SACO—Portland’s football team didn’t exactly get eased back into playing at the Class A level.

The Bulldogs, with a new coaching staff and a lot of new faces in new places, faced the daunting task of traveling to Hill Stadium Friday evening to take on powerhouse Thornton Academy.

But Portland went out and made a powerful statement.

Beating the Golden Trojans in an unforgettable season opener in front of a huge crowd.

And the best is yet to come.

The Bulldogs appeared to set the tone when senior standout Reegan Buck returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, but a penalty negated it.


Undaunted, Portland drove the field for the game’s first score and took a 7-0 lead on a 30-yard touchdown scamper by junior quarterback Louis Thurston.

The lead lasted all of 13 seconds, as Thornton Academy junior Ryan Camire returned the ensuing kickoff 82 yards to paydirt to forge a 7-7 tie which would last into the second period.

There, the Bulldogs went on top again, as junior Aidan McGown scored on a 48-yard run, but TD runs from senior Harry Bunce (1-yard) and sophomore Connor Ayoob (5-yards) put the deep and talented Golden Trojans in front, 21-14, at the half.

A fumble early in the third quarter turned momentum and two Buck touchdown runs, from 1-yard and from 10-yards out, allowed Portland to take a 28-21 advantage to the final stanza.

There, Thornton Academy drew even on a 2-yard TD pass from junior quarterback Wyatt Benoit to senior Xander Cantara, but with under a minute to go, the Bulldogs struck last, as Thurston hit Buck on a 31-yard scoring pass.

The Golden Trojans drove into Portland territory, looking to tie, but a sack from junior Colin Kelly slammed the door and the Bulldogs were able to prevail, 35-28, and open the season in dreamlike fashion.


Portland beat Thornton Academy for the first time in 16 years and served notice that it might be new to Class A, but that it expects to make a deep run regardless.

“We believe we will win every football game,” said Sean Green, the Bulldogs’ first-year coach. “We won’t think differently. Nobody picked us, but we thought we could do it. The only people that matter is us, our Portland football family. We’ll always be ready on Friday nights.”

First step’s a doozy

Portland rebounded from a 1-3 start a year ago to win Class B South and give Skowhegan a scare in the state final before falling just short, 20-14, to wind up 7-4.

The Bulldogs graduated Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist Kennedy Charles and several other top players, then returned to Class A, where they’ve resided most of their history, and this fall, under Green, who replaced Jason McLeod, expect to be a top contender.

Thornton Academy, meanwhile, has been the state’s gold standard for the better part of a decade.


The Golden Trojans reached the Class A state game in 2022, but lost to Oxford Hills, 21-7, to finish 8-3.

Portland and Thornton Academy hadn’t played in a countable game since the Golden Trojans beat the Bulldogs, 49-14, to win the 2018 Class A state title (Thornton Academy also downed Portland, 24-14, in the 2015 state final) and hadn’t met in the regular season since Oct. 6, 2011 (a 14-12 Golden Trojans’ victory in Portland).

Friday, the Bulldogs made their first trip to Hill Stadium since Sept. 3, 2005 (a 42-14 win) and sought their first victory over Thornton Academy anywhere since Sept. 1, 2006 (26-20 at Fitzpatrick Stadium).

Nothing came easily, but prevail is exactly what Portland managed to do.

With an announced paid crowd of 1,275 on hand on a beautiful Friday evening under the lights (67 degrees at the start), Buck silenced the fans when he took the opening kickoff at the 10 yard line, found a seam to the left, then took off and left the pursuit in his wake en route to an apparent 90-yard touchdown return.

But behind the play, much to the chagrin of the Bulldogs sideline, a penalty flag was thrown for an illegal block and instead of a lead in the game’s first 13 seconds, Portland took over at its 38.


And in a promising initial sign, the Bulldogs shook off the disappointment of the penalty and marched 62 yards in eight plays and 3 minutes, 7 seconds to break the ice.

