South Portland 3 Thornton Academy 0

SP- 100 020 0- 3 4 1
TA- 000 000 0- 0 2 1

Top 1st
Dobson scored on wild pitch.

Top 5th
O’Connell stole home. Poole singled to center, McMains scored.

SP- Dobson, McMains, O’Connell

SP- Poole

TA- Bowker, Chessie

Stolen bases:
SP- Dreifus, O’Connell

Left on base:
SP- 6
TA- 2

McMains and Dreifus; Bowker, Kopetski (7) and Graffam.

McMains (W) 7 IP 2 H 0 R 0 BB 8 K

Bowker (L) 6 IP 4 H 3 R 2 ER 4 BB 7 K 2 WP
Kopetski 1 IP 0 H 0 R 0 BB 1 K

Time: 1:27

STANDISH—An ace pitcher threw a masterpiece in Thursday evening’s Class A South baseball final, but it wasn’t Thornton Academy junior Cody Bowker dazzling from start to finish.

It was South Portland senior Bradley McMains.

And thanks to McMains’ game for the ages at the Larry Mahaney Diamond on the campus of St. Joseph’s College, the Red Riots are off to play for a state championship.

South Portland got off to a fast start against Bowker in the top of the first inning, as senior second baseman Connor Dobson reached on an error, went to third on a hit-and-run single from junior first baseman Richard Gilboy, then scored on a two-out wild pitch.

McMains allowed just one hit through four innings and in the top of the fifth, he and the Red Riots got some breathing room, as junior rightfielder Finn O’Connell stole home on a botched squeeze play and McMains came home to score on a clutch two-out RBI single from sophomore shortstop Johnny Poole.

McMains did the rest, going the distance, allowing just two hits, walking none and striking out eight, including Golden Trojans freshman shortstop Jeremiah Chessie to end it and the Red Riots prevailed, 3-0.

South Portland improved to 15-5, ended Thornton Academy’s best season to date at 16-4 and advanced to face Bangor (14-6) for the Class A state title Saturday at 1 p.m., in Standish.

“It feels amazing,” McMains said. “Unbelievable honestly. We believed in ourselves. We believe we’re better than everyone else.”

Quite a run

South Portland fell one run short of the state final, in 11-innings, back in 2019 and would have been viewed as the team to beat had their been a season in 2020. This spring, the Red Riots were a largely unknown commodity, but as been the case so often over the past decade since Mike Owens took over as coach, they wound up being one of the last teams standing.

After opening with a 5-1 win at Portland, South Portland blanked visiting Cheverus (4-0) and outlasted host Windham in nine-innings (9-6). After a 2-1 loss at Gorham, the Red Riots blanked visiting Falmouth (2-0), Deering (13-0, in five-innings) and Bonny Eagle in both ends of a doubleheader (9-0 and 10-0, in six innings). South Portland then dropped a tough 2-1, 11-inning loss at Scarborough before falling at home to Thornton Academy (2-0). The Red Riots bounced back to sweep a doubleheader at Westbrook (10-0, in six-innings, and 13-9), then beat visiting Thornton Academy, 3-1. After a 1-0 home loss to Scarborough and a 6-4 setback at Biddeford in the first game of a doubleheader, South Portland closed with a 7-3 win at Biddeford.

The Red Riots began their playoff run by holding off No. 11 Sanford, 6-5, in the Round of 16. An 11-6 quarterfinal round victory over No. 14 Bonny Eagle followed. Saturday, South Portland edged No. 7 Cheverus, 2-1, in the semifinals to reach the regional final for the fourth time in six seasons.

The Golden Trojans, meanwhile, roared out of the gates with decisive victories over Cheverus (14-4), Windham (11-1), Deering (23-0) and Biddeford (13-0). After downing Portland, 7-1, the Golden Trojans handed host Scarborough its first loss, 3-2, then fell from the ranks of the unbeaten with a 4-3 loss at Falmouth. Thornton Academy quickly bounced back, edging visiting Biddeford, 2-1, blanking host South Portland (2-0) and beating visiting Bonny Eagle in the opener of a doubleheader, 13-1 (in five-innings). The Golden Trojans lost the second game, 7-3, then, after a 7-0 shutout win over Gorham, Thornton Academy fell at South Portland, 3-1. The Golden Trojans enjoyed a 10-1 home win over Westbrook and closed with a 3-1 win at Scarborough to earn the top seed in Class A South.

