PORTLAND—Thornton Academy was opportunistic, Portland was not and as a result, the Golden Trojans have again ascended to the pinnacle, while the Bulldogs will have to wait yet another year to capture that elusive Gold Ball.

Saturday morning/afternoon at Fitzpatrick Stadium, Portland entered the Class A state final with an undefeated record, while Thornton Academy found itself in the unfamiliar role as an underdog, but the Golden Trojans, who didn’t get over the .500 mark until Halloween, saved their absolute best for last.

After recovering a fumble on the game’s second play, Thornton Academy got the jump on a 37-yard field goal from senior J.P. Baez less than three minutes in.

The Golden Trojans then spent the rest of the first half with their offense in neutral, but the Bulldogs, despite ample chances, couldn’t pull away.

Penalties and missed connections through the air stymied Portland for much of the half, but with 4:27 to go before the break, senior captain Hunter Temple caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from sophomore running back Cordell Jones.

The Bulldogs had a chance to add a score before halftime and seize control of the game, but again, penalties short-circuited a drive and a late field goal attempt was off-target, keeping the score 7-3.


The Golden Trojans then came to life to start the second half, going on top to stay on a 1-yard touchdown run from senior Harry Bunce five minutes in, then, after partially blocking a Portland punt, going ahead, 17-7, when junior quarterback Wyatt Benoit scored on a 13-yard scamper.

When the Bulldogs went three-and-out on their ensuing drive and only managed a 10-yard punt, Thornton Academy had a chance to break away, but instead, it fumbled the ball away. Temple then caught a 58-yard TD pass from junior quarterback Louis Thurston to pull Portland within three heading for the fourth period.

There, playing with all the momentum, the Bulldogs forced the Golden Trojans into a second-and-25 situation, but in the play of the game, Benoit broke free down the right sideline and gave his team some breathing room with a 66-yard touchdown run.

This time, Portland couldn’t answer and Thornton Academy was able to slam the door on a 24-14 victory.

The Golden Trojans finished 8-4, won the Gold Ball for the sixth time in a dozen years, the eighth time overall and in the process, ended Portland’s terrific season at 10-1.

“It definitely hurts, but as we told the boys, it hurts because of all the passion and emotion they put into the sport,” said Sean Green, the Bulldogs’ first-year coach. “It’s OK to feel that pain because that pain converts back to the love that brought this together.”


Waste not, want not

Way back on Sept. 1, with the temperature reading 67 degrees, Portland and Thornton Academy produced an instant classic in the regular season opener where a 31-yard touchdown pass from Thurston to senior Reegan Buck with 48.8 seconds remaining produced a palpitating 35-28 victory.

That kick-started a perfect regular season for the Bulldogs, who won their other seven regular games by an average score of 39-9 and also had a 2-0 forfeit victory over Falmouth (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

As the top seed in Class A North, Portland rolled past No. 4 Lewiston (32-8) in the semifinals, then eked out a heart-stopping 29-22 win over No. 2 Oxford Hills, the reigning state champion, in last Saturday’s regional final, thanks to a last-second breakaway 76-yard TD run from Jones.

Thornton Academy, which has been almost an annual participant on Championship Saturday, followed an unfamiliar script this season, losing its first two games and after winning four in a row, dropping two straight before closing with a decisive victory over Scarborough to lock up the top seed in Class A South.

“When a lot of teams start 0-2, they just fold and think that it’s not their year, but these guys never stopped believing,” said Golden Trojans coach Kevin Kezal. “In week three, we were getting asked, ‘When’s the last time Thornton Academy started 0-3?’ Then we went down to Bedford (New Hampshire) and lost in running time and people were saying, ‘What do you have to do to make the playoffs?’ We never lost faith in the guys and I’m so glad they never lost faith in us as coaches.”


Thornton Academy handled No. 4 Sanford, 49-0, in the semifinals before holding off No. 2 Bonny Eagle, 21-13, in the regional final last Saturday.

Entering play Saturday, the teams had met five previous times in the postseason, with Portland winning in the 1982 Western A semifinals (34-14) and the 2004 Western A quarterfinals (48-6) and Thornton Academy taking the 1994 Western A quarterfinals (27-12) and the 2015 (24-14) and 2018 (49-14) Class A state finals.

The Golden Trojans had won seven of 10 previous state final appearances and were also awarded championships in the pre-title game era in 1954, 1955 and 1962.

The Bulldogs had prevailed in two of their previous seven state game appearances, downing Sanford (14-10) in 1982 and Edward Little (41-6) in 2002 and losing to Bangor (20-14) in 2001, Thornton Academy in 2015 and 2018, Bonny Eagle (34-14) in 2016 and Skowhegan (20-14) last fall in Class B. Portland was also awarded the 1952 state title.

