(Editor’s note: For the complete South Portland-Thornton Academy game story, see pressherald.com/forecaster-sports/.)

If you’re going to wait nearly seven decades to win a baseball state championship, you might as well win one in heart-stoppingly dramatic fashion.

Last week, South Portland’s baseball team, a squad that was considered either one year too late or one year too early to win a title, capped a breathtaking playoff run with a pair of inspirational victories to finish atop the Class A heap for the first time since 1952, when Harry Truman was still in the White House, war raged in Korea and “High Noon” was the can’t-miss film.

The Red Riots, who suffered a gut-wrenching one-run, 11-inning loss to eventual champion Scarborough in the 2019 Class A South Final, then, with a loaded team primed to win it all, never got to play a single game or enjoy a single practice due to COVID in 2020, were viewed as talented, but perhaps too young when this season began.

Wrong.

South Portland went 11-5 in the regular season, losing three times by one run and twice by two runs.

The Red Riots were ranked just sixth when the playoffs started, but they would save their best for last.

After holding off No. 11 Sanford, 6-5, in the Round of 16, South Portland out-slugged No. 14 Bonny Eagle, 11-6, in the quarterfinals. Next was seventh-seeded Cheverus in the semifinals where, behind a strong effort from sophomore hurler Nolan Hobbs, the Red Riots eked out a 2-1 victory.

Last Tuesday, South Portland was due to meet No. 1 Thornton Academy in the regional final at St. Joseph’s College in Standish, but the threat of bad weather moved that game to Thursday, where the Red Riots, behind senior Bradley McMains, some aggressive baserunning and a few timely hits, did enough to advance.

South Portland had to face Golden Trojans ace Cody Bowker, who threw a one-hitter in a 2-0 victory at the Red Riots last month, but South Portland got off to a fast start against 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 sophomore first baseman Richard Gilboy, then scored on a two-out wild pitch.

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

South Portland senior Bradley McMains was dominant in last week’s Class A South Final, allowing just two hits in a shutout effort. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

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.

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

McMains then came home to score on a clutch two-out RBI single from sophomore shortstop Johnny Poole for a 3-0 lead.

“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.”

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

“It feels amazing,” McMains said. “Unbelievable honestly. We believed in ourselves. We believe we’re better than everyone else. I wanted to finish it myself. That last strike was amazing. I hugged (senior catcher) Noah Dreifus, my best friend. We’re so happy.”

“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.”

The final step

That left one mighty hurdle, Bangor, champions every year from 2014 through 2018, in the Class A state game Saturday in Standish.

Bangor had beaten South Portland, 5-4, in the 2015 state final, but this time, the Red Riots would get it done and end their long, long title drought.

After Hobbs set the Rams down in the top of the first, South Portland again got the jump in the bottom half, as McMains singled, Dobson sacrificed him to second and Gilboy doubled to deep centerfield for a 1-0 lead.

It wouldn’t be Gilboy’s last RBI either.

Leftfielder Ryan Thurber then came up huge in the top of the second, throwing the potential tying run out at the plate.

Bangor did pull even on a wild pitch in the fourth, but in the bottom half, Thurber doubled with two down, moved to third on a wild pitch, then scored when sophomore Andrew Heffernan hit a clutch RBI single to center.

But the Red Riots couldn’t hold it, as the Rams tied the score, but South Portland escaped further damage in dramatic fashion.

Bangor had runners on second and third with one out when Hobbs struck out Matt Holmes, but the third strike squirted away from Dreifus. Dreifus quickly picked the ball up and threw Holmes out at first. Ben Caron broke for home and was thrown out by Gilboy, with Hobbs slapping down the tag.

“That was the big one,” Owens said. “They had all the momentum at that time and we just held the door.”

Heffernan relieved Hobbs to start the sixth and held the Rams to one hit over the final two innings.

That set the stage for a bottom of the seventh inning that no Red Riots fan will ever forget.

With one out, Frank Tierney, who had only three at-bats all season, bunted down the third-base line and reached when the throw to first was wide. McMains followed with a double.

After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Gilboy stepped up. He worked the count full, then watched the last pitch go wide, giving South Portland a 3-2 victory and a final record of 16-5.

“The last pitch, I saw it going a little outside,” Gilboy said. “I thought it might get called a strike, but I saw it drop down and I knew it was over.”

South Portland celebrates its walk-off win over Bangor in the Class A state final Saturday. Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald

As he walked down the third-base line toward home plate and history, Tierney thought only of his teammates and fans.

“It’s something special,” Tierney said. “It’s for the team, it’s for the town, it’s for everybody that represents South Portland.”

“We embrace these close games,” said Heffernan, who had two hits and was the winning pitcher in relief. “We do really good under pressure.”

Owens felt everything came together at the right time.

“I feel like we’ve been so close so many times,” Owens said. “It feels good to finally kick that door open. This is so special for our community that has supported us all the way through. I’m almost speechless.

“They’re all special, but when you can get that first one and it’s been so long, it’s extra special.”

McMains was standing just off second base when the game ended. He looked over at Owens, who was in the third base coaching box.

“I was just looking at Owens and he threw his helmet in the air and I don’t even know, I broke in tears,” McMains said.

The crying continued all around McMains, among his teammates and adults in the stands surrounding the field and the celebration continued when the team was escorted by police and fire trucks back to the school’s Martin Memorial Field for a long-overdue celebration before a couple of hundred fans.

Athletic director/one-time Red Riots star Todd Livingston, Owens and several players spoke.

“I’ve heard from so many different people and other coaches and former players and community members,” Owens said. “I can’t believe how big of a deal this is for everyone else. For our staff and players, it was so special, but it’s so much bigger how important this was to former players and parents of former players. Just to hear how happy they were that we finally broke through. What a big deal it was. It was always big to us, but we don’t always realize how big it is outside of our little bubble.”

“We’ve had a lot of great coaches here, a lot of teams who came close, but we did it,” Livingston said. “We finally did it and any time a team can win like that for the community, it’s special. We were there for a while. People wanted to take a lot of pictures.”

All that’s left, said Livington, is to find an appropriate space for the new trophy in the school’s trophy case.

“I’m sure we’ll make a good spot for it,” he said. “It’ll be the shiniest one we have.”

More to come?

Don’t expect the next South Portland championship to have to wait until 2090. While some key contributors are graduating, the nucleus of this squad is young and accomplished.

Gilboy, Heffernan, Hobbs and Poole, the four starting sophomores, have already played in four state championship games if you count Little League, Babe Ruth and high school.

The Red Riots have established themselves as consistent winners under Owens and more greatness awaits.

Like 2021, next year’s team might just be right on time as well.

Press Herald staff writer Mike Lowe contributed to this story.

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

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