Thornton Academy got a mighty scare from No. 16 Windham in the Round of 16, but survived, 1-0. The Golden Trojans then came from behind to edge No. 8 Gorham, 3-2, in the quarterfinals and held off No. 5 Falmouth, 3-1, in the semifinals to reach the regional final for the first time.

Bowker was almost unhittable in the teams’ first meeting this spring, allowing just one hit, while junior catcher Brady Graffam drove in both runs. In the second game, McMains threw a three-hitter and Dobson had an RBI double and scored a run.

The teams had met four previous times in the playoffs, with South Portland winning all of them: 8-7 in the 1996 Western A preliminary round, 8-6 in the 1999 Western A preliminary round, 5-3 in the 2000 Western A preliminary round and 5-4 in the 2009 Western A preliminary round.

The regional final was originally scheduled for Tuesday night, but the threat of bad weather moved it to Thursday, where, on a picture-perfect 74-degree evening with light winds, the Red Riots got the jump early and went on to a memorable victory.

Bowker got McMains to ground out sharply to short to start the game, but Dobson reached on a grounder to short, when Chessie threw the ball high to first. With Dobson running, Gilboy then executed a perfect hit-and-run, singling right through the spot junior second baseman Jack Cote had vacated, putting runners at the corners. Bowker appeared primed to escape when he got Poole to line to short, but Chessie didn’t look to third where he could have doubled up Dobson to end the inning. That brought up senior catcher Noah Dreifus and on his second pitch, Bowker threw the ball in the dirt and even though it didn’t get far behind Graffam, Dobson was able to race home and dive in safely ahead of Bowker’s tag for the game’s first run. Gilboy moved to second on the play, but was stranded when Dreifus grounded out to short.

“I thought we had good at-bats to start,” said Owens. “We hit the ball hard, but didn’t have a lot to show for it. That (first run) set the tone.”

In the bottom half, McMains started by getting sophomore centerfielder Henry Lausier to pop out to second, but Bowker ripped a double to the gap in left-center. McMains then got Graffam to look at strike three before inducing sophomore first baseman Brayden Williams to fly out to center, where junior Ryan Thurber made a long run to make the catch to retire the side.

Bowker settled in and retired the side in order in the top of the second, getting Thurber to watch strike three, sophomore third baseman Andrew Heffernan to ground out to short and O’Connell to pop out foul to first.

In the bottom half, Chessie grounded out to second and junior leftfielder Christian Schaffer took a 2-2 pitch for strike three. Junior rightfielder Michael McLeer then reached when Gilboy misplayed his ground ball, but McMains picked him off to end the threat.

Bowker was overpowering again in the top of the third, getting sophomore designated hitter Nolan Hobbs to pop out to first, McMains to watch a fastball on the outside corner for strike three and Dobson to ground out to third.

In the bottom of the frame, Thornton Academy could do nothing with McMains, as freshman designated hitter Pavel Tarpy bounced out to short on a bang-bang play, Cote fanned on an off-speed pitch and Lausier hit a line drive off the pitcher with McMains recovering and getting to the ball and while his throw was in the dirt, Gilboy scooped it to retire the side.

South Portland threatened to add to its lead in the top of the fourth, as after Gilboy flew out to center and Poole watched strike three, Bowker’s string of 10 consecutive batters retired ended when he walked Dreifus on a 3-2 pitch. Dreifus then stole second and Thurber also walked on a 3-2 pitch, but Bowker struck out Heffernan swinging to keep the score 1-0.

Bowker flew out to center on the first pitch of the bottom half, then Graffam gave the Red Riots a scare by crushing the ball deep to left, but senior leftfielder Frank Tierney made the catch for the out right in front of the wall.

