BOX SCORE

Cape Elizabeth 41 South Portland 13

CE- 13 14 7 7- 41
SP- 0 0 6 7- 13

First quarter
CE- Laughlin 86 kickoff return (kick failed)
CE- C. Mello 33 run (Hennessey kick)

Second quarter
CE- Laughlin 10 pass from Foley (Hennessey kick)
CE- Laughlin 4 run (Hennessey kick)

Third quarter
SP- Jackson 28 run (kick failed)
CE- Laughlin 87 run (Hennessey kick)

Fourth quarter
CE- Laughlin 90 run (Hennessey kick)
SP- Healy 26 run (Demers kick)

SOUTH PORTLAND—Nick Laughlin only touched the ball 10 times Friday night.

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But he scored touchdowns on half of his touches.

And put on an unforgettable show as his Cape Elizabeth Capers took it to host South Portland in a long-awaited interclass battle at Martin Memorial Stadium.

Laughlin set the tone seconds into the game, when he returned the opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown which put the Capers ahead to stay.

Later in the first period, Cape Elizabeth took a 13-0 lead when junior Ceroi Mello scored on a 33-yard run.

Laughlin then returned to his scoring ways in the second quarter, scoring on a 10-yard rush moments after intercepting a Red Riots’ pass, then adding a 4-yard TD run to give the Capers a commanding 27-0 halftime advantage.

South Portland showed some life starting the second half, driving for a touchdown, as senior quarterback Jaelen Jackson scored from 28 yards out, but Laughlin promptly answered, with a flourish, breaking away for an 87-yard TD run, making it 34-6 after three periods.

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In the fourth quarter, on his final touch of the night, Laughlin again left the Red Riots’ defense in his wake, running 90 yards for Cape Elizabeth’s final score.

South Portland got a late 26-yard TD run from backup quarterback, Easton Healy, but the Capers closed out an emphatic 41-13 victory.

Laughlin scored five touchdowns, got the job done in all three phases, produced over 300 all-purpose yards and helped Cape Elizabeth improve to 3-1, while dropping the Red Riots to 2-2 in the process.

“It was great,” said Laughlin. “We realized we needed to come together as a family and bring the energy every day in practice. I thought this week, our scout team really brought it and forced us to get better every single day and it showed on the field.”

First time

While South Portland has been high school football royalty for decades, Cape Elizabeth quickly became a contender two decades ago under coach Aaron Filieo.

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Filieo has deeply affected both programs.

He led South Portland to the 1992 Class A state title as a player and returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach before taking over the nascent Cape Elizabeth program in 2004. Over 15 seasons, Filieo won 106 games and twice led the Capers to the state final. In 2019, Filieo returned to South Portland as the head coach, replacing Steve Stinson.

Cape Elizabeth, now coached by the highly successful Sean Green, finally reached the pinnacle a year ago, capping a sensational 10-1 campaign with a 53-6 victory over Winslow in the Class C state final.

The Capers opened the 2022 season with a 48-26 victory at Gorham. After falling at Wells in a game decided late, 28-21, Cape Elizabeth bounced back last Friday with a 34-16 home win over Falmouth.

“Wells changed everything,” Green said. “We had regressed from (the Freeport preseason scrimmage) on to Wells. We got worse every single game. We weren’t focused on our process. That Wells game flipped the switch for us.”

South Portland went 4-5 in 2021, losing to Noble in the Class B South quarterfinals.

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The Red Riots burst out of the gate this season with a 35-26 home upset win over four-time reigning state champion Marshwood, then beat host Gorham, 36-13, but their quest for their first 3-0 start in 21 years was dashed last Friday at Massabesic, 14-13.

Friday, on an extremely windy and chilly night (the temperature at kickoff was an unseasonably cold 50 degrees), the teams squared off in their first-ever countable contest and it would prove to be memorable.

Largely due to Laughlin’s heroics.

To surprise of coaches on both sidelines, the opening kickoff went to Laughlin and he made South Portland pay, as he fielded the ball at the Capers’ 14, saw some space to the right, burst through a hole, then took off down the right sideline and easily beat the pursuit for an 86-yard score.

With the game a measly 13 seconds old, Cape Elizabeth was ahead to stay.

“We were surprised they kicked it deep and we just had to capitalize,” said Laughlin. “It’s always a scoring opportunity on special teams. I ran up the middle, then went to the outside and we set our wall.”