McGowan lost two yards on the first play from scrimmage, then he was held to no gain, but on third-and-12, Thurston, who missed much of the 2022 season due to injury, rolled left and fired a strike to Buck on the sideline, good for 27 yards and a first down at the Thornton Academy 37.

After sophomore Cordell Jones, a transfer from Gorham, ran for two yards, Buck moved the chains with a 10-yard burst to the 25, but Thurston threw incomplete, Portland moved early, costing it five yards, then Thurston threw incomplete again, setting up third-and-15 from the 30.

Thurston then took off to the left, found some running room and rumbled into the end zone to put the Bulldogs ahead with 8:40 to go in the first quarter. Freshman Justin Bouchard booted the extra point to make it 7-0.

Portland’s Era of Good Feelings lasted all of 13 seconds, as Camire collected the ensuing kickoff at his 18 and brought it back 82 yards for a touchdown. Senior J.P. Baez added the extra point and just like that, the game was deadlocked, 7-7.

The Bulldogs’ second possession began at their 36 and they started to drive again, as McGowan gained six yards and Jones rumbled for 14 and a first down at the Golden Trojans’ 44. After an illegal motion penalty cost Portland five yards, Buck gained two, but on the next play, Thurston appeared to hit junior tight end Brody Viola with a pass, but the ball went through Viola’s hands and was deflected by a defender before being intercepted by junior Carter Lucca at Thornton Academy’s 35.


The Golden Trojans’ first play on offense resulted in a five-yard run by Benoit. Ayoob then ran for three and on third-and-2, burst free down the left side for 22 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 35. Ayoob gained nine more yards, then was held to no gain by Portland junior Lisandro Rodrigues. After Thornton Academy moved early, the Bulldogs jumped offsides, but on third-and-1, Bunce was held to no gain. On fourth down, Viola stuffed senior Hunter Boudreau for a one-yard loss and Portland got the ball back on downs at its 27 with 3:02 to go in the opening period.

In a drive that consumed six plays, 3:13 and ran out the first quarter clock and took the game into the second period, the Bulldogs drove 73 yards to retake the lead.

Senior Hunter Temple got things started with a four-yard run, then McGowan picked up 13 for a first down at the 44. After Buck gained two yards, McGowan picked up four, but an illegal procedure penalty set up third-and-9. On the final play of the quarter, Jones gained two yards.

Portland faced a fourth-and-7 from its 47 when the second period commenced, but Thurston managed to draw the Golden Trojans offside and on the next play, fourth-and-2, McGowan got the call, found room on the left, then broke two tackles before breaking free for a 48-yard touchdown run. Bouchard added the PAT and with 11:49 to go in the half, the Bulldogs had a 14-7 advantage.

Thornton Academy promptly answered with an eight-play, 63 yard drive, which required only 2:11 of game action, to pull even again.

Starting from their 37, the Golden Trojans appeared to get a huge play on first down, as Cantara broke away for a 53-yard reception, but on the play, a hold was called and the ball was moved back to the Portland 49. After Ayoob was held to two yards and junior Evan Hill caught a pass for no yards, Benoit connected with junior Jackson Paradis for 18 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 29. After Benoit threw incomplete, Benoit kept the ball and scampered 23 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 6. Ayoob gained five yards to put the ball at the 1, then with 9:32 to go in the half, Bunce capped the march with a 1-yard burst to the right side. Baez’s extra point tied the score, 14-14.


Portland couldn’t answer, despite starting from its 43.

After Buck ran for two yards, McGowan gained 13, but Buck was held to a yard, Camire dropped Thurston for a three-yard loss and after another illegal motion penalty, Thurston threw incomplete, necessitating a punt. Buck went back to do the honors, but the snap was well over his head. Buck managed to run the ball down, but his desperation punt wound up going out of bounds at the Bulldogs’ 46 for a loss of five yards.

