South Portland 2 Cheverus 1

C- 100 000 0- 1 6 0
SP- 000 200 X- 2 6 0

Top 1st
B. Connolly singled to left, Header scored.

Bottom 4th
Gilboy singled to center, Dobson scored. Dreifus singled to center, Gilboy scored.

Multiple hits:
SP- Dobson

C- Header
SP- Dobson, Gilboy

C- B. Connolly
SP- Dreifus, Gilboy

C- Cormier, Tanguay

C- Header

Stolen base:
C- Cormier

Left on base:
C- 7
SP- 2

Giancotti and K. Connolly; Hobbs and Dreifus.

Giancotti (L) 6 IP 6 H 2 R 2 ER 0 BB 9 K 2 WP

Hobbs (W) 7 IP 6 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 9 K 1 HBP

Time: 1:22

SOUTH PORTLAND—So much for South Portland’s baseball team being a year away.

Or a year too late.

The sixth-ranked Red Riots, who lost in extra innings in the 2019 Class A South Final, then lost out on a season where they would have been the prohibitive favorite last spring, continued their stirring playoff run Saturday afternoon at home against No. 7 Cheverus in a Class A South semifinal round contest at Wainwright Farms.

The Stags started fast, as senior leftfielder Jackson Header led off with a triple off South Portland sophomore pitcher Nolan Hobbs and came home to score on a one-out RBI single from freshman shortstop Brian Connolly.

But Cheverus stranded two runners that inning, left two more on in the second and another in third as it missed a chance to open things up.

And South Portland made the Stags pay.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Red Riots finally got to Cheverus senior pitcher Nick Giancotti, as junior first baseman Richard Gilboy singled home senior shortstop Connor Dobson to tie it and with two outs, senior catcher Noah Dreifus delivered the game’s biggest hit, an RBI single to give the Red Riots the lead.

Hobbs only got stronger as the game went along and when he struck out the side in the seventh inning, South Portland had a 2-1 victory, a 14-5 record, ended the Stags’ fine season at 13-6 and in the process, advanced to take on No. 1 Thornton Academy (16-3) in the Class A South Final Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.

“I don’t think we’re a huge Cinderella story,” said Red Riots coach Mike Owens. “Everyone wants to talk about last year and what we missed, but this is such a great group of kids. They’re excited and don’t want it to end.”

Another nailbiter

In a postseason where the unpredictable has reigned, Cheverus and South Portland were both able to each pass their first two tests, with varying degrees of difficulty.

The Stags held off No. 10 Massabesic in the Round of 16, 8-6, then needed 10 innings to eliminate No. 15 Portland in Thursday’s thrilling quarterfinal, 1-0.

The Red Riots, meanwhile, held off No. 11 Sanford, 6-5, in the Round of 16, then beat No. 14 Bonny Eagle, 11-6, in Thursday’s quarterfinal round.

South Portland beat visiting Cheverus, 4-0, way back on April 27, as Hobbs threw a three-hit shutout, while Giancotti took the loss.

The teams had split two prior playoff meetings, with Cheverus winning in the 2011 Western A semifinal (8-2) and the Red Riots prevailing, 1-0 (in eight-innings) in the 2014 Western A quarterfinals.

Saturday, on a fabulous day for baseball (70-degrees with a light breeze at first pitch), the Stags had their chances to advance, but it would be South Portland getting the clutch hits to move on.

The contest began inauspiciously for the Red Riots, as Hobbs surrendered a leadoff triple to right-center off the bat of Header. Hobbs then walked senior first baseman Sam Clark. Junior catcher Kevin Connolly then lined out to center, but Header didn’t tag up on the play. That proved academic, as Brian Connolly followed with a sharp single to left to score Header and put runners at first and second. Hobbs then settled in, catching sophomore third baseman Matt Connor looking at strike three on the outside corner before battling back from 3-0 to catch Giancotti looking at strike three, limiting the damage and keeping the score 1-0.

Giancotti caught senior centerfielder Bradley McMains looking at strike three to start the bottom of the first, but Dobson followed with a single to center. With Gilboy at the plate, Dobson tried to steal second, but Kevin Connolly threw him out, then Gilboy struck out looking to retire the side.

