PORTLAND—You play how you practice and Portland’s football team demonstrated that Monday evening in a Class A North semifinal against Lewiston at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

The top-ranked Bulldogs did not practice well for the first part of last week and that was borne out in the game’s first 21 minutes, when they didn’t score a point against the determined fourth-seeded Blue Devils.

But Portland closed its practice week strong and sure enough, also came to life Monday, scoring 20 unanswered points before halftime to pull away.

With just over three minutes left in the second quarter and the game scoreless, Bulldogs senior Isaak Alkafaji blocked a punt and junior Aidan McGowan promptly put Portland on top to stay with a 6-yard touchdown run. After an interception, the Bulldogs doubled their lead on a 12-yard scamper from senior Hunter Temple. Portland then got the ball back with just 21 seconds to go before the break and only needed nine of them, as McGowan caught a beautifully thrown 51-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Louis Thurston to make it 20-0.

Sophomore Cordell Jones (3-yards) and Temple (1-yard) added TD runs in the third period and while Lewiston broke through in the game’s waning moments, the Bulldogs went on to prevail, 32-8.

Portland improved to 9-0, ended Lewiston’s season at 4-6 and advanced to host No. 2 Oxford Hills (8-2), the reigning state champion, in the Class A North Final Saturday at 7 p.m.


“This game was a lot like our practice week,” said Bulldogs first-year coach Sean Green. “The first half of the week was God-awful. We had some talks and learned a lot about who we are. We talked a lot about ego and tempering it. The lack of discipline and focus in the beginning of the week really showed in the beginning of the game. Then, we had phenomenal practices. We might have had our best one of the year yesterday and as the game goes along, we started playing our brand of football.”

All A’s

Portland got to the Class B South Final in 2021, losing to eventual champion Marshwood, and won the region a year ago, falling to Skowhegan in a closely contested state game, 20-14.

This year, the Bulldogs returned to Class A and did so resoundingly, opening with a palpitating 35-28 victory at perennial powerhouse Thornton Academy, then running the table (see sidebar for links to previous stories), closing with last Tuesday’s 34-6 home win over rival South Portland in the “Battle of the Bridge.” Portland won its seven regular games by an average score of 39-9 and also had a forfeit victory over Falmouth.

Lewiston, meanwhile, had to battle until the regular season’s final day to punch its playoff ticket, which it did so last Wednesday with an emotional 34-18 victory over Edward Little, which came on the heels of a mass shooting in the city Oct. 25.

On Sept. 15, the Bulldogs rolled at Lewiston, 47-6, as Portland opened up a 34-6 halftime lead and went on to victory behind two touchdown runs from McGowan and a pair of scores from senior Reegan Buck (who broke his collarbone two weeks later against Windham and has been sidelined since).


The Bulldogs had won two of the three previous playoff meetings (see sidebar), with a 27-13 victory in the 2017 semifinals the most recent.

Monday, on a chilly evening (43 degrees at kickoff), the Blue Devils took the field confident and understandably playing with a ton of emotion, while Portland was frustrated for most of the first half before finally hitting its stride and going on to victory.

The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss but deferred possession to the second half.

Lewiston started with the ball at its 19 and after junior Joseph Dube was gang tackled for no gain and junior quarterback Jeffrey Randall threw incomplete, Portland jumped offsides and on third-and-5, Randall threw a deep pass down the left side to wide open junior Ryker Paradis, who wasn’t brought down until he gained 53 yards to the Bulldogs’ 23. Portland’s defense would stiffen, however, as junior Anthony Tavares held senior Tafari Corson-James to no gain, Randall ran for three yards, Sands picked up two, then on fourth-and-5, Sands was held to just one yard, giving the Bulldogs the ball on downs.

Portland’s first possession began at its 17 and while the Bulldogs were able to move the ball, they ultimately hurt themselves.

McGowan ran for four yards on the first snap, then Jones picked up seven for a first down at the 28. After Thurston was sacked for an eight-yard loss by junior Gage Parent, an offsides penalty gave Portland five yards back. Temple then ran for five yards and a facemask penalty on the Blue Devils tacked on five more yards. After Jones ran for nine yards and a first down at the 44, McGowan picked up seven yards into Lewiston territory, then Thurston threw incomplete, but on fourth-and-3, the Blue Devils jumped offsides, giving the Bulldogs another first down at the 44. Portland then lost the ball on a bad snap, as senior JJ Durr recovered the fumble at the Blue Devils’ 48.


