate: Portland warded off the threat and the contest continued at 1-0.

Minutes elapsed; Gorham kept on keeping on, hunting the 2-0 notch. Soon, King and Farr fired off shots in Flynn’s direction, and Mike Darasz followed up with a rebound that flew a foot or two over the Bulldogs’ crossbar.

Ten minutes before the break, Portland’s Gabriel Panzo headed a laser toward the Rams’ net. Maybe it would’ve smashed into the crossbar, maybe not – better safe than sorry, though, and Salvi leapt, beautifully deflecting the shot high.

The Bulldogs dodged another bullet around 6:20, when Farr fired from the right side. Flynn deflected the ball up – but it came down again quick, and looked headed over the goal line. He whirled, though, Flynn did, and zipped backward, successfully grabbing the ball and saving 2-0.

“We always try to get that second goal,” coach King said, asked about the importance of building on a narrow advantage. “With a 1-0 lead, obviously you want that. And Portland’s so dangerous, all the time.”

Shortly, Hamblen unwound into a Rams free kick; Matheson got his head on it, then Colby Christakis settled it and shot – but shot just wide.

Hamblen chased ferociously all afternoon.

“I see it like you give 100 percent,” Hamblen said. “And our team deserves it; we’ve lost a lot from the beginning of the season. And everyone out there gives it 100 percent and look where we are now? We’re onto the conference final, and No. 1 seed. We really deserve it; we pushed through – Javin out here, scoring a goal real quick, early on. It was insane.”

Hamblen’s given a bit more than 100 percent recently: He sported a pair of black eyes on Saturday, remnants of a bloody run-in during the Westbrook game.

In the latter 40 minutes, Portland hashed a handful of decent opportunities – but Gorham hashed a handful more. Matheson burned brightly for the squad: At 27:30, He plunged ahead, flanked by a Bulldogs defender and fellow Ram Sebastian Irish. Alas, all tangled up, Matheson slipped in the wet grass.

Matheson didn’t convert on the effort, but it wouldn’t be his last: Around 25:10 he broke away from the pack for a duel with Flynn. Flynn charged forward and the two collided. That earned Flynn a red card; crushed, he exited the game and Max Brown took his place.

Minutes later, Brady King threaded a direct kick over a Portland wall – his aim was off by a hair earlier, but it was back on now – and almost made it 2-0. Almost, but no dice: The ball bashed off the crossbar.

Finally, Matheson got his due: In yet another footrace with yet another Bulldogs opponent – this one around 22:00 – Matheson relayed a feed by Irish, beating Brown.

Finally. Finally. 2-0.

“Seb got a good touch on it,” Matheson said, “and sent me right through. I just got enough of that to slot it right by the goalie.”

“In the first half, we created some good chances,” coach King said, “even though they had the ball more than us. We had some really dangerous chances, and we thought we could get some more in the second half. Travis Matheson, when he’s up front, is so dangerous that we thought it was a matter of time, and we snuck that one in. It was a big lift for us.”

Matheson’s tally proved critical, as Portland got on the board at 12:13. The Bulldogs scored on a corner: Alex Millones dumped inward, the ball bounced and Anselmo Tela grabbed it. Tela ripped a perfect sidewinding shot, finding the top-right corner of the Rams’ net like it was his destiny. Honestly, Salvi had no real chance on it.

But that would be Portland’s only point: The afternoon settled out at 2-1. Both teams churned up further chances, but neither could convert. Matheson cranked out a couple more close calls on a couple more dives upfield, but he couldn’t ever quite shake whichever Portlander was dogging him at the time.

Now, 13-2-1, Gorham advances to Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 5’s Regional Final. They face Falmouth, the only outfit besides Westbrook to defeat them in the regular season. Still, the Rams made mincemeat of the Blazes, given a second opportunity. They’re playing their best soccer of the fall right now, and have good reason to feel confident.

“We played Falmouth early on in the season,” Hamblen said. “We were just getting over Andrew’s injury, and we ended up losing to them 2-1. It was a tough game … I’d like to beat them, too. We haven’t done that this season, and we’d like to prove everything we could.”

Rhinestone Cowboy” is Gorham’s victory song.

Gorham’s Grant Nadeau, pokes the ball away from Portland’s Gabriel Panzo during the Rams’ 2-1 win in the Class A South boys’ soccer regional semifinal on Saturday in Gorham. John Ewing / Portland Press Herald

Gorham’s Travis Matheson, left, and Portland’s Elias Antonio battle for control of the ball. John Ewing / Portland Press Herald

Portland’s Alex Millones battles for possession during Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Gorham in the Class A South semifinals. John Ewing / Portland Press Herald

Portland’s Allen Bemdibe, left, chases Gorham’s Traviss Matheson during the first half. John Ewing / Portland Press Herald

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