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“We knew we’d been in an adverse environment and we’d have to set the tone early,” said Green. “I’m glad we came out strong.”

South Portland was staggered.

“Obviously, the plan was to not kick it to him, but I’ll own that,” said Filieo. “I didn’t impress enough upon our kids to really mark him and make sure he didn’t get the ball.”

Junior Tom Hennessey’s extra point attempt sailed wide left, but the Capers were up, 6-0.

The Red Riots took over at their 30 after a nice kickoff return from senior Johnny Poole and they would threaten to answer before turning the ball over at the worst possible time.

After Poole was dropped for a three-yard loss by junior Jake Leiss, Poole gained five yards and a facemask penalty was tacked on to set up second-and-3 at the 32. Jackson ran for the first time and gained two yards, then was held to no gain by senior Luke Mello, but on fourth-and-1, Jackson pushed the pile forward for two yards and a first down at the 41. Jackson then found a huge hole to his right and ran down the right sideline for 47 yards before he was pushed out at the Cape Elizabeth 12. South Portland wasn’t able to score, however, as after Leiss dropped Jackson for a two-yard loss and Jackson ran for four yards, he threw into the end zone, but was intercepted by Hennessey, who initially juggled the ball, then cradled it for the pivotal turnover.

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With 7:43 to go in the opening stanza, the Capers set up to run their first offensive play from their 20 and they began a seven-play scoring drive that would chew up two-and-a-half minutes.

Laughlin got things started with a six yard run, then junior quarterback Mike Foley moved the chains with an eight-yard burst. Ceroi Mello’s first carry resulted in an eight-yard run, then Foley picked up seven more for a first down at the 49. After Hennessey swept left and gained nine yards into Red Riots’ territory, Laughlin picked up nine more to the 33. Mello then did the rest, finding hole up the middle and leaving the defense grasping for air en route to a 33-yard score with 5:13 left in the period. Hennessey added the extra point for a 13-0 advantage.

After a squib kick, South Portland took over at its 37. A holding penalty backed the Red Riots up initially, but Jackson hit Poole for three yards, then Jackson threw on the run to senior Ben Smith for 11 before finding senior Nolan Hobbs for 10 yards and a first down at midfield. Jackson then lost a yard and sophomore Matthew Berry was dragged down for a five-yard loss. On third-and-16, Jackson threw incomplete and South Portland was forced to punt.

After the Red Riots sent a 15-yard punt out of bounds, largely to avoid Laughlin, Cape Elizabeth started at its 41 and began to march again. After being backed up by an illegal block penalty, the Capers got five yards back when the hosts jumped offsides. Ceroi Mello then ran for three yards and on the final play of the first quarter, Laughlin gained five.

The second period began with Foley keeping the ball for four yards, setting up fourth-and-4. There, senior Owen Tighe leaked free off the line and caught a Foley pass and raced 39 yards to set up first down at the South Portland 14. After Cape Elizabeth was backed up five yards by a false start, Mello ran for three yards.

Laughlin then made his lone mistake of the night, fumbling after a two-yard gain and after a discussion by the officials, the Red Riots were given possession of the ball as senior Jeremie Vate came out of the pile holding the pigskin skyward.

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Laughlin quickly atoned for his fumble.

After South Portland moved the chains, as Jackson ran for seven yards, junior Matthew Frey gained two and Jackson ran for five more to the 28, an illegal motion penalty backed the hosts up, Frey gained just three yards and after a false start penalty, Jackson threw over the middle and the pass was tipped and wound up in the hands of Laughlin, who returned the interception 20 yards to the Red Riots’ 15.

“We’ve been working on battling back from adversity and that was a way for me to get back in the game,” Laughlin said.

Three plays later, Laughlin was in the end zone again.

Foley kept the ball for four yards, then gained one and on third-and-five from the 10, Foley dropped back, hit Laughlin on a quick slant and Laughlin surged into the end zone for the 10-yard score with 5:11 to go before halftime. Hennessey added the PAT to make it 20-0.

South Portland couldn’t respond, as it went three-and-out.

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Starting at their 33, the Red Riots got a one-yard run from Frey and after a false start, Jackson ran for nine yards to set up third-and-5, where Jackson threw incomplete.