Thornton Academy quickly took advantage, needing seven plays and 2:47 to take the lead for the first time.

Sophomore Mauricio Sunderland came into the game and immediately ran for 24 yards to the 22. After Sunderland gained two more yards and Benoit ran for three, Sunderland picked up seven to set up first-and-goal from the 10. Sunderland ran for three yards and Ayoob picked two before Ayoob capped the drive with a five-yard TD run up the gut with 4:47 to go in the half. Baez added the PAT for a 21-14 Golden Trojans’ edge.

Portland got the ball back at its 35 and hoped to answer, but after McGowan lost a yard, Thurston ran for three yards and McGowan moved the chains with a 14-yard reception, Jones gained five yards, Buck lost two, McGowan ran for one and on fourth-and-6, Viola couldn’t come up with a completion, turning the ball over on downs.

The Golden Trojans had a golden opportunity to add to their lead when they took over at their 45 with 1:43 to work with, but they couldn’t get separation.


After Benoit ran for two yards and Ayoob gained one, Paradis made a nice diving catch for eight yards for a first down at the Bulldogs’ 46. That’s as far as Thornton Academy would drive, however, as Benoit threw incomplete, McGowan broke up a long pass, then Benoit threw incomplete again, inducing a punt.

Portland took over at its 8 with just 26 seconds remaining and wisely took a knee to send the game to the break.

The Bulldogs enjoyed a 175-156 edge in yardage in the first 24 minutes, but were down on the scoreboard.

That would change in the third period.

The Golden Trojans got the ball first in the second half, starting from their 35, but after senior Isaak Alkafaji dropped Paradis for a two-yard loss, Paradis caught a short pass from Benoit, but fumbled and Viola recovered for Portland at the Thornton Academy 32.

Nine plays and 3:58 later, the Bulldogs drew even.


Thurston threw incomplete on first down, then McGowan was held to no gain, but on third-and-10, Buck ran for nine yards, then Thurston converted a quarterback sneak for three more and a first down at the 20. Buck then took a direct snap and nearly broke it, being tackled at the 3, but only after a 17 yard gain. Portland couldn’t score on first-and-goal, as Buck only gained a yard. On second down, Thurston pushed forward to the 1. Thurston was then held to no gain, setting up a critical fourth down. Buck wouldn’t be denied, however, scoring on a 1-yard run to the right.

“I was putting my head down and pushing straight,” said Buck. “I was getting in there no matter what.”

With 7:13 left in the quarter, Bouchard’s extra point tied the score for the third time, 21-21.

The Bulldogs’ defense kept momentum, as Benoit lost two yards, Ayoob got one back, as Buck made a nice tackle, then on third-and-11, McGowan batted down Benoit’s pass to force a punt.

With 5:37 to go in the frame, Portland got the ball back at its 15 and it would march 85 yards in seven plays and 3:49 to retake the lead.

The drive began inauspiciously, as Buck lost five yards on a bad exchange, but on the next snap, McGowan got the ball, turned the corner along the right sideline and raced 51 yards, all the way to the Thornton Academy 39. After Buck ran for five yards and Camire dropped McGowan for a two-yard loss, Buck got free along the left sideline and nearly scored, but he was brought down at the 12. McGowan ran for two yards, then with 1:48 to go in the frame, Buck took a handoff, ran left, hesitated, then found another gear, accelerating through the defense to paydirt for the score. Bouchard added the PAT for a 28-21 Bulldogs’ lead.


The Golden Trojans would answer in a drive that spanned the end of the third period and the start of the fourth, marching 45 yards in nine plays and 3:11.

After Camire returned the ensuing kickoff to Portland’s 45, Sunderland spun and burst 22 yards for a first down. Sunderland ran for four yards and Benoit moved the chains with a six-yard carry. After Sunderland ran for two yards, Alkafaji held him to no gain on the final play of the quarter, but an offsides penalty, followed by a facemask doomed the Bulldogs and set up a first-and-goal for Thornton Academy at the 3. After Bunce ran for two yards, Kelly dropped him for a one-yard loss, but on third-and-goal from the 2, Benoit launched a pass to an open Cantara running left into the end zone for the score and with 10:30 left in regulation, Baez’s extra point tied the score, 28-28.