Cheverus then had a great opportunity to add to its lead in the top of the second, as after senior leftfielder Brady Cormier lined out center, Hobbs hit junior rightfielder Richie Tremble with a pitch and senior designated hitter Shane Tanguay followed with a double down the leftfield line to put runners at second and third.

But again, Hobbs came up big, getting Header to fly out to shallow left, with the runners holding, before getting Clark to ground out to short to end the threat.

In the bottom half, sophomore third baseman Johnny Poole tried to bunt his way on, but he bunted right the ball back to Giancotti, who threw him out. Giancotti then blew strike three past junior leftfielder Ryan Thurber and caught Dreifus looking at strike three.

Kevin Connolly started the third inning by lining out second and Brian Connolly followed by grounding out to third on the first pitch, but Connor singled to center and stole second. Hobbs again escaped damage, getting Giancotti to ground to third on a 3-2 pitch, where Poole made a nice stop on a tough hop before throwing to first to end the frame.

In the bottom half, sophomore second baseman Andrew Heffernan led off with a single the other way, past diving Cheverus senior second baseman Nick Hutton. Junior rightfielder Finn O’Connell sacrifice bunted Heffernan to second, but Hobbs lined out to right and McMains struck out swinging.

Hobbs had his first 1-2-3 inning in the top of the fourth, getting Cormier to watch strike three, Tremble to fly out to right, where O’Connell made a nice running catch, and blowing strike three past Tanguay.

South Portland then produced the tying and go-ahead runs in the bottom half.

Dobson got things started with a single up the middle and he took second on a wild pitch. Gilboy then grounded a single up the middle on a 3-2 pitch and Dobson raced home to tie it. Gilboy moved to second on a wild pitch and after Poole struck out, a passed ball moved Gilboy to third. Giancotti appeared primed to get out of it when he struck out Thurber, but Dreifus stepped to the plate and came up huge, singling to center on a 1-0 pitch to score Gilboy for a 2-1 lead.

“(Giancotti’s) a great pitcher and he competed the whole game, but (Connor Dobson), who had two hits, came up to me and said to me, ‘Hands to the ball’ and that’s all I did,” said Dreifus. “I knew I’d get a hit before I ever went to the box. I was just trying to hit it hard anywhere. I saw it go through and rounding the base was a great feeling.”

“It sounds easier than it is, but against a good pitcher like Giancotti who stays down, we had to stay short and quick to the ball and use the middle of the field and we got a couple good bounces,” Owens said. “Noah had a clutch two-out RBI there. That’s why he’s a senior captain. That was a big-time hit.”

Heffernan watched strike three but the Red Riots were on top for good.

In the fifth, Hobbs got Header to ground out to second, pulled the string and fanned Clark, then, after a single to right off the bat of Kevin Connolly, Hobbs got Brian Connolly to line to center where McMains made a highlight reel running, diving catch.

In the bottom half, O’Connell struck out swinging and Hobbs flew out to center before McMains beat out a bunt single down the third base line. South Portland couldn’t capitalize, however, as McMains was thrown out trying to steal.

Cheverus had one last good chance to score in the top of the sixth, as after Connor flew out to right and Giancotti struck out on an off-speed pitch, Cormier lined a double down the leftfield line, but Hobbs got Tremble to ground to first and the pitcher covered to take the throw and retire the side.

The Red Riots went quickly in the bottom half, as Giancotti capped his fine outing by getting Dobson to pop out foul to first, Gilboy to bunt back to mound, where Giancotti threw him out, and Poole to bounce out to short.

Heffernan had warmed up several times during the game, including during the bottom of the sixth, but when the seventh inning began, it was Hobbs’ game to finish and he did so.

With a flourish.

First up was Tanguay, who fell behind 0-2, then lined a pitch just foul down the third base line before failing to hold up and chasing strike three.

Header then struck out swinging.

That left it up to Clark, who got behind 0-2, then 1-2, then chased strike three and after a tidy 1-hour, 22-minutes, South Portland got to celebrate its 2-1 victory.