After another short punt, this one just nine yards but with a 15-yard illegal block penalty tacked on, Cape Elizabeth began at its 38 with 2:57 on the first half clock. The Capers would execute a nice end of the half drive, marching 62 yards in 11 plays and 2:40 to completely put a stranglehold on the contest.

Mello ran for two yards on first down, then Foley threw incomplete, but third-and-8, Foley threw a swing pass to Hennessey who rumbled for 25 yards and a first down at the South Portland 35. After Mello gained five yards, Foley threw incomplete, but Foley kept the ball on third-and-5 and gained six yards for a first down at the 24. After two incomplete passes, Foley scrambled and hit Tighe for 15, setting up first-and-goal at the 9. After Foley kept the ball for five yards, Laughlin did the rest, taking a snap out of the Wildcat, racing right and soaring into the end zone for a 4-yard TD with just 17.8 seconds showing. Hennessey added the extra point and Cape Elizabeth took a 27-0 lead to the half.

The Capers outgained the Red Riots, 202 yards to 85 in the first 24 minutes and didn’t let up in the second half either.

South Portland took advantage of prime field position to start the second half and get on the board.

Cape Elizabeth had received multiple personal foul penalties at the end of the first half and as a result, had to kickoff from its own 5, but Laughlin somehow managed to turn even that into a positive, as he kicked the ball over Jackson’s head. Regardless, the Red Riots began at their 45 and in six plays and 2:38 found the end zone.

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Jackson did most of the work, running for 13 yards, then six more. After Frey got the call and gained five yards for a first down at the Capers’ 31, Jackson ran for three yards and after he threw incomplete, Jackson bounced off tacklers and raced to the left pylon for a 28-yard touchdown with 9:15 remaining in the third period. Senior Brady Demers’ extra point was wide left, but South Portland was back within 27-6.

Cape Elizabeth then went backwards, as it started at its 27 before a holding penalty, a second holding penalty, an illegal block penalty and a false start set up second-and-34 from the 3. Hennessey gained 10 yards before Laughlin bailed his team out, taking a handoff from Hennessey then breaking free and easily outrunning the defense to complete a dazzling 87-yard touchdown run. Hennessey’s PAT made it 34-6 with 6:24 to go in the period.

After a touchback, South Portland started at its 20 and in a drive that consumed 9 minutes and 31 seconds, the Red Riots marched 78 yards but wound up with nothing to show for it.

Jackson ran for three yards, picked up six more, then pushed the pile forward for seven for a first down at the 36. After Frey was held to no gain, Jackson hit senior Josh Sparacio for 13 and a first down at the 49. After sandwiching incomplete passes around a six-yard run, Jackson connected with Hobbs on fourth down, as Hobbs hauled the ball in with one hand, for seven yards to the Capers’ 38. Frey was held by Foley to no gain, then ran for three yards before Jackson ran for seven yards and a first down at the 28. Jackson then gained nine more yards on the final play of the third quarter.

On the opening snap of the final stanza, Frey ran for nine yards to set up first-and-goal from the 10, but Cape Elizabeth’s defense stood tall, as sophomore Tyler Granata dropped Frey for a two-yard loss, Frey got the two yards back and after Jackson ran for six yards, he tried again, but was stopped two yards shy of the goal line, giving the Capers the ball on downs with 8:53 to play.

A five-yard Hennessey run and a three-yard pickup by Foley then set the stage for Laughlin’s final act, a 90-yard touchdown run, as he broke free to the left and again left the defense far behind.

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“I’m pretty sure it was the same play (as my last touchdown),” Laughlin said. “I found the hole and wasn’t really touched. Our line is very good. They made it happen for me.”

South Portland then brought in its second offense and it embarked on an encouraging eight-play, 71-yard scoring drive that used up 5:18.

Senior Griffin Smart got things started with a six-yard run. Frey ran for three yards, then Healy picked up one on third-and-1. After Frey ran for five yards, Smart gained seven for a first down at the Capers’ 49. Healy broke away for 20 yards and after Frey gained three, Healy did the rest with a 26-yard TD run down the right sideline, a burst culminated by a dive over the pylon. With 1:12 left, Demers added the PAT.

That proved to be it for drama, as Cape Elizabeth got the ball back and Foley twice took a knee to run out the clock and the Capers were able to celebrate their 41-13 victory.