Starting from its 34, Portland couldn’t answer, as after McGowan was dropped for a three-yard loss by Bunce and Camire held Buck to one yard, Thurston’s throw over the middle was intercepted by senior Brady Kezal, who returned the ball to the Bulldogs’ 41.

With 8:40 to go, the Golden Trojans appeared in great position to go on top and when Benoit and Paradis hooked up on a 27-yard pass play, the hosts had a first down at the 14. Benoit then ran left and appeared to have nothing but green turf between himself and the end zone, but a terrific ankle tackle by senior Myles Hang saved the score and allowed a gain of just two yards. After Sunderland ran six yards to the 6, Sunderland fumbled but sophomore Jacob Fish recovered back at the 9. That forced Thornton Academy coach Kevin Kezal to make a decision and he opted to attempt a field goal. Baez came on to try and put his team on top, but after a low snap, he kicked the ball just wide of the right upright.

With 6:13 left, Portland got the ball back at its 20 and embarked on a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ate up 5:25 and featured some dazzling and clutch plays.

Buck ran for three yards on first down, but McGowan was dropped for a two-yard loss by Boudreau. On third-and-9, desperately hoping to move the chains, Thurston went back to Viola and this time, the pair connected for a huge 26-yard pass play to the 47. Temple then made a nice move and ran for 10 yards and a first down at the Golden Trojans’ 43. Buck ran for four yards and McGowan gained nine for a first down at the 30. A holding penalty backed the Bulldogs up 10 yards and after McGowan ran for four yards, then gained five, Portland faced third-and-11 at the 31.


In other words, the Bulldogs had the Golden Trojans right where they wanted them.

Thurston dropped back to pass, Buck exploded down the field and Thurston launched a pass down the right sideline toward the front pylon of the end zone.

Buck easily beat the defense. The only question was would he catch the ball cleanly, inbounds, and score.

The answer was yes, yes and yes.

Buck cradled the ball just before the goal line, snuck inside the pylon and with just 48.8 seconds to go, Portland finally had the lead for good.

“We’ve been working on that play all week,” said Buck. “I just cut up the seam. It was scary the way the ball was floating there. Catching the ball on a straight line, you don’t have time to think, but that one was up there. I had to get my foot down too. I saw the ref running up and as soon as I saw (him signal touchdown), it was just pure excitement.”


“We liked the structure of that specific play and we liked the matchup,” Green said. “Fortunately, our O-line protected. We sold the action really well. Louis delivered a perfect ball and Reegan brought it home and toe-tapped for the touchdown.”

Bouchard added the critical extra point to make it 35-28.

“Justin Bouchard, a freshman kicker who we named last night, went 5-for-5 tonight on PATs,” said Green.

Thornton Academy had time to answer and either win the game outright or send it to overtime and after Paradis returned the ensuing kickoff to the 36, Benoit found Cantara for 23 yards, as Buck nearly intercepted the ball, but instead, a big play resulted.

“Respect to the receiver,” Buck said. “My hand was right on the ball.”

Cantara caught another pass for five yards to the 36 and the Golden Trojans called timeout with 23.4 seconds showing.


After an incomplete pass, Benoit was off target again and Thornton Academy called timeout again with 13.8 seconds left.

The Golden Trojans had one last chance to stay alive, but after a false start penalty made it fourth-and-10, Benoit was under pressure almost immediately from Kelly, who sacked him, with some help from Rodrigues, to essentially end the contest.

“I read it like a book,” Kelly said. “I knew what was coming. It felt good.”

“That’s how we’ve been since I’ve been here,” said Buck. “We’re so confident in our defense and that we can shut teams down.”