“I was just hoping it fell down (short of the fence),” McMains said. “My leftfielder did a great job tracking it down on the warning track.”

Williams then popped the ball foul down the line behind first where Gilboy made a nice running snag to end the quick half-inning.

South Portland then added to its lead in the top of the fifth.

On the first pitch, O’Connell grounded a single to center.

“The first time we faced (Bowker) we were in a bit of a slump, but tonight, we stayed true to our approach,” O’Connell said. “We put balls in play and when you put the ball in play, good things happen.”

O’Connell moved to second on a wild pitch and took third on a sacrifice bunt from Hobbs. With McMains at the plate, O’Connell broke for home on a squeeze play, but McMains never had a chance to lay down a bunt, as the ball was low and bounced behind Graffam. O’Connell kept running, however, and scored just ahead of Graffam’s lunge for a 2-0 lead.

“It was a squeeze, but he dropped it and I just came home and started up the rally,” O’Connell said.

The Red Riots weren’t done, as McMains chopped a single over the head of junior third baseman John Rohner, then took second on a sacrifice bunt from Dobson. Gilboy was walked intentionally and Poole followed with a line single to center and McMains raced home with an insurance run.

“We just grind it out,” Poole said. “We’ve been working on getting our hands right and being quick to the ball. We felt good up at bat. I was just trying to do whatever I could to get on and get him in. We needed that run.”

“We’ve been working in practice cutting down on our swings and putting the ball in play with a lot of velocity,” Owens said. “You can’t score runs in bunches against a pitcher like (Bowker), but we got those two extra runs and that was huge with the way Bradley was pitching.”

Dreifus walked to load the bases and Thurber had a chance to break it open, but Bowker struck him out on three pitches to keep the score 3-0.

In the bottom of the fifth, the Golden Trojans got a leadoff double from Chessie down the rightfield line, but he couldn’t score. Schaffer looked at strike three and after McLeer grounded out to first, with Chessie moving to third, Tarpy popped out to second.

Bowker got through the top of the sixth quickly, striking out Heffernan swinging and O’Connell looking before getting Hobbs to ground to third on a 3-2 pitch.

In the bottom half, McMains didn’t let Thornton Academy get a whiff of life, then battling back from a 3-1 count to catch Cote looking at strike three, getting Lausier to ground to short, where Poole, making his first varsity start of the season at that position, made a terrific throw on a bang-bang play.

“There were a few nerves at the beginning, but once I got into it, it came to me,” Poole said.

“Johnny was great,” Owens said. “That was his first day playing shortstop. He’s been excellent at third base. It was good to see that move come to fruition.”

McMains then fanned Bowker to end the frame.

Sophomore Josh Kopetski came on to pitch the top of the seventh and retired McMains on a fly ball to center, Dobson on a grounder to third and Gilboy on a called third strike.

McMains then finished if off in the bottom half.

Graffam led off with a grounder to short and a strong throw from Poole was just in time for the out. The Golden Trojans argued Gilboy was pulled off the bag, but the out stood. McMains then caught Williams looking at strike three and on his 80th pitch of the night, at 7:59 p.m., McMains blew strike three past Chessie to give South Portland a 3-0 victory in a tidy 1-hour, 27-minutes.

“I wanted to finish it myself,” McMains said. “That last strike was amazing. I hugged Noah Dreifus, my best friend. We’re so happy. I heard that Bowker was going to throw after he couldn’t go Tuesday, but that didn’t affect us. We controlled what we can control and we did what we needed to do.  These young kids are legit. They’re really good players. They made it to the championship in Little League, one game away from the World Series, and I believe in them.”

“It feels amazing,” O’Connell said. “We’re resilient. We went out there with a lot of confidence. We just believed with our ace on the mound, we’d go out there and get the job done. We fight until the last out.”

“My first year of high school baseball and coming out here and winning (a regional title) is unbelievable,” Poole said.