Lewiston would threaten again, as after an incomplete pass, Randall lost two yards, then an ineligible receiver penalty set up third-and-17 before Randall threw a prayer down the field which was touched by two defenders before landing in the arms of Sands for 48 yards and a first down at the Bulldogs’ 11. Again, Portland’s defense stiffened, forcing an incomplete pass, before junior Lisandro Rodrigues dropped Dube for a one-yard loss and Randall ran for just two yards, setting up fourth-and-9 from the 10. Senior Michael Caron came on to attempt a 27-yard field goal for the lead, but it was no good, wide left, and the game remained scoreless.

“I thought we had a great scheme against (Portland),” said Blue Devils coach Jason Versey. “We played them as tough I imagined we would, but when you get in the red zone you have to score points.”

With 59 seconds to go in the first quarter, the Bulldogs started at their 20 and after McGowan ran for five yards, Temple was dropped for a five-yard loss by Randall and Sands on the final play of the frame.

The second period began with an incomplete pass and Portland (which was outgained, 106 yards to 35 in the first quarter), had to punt.

Lewiston had good field position to start its next drive, at its 44, but the Blue Devils would go three-and-out, as Carson-James gained two yards, Sands ran for six, then Dube was held to no gain.

On the ensuing punt, Temple broke away for an apparent 82-yard touchdown, but a block in the back penalty negated it and the Bulldogs started at midfield instead.


Portland got a five-yard run from McGowan on first down, but senior Jayden Brown dropped Thurston for a one-yard loss before McGowan gained four and on fourth-and-2, Jones, out of the Wildcat formation, picked up seven for a first down at Lewiston’s 35. The Bulldogs then went backwards, as a false start and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty set up first-and-30. Temple ran for two yards, an illegal procedure penalty negated a 45-yard McGowan run and after McGowan was held to two yards, Thurston threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

Portland nearly got a break on the ensuing punt, which bounced off junior Dylan Whitlow, but Whitlow collected the ball to allow the Blue Devils to start at their 17.

A 16-yard pass from Randall to Corson-James appeared to be an auspicious beginning, but after Corson-James ran for four yards, Alkafaji sacked Randall for a seven-yard loss and Randall threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

And on that punt attempt from senior Michael Klick, Alkafaji managed to block it, the Bulldogs took over at Lewiston’s 6 and suddenly had all the momentum.

“I ran in, I got laid out and luckily the ball hit off my helmet,” Alkafaji said. “I was surprised. I felt that we were fired up after that.”

“Issak is an incredible football player,” Green said. “He’s grown a lot this year as a person and as a student as well. I’m proud of the strides he’s made. You can’t really hide the kid. He makes plays everywhere. That’s his third or fourth block this year. He’s constantly in on QB pressures. He’s great on the edge game from a contain standpoint. He’s just a force to be reckoned with.”


It took Portland only one play to capitalize, as McGowan got the ball and raced in from the 6 with 2:54 left in the half. Freshman Justin Bouchard added the extra point to make it 7-0.

“We just needed to get into the game,” said McGowan. “We usually start slowly, then speed it up. I don’t know why. We just had to get fired up.”

Lewiston got the ball at its 32 and hoped to counter, but after Randall dropped the snap and lost five yards, then threw incomplete under pressure from Rodrigues, he threw again and was picked off by senior Brayden Wales, who went low to snag the ball off the turf at the Blue Devils’ 35 with 1:49 on the clock.

Four plays and 35 seconds later, the Bulldogs were in the end zone again.

After McGowan ran for four yards, then picked up one, Jones bulled ahead for 18 yards to the 12. Temple did the rest, scoring on a 12-yard run up the middle with 1:14 remaining. Bouchard’s PAT made it 14-0.

Portland was already going to the locker room feeling good, but it wasn’t done.


Lewiston started its next drive at its 35 and got a 16-yard run on a reverse from Caron, but Randall threw four straight incomplete passes to give the Bulldogs the ball back on downs at their 49 with 21.2 seconds showing.