“I’m really proud of our football team,” Green said. “We were immature coming into this season and we continue to grow. I think we took a step in the right direction tonight.”

Laughlin had a game to remember, again, returning a kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown, intercepting a pass and returning it 20 yards on defense, catching one pass for a 10-yard score and rushing seven times for 203 yards and three TDs. He also handled kickoff duties.

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“I’ve coached some absolute dudes, including some Division I guys, but Nick Laughlin is the best football player I’ve ever coached,” Green said. “He simply does it all. He kicks for us, he’s long-snapped for us in the past. He’s our free safety, he plays running back, quarterback, wide receiver, slot. He’s just one of those special football players and an even better human being. An incredible leader for our team. He does everything you can do on a football field. He comes from great lineage. His brother Matt, unfortunately, I only had him for one year, but he was an absolute dog too. Nick plays the game the right way, with purpose and intent, and I’m proud to call myself his coach.”

“Nick’s highly competitive,” Filieo said. “His brother Matt was one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever coached and Nick is quietly competitive. He does a great job reading his blocks, changing speeds, turning it on. He’s obviously tough to tackle and fast. Sean does a great job putting him positions to take it to the house.”

Foley ran 10 times (including two kneel-downs at the end), good for 39 yards. He completed 4-of-8 pass attempts for 89 yards and a touchdown.

Ceroi Mello picked up 55 yards with a TD on seven attempts.

Hennessey ran three times for 24 yards and had a reception for 25.

Tighe caught two passes for 54 yards.

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The Capers finished with 366 yards of offense, committed one turnover and were penalized an uncharacteristic 11 times for a whopping 112 yards.

“We stayed on the gas pedal in the second half,” Green said. “We dealt with some adversity with penalties tonight and we didn’t let that stop us. Our line did a great job. We returned two guys in Jake Leiss and (junior) Brendan Guthrie, who are incredible football players on both sides of the ball. Our starting center is out right now and senior Aidan Quinn has stepped up. Tyler Grenata is an absolute dog and (sophomore) Tucker Clark, a running back for us last year, is playing right guard. They’ve done a great job and they buy into the process and work their technique very well.”

Too little, too late

South Portland mustered 289 yards of offense (204 of which came in the second half), turned the ball over twice and was penalized six times for 46 yards.

Jackson ran 21 times for 168 yards and a touchdown. He completed 5-of-11 pass attempts for 44 yards with a pair of inteceptions.

Frey carried the ball 13 times for 34 yards.

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Healy, in his limited action, had 47 yards and a TD on three rushes.

Hobbs snared two receptions for 17 yards.

“The conversation at halftime was that we’re either going to get better or get worse,” Filieo said. “We challenged the guys to have a better second half. We came out and we gave more of an effort and played better. At the end of the day, it wasn’t enough. I expected this to be more competitive.”

In regards to going up against the program that he expended so much sweat, blood and tears to build up to championship status, Filieo said he was oddly unemotional about seeing Cape Elizabeth on the other side of the field Friday.

“It’s not a reunion,” Filieo said. “I didn’t have any weird, strange emotions going into the game at all and I know that’s hard for people to believe. We’ve had our hands full getting our guys squared away and that’s where my energy emotionally and mentally has been the past few weeks. I hadn’t really had time to consider any sentimental feelings.

“I think it’s good for the state to have competitive teams from other classes play up or down. We should have done it years ago. As long as we get the matchups right, it’ll be good for Maine high school football.”

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Second half

The second half of the regular season kicks off next weekend.

South Portland hopes to get back on track when it goes to 0-4 Noble Friday.

“We’re at a crossroads right now,” Filieo said. “We have a lot of soul searching to do. We have to figure out where we want to take this season. What the seniors decide to do will be their legacy. We’ll lick our wounds and get back at it and get ready for Noble next week.”

Cape Elizabeth returns home to face 1-3 Westbrook Saturday.

“We’re battling,” Laughlin said. “It’s a new team trying to find our identity. I think we just need to keep the energy up because when we celebrate our small victories, it really demoralizes the other team.”

“Right now, our focus is on Westbrook,” Green said. “They’re really good. There’s a lot of talent there. When they click, I can see them being very dangerous. The key now is to grow our maturity and keep moving it forward and keep showing up every day with the same purpose and intent and do our job.”

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

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