“It feels so good,” Owens added. “These kids work so hard and they make coming to practice fun. They were there before me every day. I’m excited for them and for last year’s group that’s been texting me. We saw something special in these guys early, but I didn’t know if we’d put it together and if we had the top-end pitching. We made every play we could on defense and got just enough offensively. Our goal coming in, after (Bowker) struck us out 12 times last time, was to cut that in half, put the ball in play and see if we could make something happen.”

McMains was superb, allowing just two hits, picking off the only other base runner who reached and facing only two batters over the minimum. He didn’t walk a single hitter and struck out eight.

“I love pitching here,” said McMains. “I felt good the whole way. My slider was there the whole game. I just had to stay composed and put up zeroes the whole time.”

“Bradley was as good as I’ve ever seen on this stage,” Owens said. “He threw both pitches for strikes at will. I just didn’t know if he’d be able to finish it.”

Thornton Academy tipped its cap to McMains as well.

“We faced him earlier in the year and he’s tough,” said Golden Trojans coach Jason Lariviere. “He’s tough because he throws his curveball and slider so much and he can throw them for strikes and locate it. He kept our hitters off balance. They were frustrated. He got calls and was pounding the zone. He’s a very tough pitcher. He goes on momentum too. For them to score a run early gave him a lot of confidence and he threw very well.”

Offensively, the Red Riots managed only four hits, but Dobson, McMains and O’Connell all scored runs and Poole had the huge RBI.

South Portland stranded six runners.

Thornton Academy only managed two hits and left two runners on.

Bowker suffered his first loss in nine outings this spring. He gave up four hits and three runs (two earned) in six innings. Bowker walked four and fanned seven.

“Cody was 8-0 coming into this and only allowed one earned run in his eight other starts,” Lariviere said. “A couple pitches got away tonight, but to me, he’s one of the top pitchers in the state.”

Kopetski pitched a clean inning of relief, striking out one.

“(South Portland) took chances and got some big hits,” Lariviere said. “Hitting’s tough in this league in the playoffs. Playoff baseball is about a couple plays here and there. Every play matters. That’s the difference between winning and losing. You think about that first run they manufactured, the ball didn’t go two feet from my catcher. Brady had a hard time finding it and sometimes that happens.”

Despite the disappointment over Thursday’s result, Thornton Academy got to the regional final for the first time and has planted the seeds for consistent greatness going forward.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Lariviere said. “We had to face (Brady) Afthim and Windham, then we beat Gorham in a walkoff, then we had to beat (multi-time champion coach) Mike D’Andrea and Falmouth. To come this far, I’m really happy with how the kids responded.

“We don’t start any seniors. We have a lot of juniors and sophomores. Hopefully, we’ll be here in years to come. It’s good that they got a taste of this because we’ve never been here before. I’m proud of each and every one them. We’re very proud of this run.”

An elusive title beckons

South Portland met Bangor in the 2015 Class A state final and dropped a close 5-4 decision.

The Red Riots (who lost to Cony in the 1991 state  game) are hoping their third trip to the state final in the playoff era is the charm and that they can win a championship for the first time since 1952.

“We just need to come into Saturday the same way and stay composed with energy,” McMains said. “Winning a title would be insane.”

“We’re going to have a really good practice tomorrow, then we’ll come back out here with the same energy and mentality on Saturday and stick with our approach,” O’Connell said.

“Playing Bangor again is fitting,” Owens added. “I don’t know much about them other than that they’re always well-coached and they’re a really good program. We have to put the ball in play, throw strikes and play good defense. Hopefully we can find a few holes. We’re aggressive on the basepaths. We’ll keep doing our thing and hopefully that’s enough at the end. I’d imagine both Nolan and Andrew will throw at some point.

“We’ve been in the hunt. We’ve built a program that’s in contention every year. In a single elimination tournament, you have to give yourself a chance and if we keep getting here, we’ll kick that door open. It would be huge for the city and our program, but getting to states is something special. Giving ourselves a chance to win a championship is all we can ask for.”

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

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