Saturday, in a game that started amid raindrops and ended with the wind kicking up and the temperature in the mid-40s, the Bulldogs started slowly, then appeared to turn the game in their favor, but the Golden Trojans, in a microcosm of their season, saved their best football for when it mattered the most.

Thornton Academy won the opening coin toss and deferred possession to the second half, giving Portland the ball first and a chance to set the tone, but instead, the Bulldogs’ beginning was disastrous.


Temple returned the opening kickoff 25 yards to the Portland 31, but after Jones was stuffed for just a one-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage, junior Aidan McGowan got an opportunity, only to be stripped of the ball and the Golden Trojans recovered at the Bulldogs 32.

Thornton Academy wouldn’t be able to parlay that turnover into a touchdown, but it would produce the game’s first points.

After sophomore Mauricio Sunderland ran for a yard, the snap went over Benoit’s head and he fell on the loose ball for a seven-yard loss to the 38. Benoit then connected with Sunderland for a 13-yard reception on a screen pass and when Portland jumped offsides, the Golden Trojans had a first down at the 20. After senior Isaak Alkafaji held Sunderland to no gain, Benoit couldn’t pick up a yard and on third-and-10, Benoit threw incomplete, with Temple almost picking the ball off, setting up fourth down where Baez came on to confidently boot the ball through the uprights for a 37-yard field goal and a 3-0 advantage with 9:23 left in the opening stanza.

Portland started again from its 22, but went nowhere, as Thurston threw incomplete under pressure and after Jones ran for three yards, Thurston threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

Thornton Academy got the ball back at its 31 and after Alkafaji dropped Sunderland for a two-yard loss, Benoit threw incomplete and after a 16-yard Benoit run was negated by a holding penalty, Sunderland ran for nine yards on third-and-22, forcing a punt.

With 7:08 left in the first quarter, the Bulldogs started at their 28 and began to march, as McGowan gained two yards, Jones moved the chains with a nine-yard rush and after McGowan was dropped for a two-yard loss by senior Sam Nelson, Thurston threw short of a wide-open McGowan, who had a lot of green turf in front of him.


“We just couldn’t connect,” Green lamented. “We liked a lot of our stuff. We thought we could hit them over the top in the pass game, but we just couldn’t get it done. It came down to missed opportunities, play calls we’d like to have back and plays we’d like to have back.”

Thurston quickly atoned, finding McGowan for 26 yards to the Golden Trojans’ 37. That’s as far as Portland would get, however, as a holding penalty, an illegal motion transgression and a pair of Thurston incompletions, sandwiched around a Jones’ one-yard loss, ended the drive and forced a punt.

Late in the first period, Thornton Academy took over at its 20 and immediately was backed up by a holding penalty. After Sunderland ran for a yard, senior Henry Spencer dropped junior Jackson Paradis for a three-yard loss. Sunderland only gained two yards on third-and-22, then consecutive penalties forced the Golden Trojans to punt from their 3.

Junior Fernando Ongay then stepped up huge, booming the ball out of his end zone and it took a fortuitous Thornton Academy bounce all the way to the Bulldogs’ 40, a punt of 57 yards.

As the first period gave way to the second, McGowan was dropped for a two-yard loss, Thurston threw incomplete (a deep bomb just off Temple’s fingertips), then Thurston threw incomplete again, forcing another punt.

After a 44-yard boot from Portland punter, senior captain Myles Hang, the Golden Trojans started at their 18, but they would go three-and-out, as Benoit ran for two yards, Sunderland gained three, then senior Xander Cantara reached out with his left hand and plucked a Benoit pass into his body for a gain of three, but it wasn’t enough.


The three-and-out-followed-by-a-punt theme continued, as Portland started at its 37, only to have Jones run for one yard, Temple gain two, then Thurston throw incomplete.

Thornton Academy then got a break when the ensuing punt went just eight yards, giving the Golden Trojans the ball at the Bulldogs’ 48, but after Benoit threw incomplete, Alkafaji broke through and dropped the quarterback for a nine-yard loss. Benoit ran for five yards on third-and-19 and after a false start penalty, Thornton Academy punted again.

This time, Portland started at its 31 and went nowhere, as McGowan gained a yard, then senior Shiloh Thao held Jones to no gain before an incomplete pass brought Hang out to punt once more.

Midway through the second quarter, the Golden Trojans started at their 32 and after Benoit ran for three yards and the Bulldogs jumped offsides, a bad snap led to a 10-yard loss, then junior Lisandro Rodrigues knocked down a Benoit pass, forcing Thornton Academy to kick again.