Thurston then dropped back and lofted a strike into the arms of McGowan, who was streaking down the right sideline. McGowan broke two tackles and raced into the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.

“I think our line got us going,” McGowan said. “Also, we started passing more, which opened it up. We just put that play in. We had it but we hadn’t used it yet in a game. Coach called it and it worked. I caught it and I wasn’t going down.”

“Aidan is tremendous on offense, defense and special teams,” Green said. “He’s shown his versatility. We’ve known Aidan can run routes and do certain things, it’s just about when we need it. We liked that concept on paper and Louis put it in a perfect spot. He caught that ball, somehow toe-tapped and somehow brought it home. It was incredible.”

Senior Jack Martin then recovered an on-sides kick at the Blue Devils’ 49 and the Bulldogs nearly scored again, as after an incomplete pass, Thurston hit junior Brody Viola for 24 yards to the 25 with 0.2 showing on the clock. In came junior Colin Lannon to attempt a 42-yard field goal, which was on target but ultimately fell a couple yards short, keeping the score 20-0 at halftime.

“You get some special teams issues and suddenly you’re down a lot of points,” said Versey. “It’s too bad because these kids put their heart and soul into practice all week long.”


In the first half, Portland gained 145 yards while Lewiston had 114.

The Bulldogs started the second half with the ball at their 35 and in four plays and 1 minute, 54 seconds later, drove to extend their lead.

Jones got things started, breaking tackles and not being brought down until he reached the Blue Devils’ 12, a gain of 53 yards. After McGowan ran for four yards, then gained five, Jones did the rest, bulling up the middle for a 3-yard score with 9:59 to go in the third period. The extra point was no good, but Portland was up, 26-0.

Lewiston got the ball back at its 35 and after Randall ran for 11 yards and a first down, the Bulldogs jumped offsides, Sands twice ran for two yards, was held to no gain, then on fourth-and-1, Randall kept the ball for three yards and a first down at Portland’s 42. That’s as far as the Blue Devils would get, however, as Randall threw incomplete, then he was intercepted by Jones, who dove and plucked the ball off the turf at the 36.

The Bulldogs would get to the brink of extending their lead but ultimately fell short.

After McGowan ran for nine yards, Thurston hit Jones for 42 yards on a post route for a first down at Lewiston’s 13. After an incomplete pass, McGowan ran for 10 yards, setting up first-and-goal at the 3, but McGowan was dropped for a five-yard loss by Dube, Thurston was called for intentional grounding, then after Temple caught a six-yard pass, Thurston threw incomplete and the Blue Devils got the ball back on downs at their 19.


This time, Lewiston only ran three plays, as Randall ran for four yards, Sands moved the chains with a nine-yard burst, then Randall was picked by sophomore Justin Charles, whose 45-yard return set Portland up at the Blue Devils’ 14.

After McGowan ran for eight yards, Jones picked up four, setting up first-and-goal at the 2 and this time, the Bulldogs finished, as after McGowan gained one yard, Temple finished it off with a 1-yard score and with 2:45 left in the quarter, Portland had a 32-0 advantage.

The Blue Devils got a nice kickoff return from Sands to start their next drive at their 40 and moved the chains, as Corson-James gained seven yards on a reverse, then Randall and Sands each picked up two. After a bad exchange led to a loss of five yards, Randall scrambled for eight yards on the final play of the frame. The fourth quarter then began with Randall getting picked off for the fourth time, this time by Martin, and the Bulldogs had the ball back at their 36.

Thurston hit Temple for nine yards on first down, then Rodrigues ran for eight and a first down at the Lewiston 47. After Jones gained four yards on his final carry, Rodrigues ran for 11 more to the 32. Senior Joey Baker then picked up eight yards before a holding penalty short-circuited the drive. After Baker was held to no gain, Thurston twice threw incomplete to give the Blue Devils the ball on downs at their 30 with 7:44 to play.

With several Portland starters off the field, Lewiston would march 70 yards in six plays and 1:50 to get on the board.

A personal foul penalty on the Bulldogs got the Blue Devils started. After Dube gained 13 yards for a first down at the Portland 42, Sands gained five. Dube was held to no gain, but Randall hit Sands for 22 yards to the 15 and on the next play, Sands broke free up the middle and scored with 5:54 to go. Randall kept the ball and scored on the two-point conversion rush to cut the deficit to 32-8.