All that was left was for Thurston to take a knee and at 9:32 p.m., the final horn sounded and Portland celebrated its biggest regular season win in years, 35-28.

It’s celebration time, as Portland pulls off the upset at Thornton Academy. Hoffer photo.

“This means everything,” Buck said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we knew we were capable. No better feeling. This is amazing. We’re from Portland. We know how to be resilient. We’re tough kids from the city. We kept pushing until the clock showed zero.


“This started so long ago. We were waking up at 5 in the morning, getting in the weight room. We had a different type of energy. Our chemistry is unmatched. I knew what we returned. We all trust each other to do our part. We don’t worry about anyone else. We know we’ll get it done.”

“This was our game and we deserved it,” Kelly said. “People have been sleeping on us. We’ve been putting in the work all summer. We’re smart. We did it the right way.”

“It was a lot of fun,” added Green, who was congratulated after the victory by both McLeod and former longtime Bulldogs coach Mike Bailey. “This is why I coach. (Thornton Academy’s) obviously a great football team. Really well-coached. A lot of great players. They play with heart and speed. Our guys just believed. You believe, trust and love one another and special things can happen. I don’t want to talk too much about the past, but as a staff, we’ve coached in a lot of big games. Regardless of classification, football is football at the end of the day. You have to prepare. Kids have to believe and trust in the process and they have to go out there and execute on Friday nights. This team will never be a team that’s out of a game. They’ll always believe in themselves, their brothers, their coaching staff and the Portland community.”

The Bulldogs finished with 367 yards of offense.

Buck ran 17 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns and had the biggest catch of the night, a 31-yard scoring reception. He finished with two catches for 58 yards.

“I got hurt in the state game last year, so being back on the field means so much to me,” Buck said. “Losing the state game last year, we’ve used that as motivation.”


McGowan ran well, gaining 146 yards and scoring a TD on 18 carries. He also caught a pass for 14 yards.

Jones ran for 23 yards on four carries in limited action.

Thurston completed just 4-of-12 passes, but they went for 98 yards and a TD. He was intercepted twice. Thurston also ran for 31 yards on seven carries.

Temple gained 14 yards on two rushes.

Viola caught one monster pass for 26 yards.

Portland was flagged five different times for procedure penalties and took a huge penalty on the opening kickoff, but persevered.


“We made a lot of mistakes,” Green said. “It wasn’t our best game by any means. We were consistently behind the sticks. Second-and-long, third-and-long, but we trusted the process. We made our blocks. Defense made big stops. It’s the little things. 11-as-1. It takes everybody and that’s what we did tonight. We talk about having resilience in the face of adversity, that it breeds opportunity. The guys continued to live for the next down and being present on every down.”

Thornton Academy finished with 243 yards of offense, but it wasn’t enough.

Benoit completed 9-of-15 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown and ran seven times for 39 yards.

Ayoob had 50 yards and a score on 10 carries.

Sunderland gained 70 yards on nine attempts.

Bunce also had a rushing TD.


Cantara had four receptions for 44 yards and a score.

Paradis also caught four balls, good for 53 yards.

Just getting going

Thornton Academy hopes to bounce back when it gets an opportunity to earn a measure of revenge for last year’s state final loss, when it travels to Oxford Hills (1-0) next Friday.

Portland, meanwhile, plays its home opener Friday, versus 0-1 Edward Little.

The Bulldogs look to avoid a letdown after such a seismic victory.

“We can be happy about this tonight, but tomorrow, we’re on to the next team and we’ll have to redial it in,” said Buck.

“Don’t sleep on us,” said Kelly. “We think we can be the best team in the state. We have to stay strong and stay smart and work hard and that’s all that matters.”

“Nobody thinks we’re much of anything, but we have a lot of coming back,” Green added. “We lost some great players, but we have dudes everywhere. On the line, special teams, skill positions, the secondary. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and continue to spread the wealth.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at

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