“I was so pumped on the final strike,” Hobbs said. “This team competes. We have to battle one inning at a time.”

“It didn’t look good early,” said Owens. “Giancotti’s an excellent pitcher, but we find different ways to do it. We talk about limiting damage and limiting big innings and getting out of it. I thought we’d get better as the year went on because we were so young, but I don’t think I actually realized how good these sophomores are and how good Nolan is. We’ve gotten better every day and they’re so coachable. We’ve given them a lot and they’ve reacted every time.”

Hobbs had some anxious moments along the way, but wound up earning the victory after a complete game six-hit, one-run effort. Hobbs walked one, hit a batter and struck out nine, as he found a pitch that worked.

“I started slow, but I just battled back,” Hobbs said. “I trusted my defense. I knew they’d make plays. Staying composed is something I feel like I do pretty well. I just want to put up a ‘0’ inning after inning. Usually I go to my curveball, but today, my slider felt good and I just rolled with it. I wanted to go the distance so badly. I knew as I got going, I had it in me.”

“We had the best pregame (bullpen) I’ve ever seen in my life,” Dreifus said. “We started hammering that slider and it really worked.”

“I thought Nolan was a little amped up early and he left his curveball up and he was a little flat, but he started to go more to his slider which had a little more bite to it and once he found that, he really settled in,” Owens added. “We were ready to go to Andrew. He’s a change-of-pace guy and we thought about it, but I saw in (Nolan’s) eyes he was going to finish this one.”

The Red Riots’ offense was paced by Dobson, who had two hits and scored a run. Gilboy also had a run scored and an RBI. Dreifus had a critical RBI as well.

South Portland left two runners on base.

Cheverus had six hits, three of them for extra bases, but the Stags left seven runners on.

“This type of game, you have to take advantage of situations,” said Cheverus coach Tony DiBiase. “I thought we’d get three or four (runs) on the board that first inning. We had chances early, then (Hobbs) got a lot better as the game went on.

Header scored the Stags’ run, while Brian Connolly had the RBI.

Giancotti was the hard-luck loser, giving up two runs on six hits in six innings. Giancotti didn’t walk a batter but threw a pair of wild pitches. He fanned nine.

“Nick pitched great too,” said DiBiase. “They had some key hits that one inning. He got overly excited that inning. It was just that one tough stretch. Normally when you give up two runs you’re fine, but not this game.

“We’ve won a majority of one-run games and sometimes you’re going to lose. We had excellent pitching this year and the hitting came along. The kids bought into the teaching process and got better. The kids were great, the administration was great, everybody was great. It’s a good place to be. All these guys, it was their first year of varsity play, so it was a good experience. It hurts because it means so much.”

The Stags lose nine seniors, including their two aces, Clark and Giancotti, but look for this squad to be right back in the hunt in 2022.

“We lose two really good arms, but we have some really good players coming back,” DiBiase said. “It’s always going to be a tough league, but I think we’ll be very competitive again.”

Off to St. Joe’s

South Portland split with Thornton Academy during the regular season, falling at home, 2-0, and winning at home, 3-1.

The teams have played four previous times in the postseason with the Red Riots taking all four. The most recent meeting came in the 2009 Western A preliminary round, a 5-4 South Portland victory.

The Golden Trojans, who will likely pitch lefty Josh Kopetski, have never made it to a regional final, while the Red Riots will be taking part in their fourth in six seasons.

South Portland might be a year ahead of schedule, but the Red Riots believe their time is now.

“There’s nothing more I’d rather do than play in the regional final,” said Dreifus. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I had no clue about this year because I didn’t know about the younger players. I was hoping for the best and we’ve exceeded my expectations. We’re doing it for the guys last year. We had a great team last year and unfortunately they didn’t have a chance and we have a great team this year and we’re trying to win it for them.”

“Inning after inning we have to battle, execute and play our type of baseball and hopefully we’ll end up with the result we want,” Hobbs said.

“I think we’re pretty similar teams,” Owens added. “Kopetski is excellent. He’s a lot like Giancotti. He throws hard and stays down and away. We’ll see if we can go out there and make it happen one more time.”

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

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