Lewiston wouldn’t see the ball again, however.

Sophomore Tyler Johnson recovered the ensuing on-sides kick at the Bulldogs’ 44 and after freshman Alex Martin gained four yards, sophomore Charlie Abramson-Thompson picked up a first down with a 12-yard carry. Martin lost a yard, but sophomore Ryder Lauzier gained three, Abramson-Thompson did the same, then Martin picked up five for a first down at the Blue Devils’ 30. Thurston then took a knee and that made it official.

Portland 32 Lewiston 8.

The Bulldogs finished with 303 yards of offense.

Jones had 105 yards and a touchdown on eight carries and also had a reception for 42 yards.

McGowan scored twice, rushing for one TD, along with 72 yards on 16 carries, and catching a 51-yard scoring pass.


Thurston ended up 5-of-14 passing for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Temple rushed four times for 20 yards and two TDs and caught two passes for 15 yards.

Viola had one catch for 24 yards.

Portland turned the ball over once, overcame 10 accepted penalties for 88 yards and once again was superb defensively, limiting Lewiston to 234 yards.

“Defense and special teams are what we look forward to,” Alkafaji said. “Offense, we have to lock in. Defense is our main thing. That’s what we’re known for. Coach (Mike Marston). He makes it so simple for us.”

“We’re a three-phase football team,” Green said. “We can be explosive on offense at times, we can be really great on defense at times and we make big plays in special teams. It’s complementary football. When one’s lacking, the others have to step up.”


Lewiston strong

The Blue Devils were led by Sands, who ran for 52 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and caught two passes for 70 yards.

Randall threw 15 times and completed four for 139 yards. He was also intercepted four times.

While the loss was disappointing, Lewiston is looking at the bigger picture and has much to hail.

“With everything going on, I felt so proud of their perseverance and strength and courage to play the way they did,” Versey said. “We talk about adversity all the time. We’re from Lewiston. There’s all kinds of adversity in Lewiston. One thing we established last year is an old Japanese proverb: fall seven, stand eight. These kids epitomize that every day. Adversity is part of the game and part of life. If we teach our kids to fall seven and stand eight in life, we’ve succeeded as coaches. I feel very good about what we were able to do this year because of the lessons they learned and them making a fabric of who they are.”

Green paid tribute to the Blue Devils as well.


“It’s inspiring,” he said. ‘Coach Versey and I are good friends. He’s done such a great job with that program from a culture standpoint. He gets the kids to believe in themselves and trust each other and love each other and that’s what football’s all about. They’ve seemed to buy into that as the season went on, but with the really unfortunate events of the past few weeks, they really bought in and it showed on the field tonight. They’ve got talent everywhere.”

Lewiston expects to be a contender again in 2024.

“We have a lot of kids coming back,” said Versey. “We have nine seniors, 20 juniors, 20 sophomores and 24 freshmen. I expect us to be ‘Lewiston Strong’ again next year. Two years, back-to-back playoffs for our program is phenomenal. We squeezed everything we possibly could out of our kids and they gave everything they had. I always tell our kids, all I want is all you’ve got and they did that today.”

Saturday showdown

Portland and Oxford Hills did not play this fall. Last fall, en route to the championship, the Vikings beat the host Bulldogs, 28-16, during the regular season.

The Bulldogs swept three postseason meetings between 2016-18, with a 21-14 overtime victory in the 2018 Class A state semifinals the most recent.

“We want to get back to states so bad,” said McGowan. “The past two years have been tough and we’ve learned. We don’t want that to happen again. We’ll stay disciplined and give it all we’ve got.”

“We beat them in a scrimmage, but so much has changed,” Alkafaji said. “We’re just hoping with a hard week of practice and a good game plan, we can execute.”

“We’re excited and ready to roll, but they will be too,” added Green. “I think it’s a game that everybody’s been waiting for. We’ve been waiting for it and Coach (Mark) Soehren and Oxford Hills has been waiting for it. You coach and play to be involved in those games. It will start this week in practice with preparation and discipline. If we do those things right, we’ll be OK. Our kids have shown resiliency in the face of adversity numerous times this year. We’ll go out and prepare at the highest level and see what happens Saturday.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. For game updates and links to game stories, follow him on Threads: @foresports2023

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