The Portland Bulldogs are heading to the state game.


And this time, the Bulldogs will look to capture a Class A championship which has eluded them since 2002.

Portland, which lost to Skowhegan, 20-14, in last year’s Class B state final, moved back up to Class A this fall and after opening with an exhilarating 35-28 victory at Thornton Academy, ran roughshod over the rest of its regular season foes, winning six games by an average score of 40-5 and also had a forfeit victory over Falmouth.

Portland’s Aidan McGowan pulls in a pass during last week’s semifinal round victory over Lewiston. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

Last Monday, the top-ranked Bulldogs hosted No. 4 Lewiston in the Class A North semifinals and after a sluggish start, pulled away for a 32-8 victory.

The game was scoreless until late in the first half, when Portland scored 20 straight points. Isaak Alkafaji blocked a punt and 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 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 quarterback Louis Thurston to make it 20-0. 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.


“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.”

“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.”

“We’re a three-phase football team,” first-year Portland coach Sean Green added. “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.”

The Bulldogs then hosted No. 2 Oxford Hills, the reigning Class A state champion, in the regional final Saturday afternoon, in a game which turned into an instant classic.

The Vikings went three-and-out to start the game, but kept possession due to a running into the punter penalty. After forcing another punt, Portland gave the ball right back on a fumble. Oxford Hills then took advantage with a 17-yard touchdown run from Hunter Tardiff.

“Oxford Hills is way too talented and well-coached to give them early gifts and it came back to bite us,” Green said.


The Bulldogs then embarked on a promising drive which was ultimately short-circuited by a holding penalty, forcing a punt.

“It certainly was not the start we were looking for,” Green said. “Special teams mistakes and not being able to finish consistently on offense took its toll.”

Late in the first quarter, Portland got the ball back and this time, in a drive which spanned the end of the frame and the start of the second period, marched for the tying score, a 63-yard strike from Thurston to Temple.

“That was a tremendous play by Louis to be so heads up and aware,” Green said. “Same thing goes to Hunter, who was simply the play action fake man on this particular play. It was a huge play for our team and our momentum in the game.”

The teams then traded punts and Portland got a break, as Oxford Hills muffed the ball and had to start at its 2, where Lisandro Rodrigues forced a safety for a 9-7 Bulldogs lead. Portland then got the ball back late in the first half and behind long runs from McGowan, Temple and Jones got close to the goal line before Jones scored on a 3-yard run. Even though the extra point was no good, due to a bad snap, the Bulldogs held a 15-7 halftime advantage.

“This was a great momentum swing going into the half,” Green said. “To be honest, the game couldn’t have started much worse for us, but we felt we were extremely prepared for this game and had a great plan going in. It was just about avoiding self-inflicted wounds and never giving up.”


Portland’s Myles Hang breaks up a pass during Saturday’s Class A North final versus Oxford Hills. Brewster Burns / Sun Journal

Portland’s second possession of the third quarter resulted in another touchdown, as Thurston hit Temple for 42-yards to get the Bulldogs close, then Jones scored on a 22-yard run out of the “Wildcat” formation (remember that) for a 22-7 lead.

When Portland forced a Vikings’ punt, they were on the brink of breaking the game open, but then began to shoot itself in the foot.

First, Thurston threw an interception, which led to a 50-yard touchdown pass from Brady Truman to Braden Murch to cut the deficit to 22-14 heading for the fourth period.

There, Oxford Hills’ defense came up huge again, tipping a pass at the line of scrimmage and it fell into the arms of Tardiff, who rumbled 63-yards for the score. Murch then caught a two-point conversion pass and just like that, the game was deadlocked, 22-22.

The Bulldogs drove to retake the lead, but again, Thurston was intercepted.

“It was definitely a trying time in the game for us, but, we had been in a back-and-forth game earlier in the season with TA,” Green said. “You could see the focus and the intent in the eyes of every player on our team. We were ready to keep playing and go out there and get a win.”


But Oxford Hills appeared poised to steal it when it drove to the Portland 22 inside of the final minute. On fourth-and-5, the Bulldogs made their biggest defensive play of the season, as Temple broke up a pass to give his team the ball back on downs.

“Temple has been one of, if not the best cornerback in the state this season,” Green said. “He’s been rarely targeted, always covers the opponents’ best receiver and always comes up big. Braden Murch is the best receiver we have seen all year and he showed that all game. Temple and Murch traded heavyweight punches throughout this one and it was great to see (Hunter) make such a big play on such a big stage.”

That set the stage for Portland’s biggest offensive play of the year, courtesy Jones.

With 29.6 seconds left and the ball at the Bulldogs’ 24, Jones, again out of the “Wildcat,” broke through the defense, broke tackles, then ran free, not stopping until he crossed the goal line 76 yards away with just 17.4 seconds showing.

“Every time I get a chance to touch the football and have my offensive line in front of me, I’m very confident in them to make big plays,” Jones said. “All of them made great blocks and allowed me to break off a touchdown run and get this game over with.”

“Cordell took a direct snap and would split the first level of defenders with excellent initial blocking from the play-side offensive lineman,” said Green. “Aidan led the way through the hole, making a tremendous block on the ‘Mike’ linebacker to seal the inside. Left guard Owen Swanson led through the hole, as two of Oxford Hills’ best players began to wrap Cordell up, Swanson would throw a huge block into one them and simultaneously Cordell would continue to run his feet to break through the tackles. From there he was off to the races.


“What an incredible play for our football team. The effort from each and every individual on that play was special. Every player on our team made tremendous blocks starting with the offensive line. Aidan sealed the back and Owen made the block of his life to help spring Cordell free. Cordell is an extremely tough runner and runs like he could score a touchdown on every play. I was just extremely proud of the purpose and intent we showed as a football team on that play.”

The Vikings didn’t quit, however, and responded like champions, driving to Portland’s 25 with 2.1 seconds to go, setting up one final play. Truman threw to Murch in the end zone and the Bulldogs were ready, as Jack Martin intercepted the ball to end it and give Portland an unforgettable 29-22 victory.

“It was a tremendous win for our team,” Green said. “I’m extremely proud of the resiliency our guys showed. Especially after shooting ourselves in the foot on numerous occasions with the chance to extend our lead late in the game. We had heard a lot going into this game about how we were not ‘battle tested’ and had not played in any real games since week one. I think we clearly showed that we are built for big games and can handle any adversity that comes our way.

“It was great to see our team consistently battle through adversity and just keep focused on the mission. So many different players made huge plays at different times in the game. Hats off to Oxford Hills. They played a great game and had a phenomenal season. They are surely one of the best teams in the state.”

Jones rushed for 196 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries. Thurston threw for 170 yards and Temple had 139 receiving yards.

Portland’s Cordell Jones holds up the championship trophy while celebrating after the Bulldogs beat Oxford Hills, 29-22, to win the Class A North title. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald

One more


Portland (10-0) will battle Thornton Academy (7-4) in the state final Saturday at 11 a.m., at Fitzpatrick Stadium. The Bulldogs lost to the Golden Trojans in the 2015 (24-14) and 2018 (49-14) state finals. They hope for a different result this time around and to cap a tremendous season with an elusive Gold Ball.

“We’re going to be in the state championship and we’re going to show that we can play our best version of football,” said Jones.

“We’re excited and ready to get to work for next week,” Green said. “It will be a big challenge, but we’ll be ready.”

Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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

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