With 4:37 remaining in the half, Portland started at its 41 and finally found a way to strike.

With Jones lined up behind center in the “Wildcat,” he drew the defense in with his running ability, then threw a deep pass instead. Temple had to wait for the ball to get to him, then hauled it in and outraced the pursuit to the end zone to compete a 59-yard scoring play with 4:27 on the clock. Freshman Justin Bouchard added the extra point and the Bulldogs were in front at last, 7-3.


Portland promptly got the ball back, forcing a three-and-out, as Sunderland was held to no gain, Benoit threw incomplete and Benoit gained eight yards on third-and-10, necessitating a punt.

With 3;30 left before halftime, the Bulldogs started at their 31 and began to march and threatened to add a score before the break.

After McGowan lost two yards, Temple caught a short pass for four yards, then on third-and-8, Thurston rolled right and hit Jones for the eight yards necessary to move the chains. After McGowan ran for eight yards, he gained 13 for a first down at the Thornton Academy 35. After McGowan was held to a yard, Temple got the handoff and instead of running, threw the ball down the field to junior Brody Viola, who was open initially before being interfered with, giving Portland the ball at the 20.

Again, the Bulldogs shot themselves in the foot, taking consecutive illegal motion penalties. After Thurston threw incomplete, Jones ran for 12 yards, setting up third-and-8, where McGowan got the carry for just two yards. When the clock hit 2.1 seconds, Green called timeout and brought out Bouchard for a 33-yard field goal attempt. The kick would be short to the left and Portland’s lead remained just 7-3 at halftime.

The Bulldogs had 137 total yards in the first half while holding the Golden Trojans to negative-4, but the lead was tenuous and wouldn’t last.

Tough to stop


Thornton Academy took over at its 32 to start the third quarter and in nine plays and 4 minutes, 55 seconds, drove to go ahead to stay.

After Paradis caught a pass for two yards, Benoit hit Cantara for six. After an illegal block penalty backed the Golden Trojans up 10 yards and set up third-and-12, Sunderland caught a pass for exactly a dozen yards and a first down at  the 42. After Sunderland gained five yards, senior Brady Kezal, the coach’s son, entered the equation, getting free for a 42-yard reception all the way to the Bulldogs’ 11. After Benoit gained a yard, senior Micah Gikas caught a pass for no yards. Benoit then eluded pressure and found Kezal just outside the 1, but it was just short of the marker, setting up fourth-and-inches.

In a pivotal play, with Portland selling out to force a loss on downs, Bunce got his first carry and after getting met at the line, he lunged forward and stretched the ball over the stripe for the 1-yard touchdown and the lead. Baez added the PAT and with 6:59 left in the third period, Thornton Academy enjoyed a 10-7 advantage.

After a touchback, the Bulldogs started at their 20, but couldn’t answer, as McGowan ran for four yards, then Thurston twice threw incomplete forcing a punt. Hang then was pressured by Thao, who got a piece of the ball, and the ensuing kick went out of bounds for a two-yard loss, giving the Golden Trojans the ball at the Portland 22 with 5:50 remaining in the frame.

Five plays and 2:42 later, Thornton Academy had an insurance score.

After Paradis was held to a yard, Sunderland gained eight, then Bunce picked up one more for a first down at the 12. After senior captain Brayden Wales dropped Sunderland for a one-yard loss, Benoit did the rest, rolling right, breaking a tackle, cutting back, breaking another tackle, then racing into the end zone to complete a 13-yard scoring rush with 3:08 on the clock.


“Our energy was up in the second half and we knew we had to score in order to win the football game,” Benoit said. “We saw gaps, we hit big plays. That got our energy up and we just went from there. We tried to take advantage of (Portland) being aggressive.”

Baez added the extra point to make it 17-7.

“We talked going into this game that field position would be huge,” Green said. “It gets amplified in games like this. We gave that away a couple times and our defense had its back against the wall.”

Shell-shocked, the Bulldogs again went nowhere, as Jones was dropped for a three-yard loss by senior Danny Menard before Thurston twice threw incomplete, forcing another punt.

Which again resulted in disaster, as the kick went just 10 yards.

With 1:55 on the third quarter clock, the Golden Trojans started at Portland’s 32, on the brink of breaking the game open, but the Bulldogs’ staunch defense stepped up huge to turn momentum.


After an incomplete pass in the end zone resulted in a pass interference penalty to move the ball to the 17, Benoit was held to no gain, fumbled and Alkafaji came up with the loose ball at the 31. He nearly brought it back the other way, but was wrestled down by Paradis.

Portland’s offense immediately took advantage.

After McGowan ran for seven yards and Jones bulled forward for four and a first down at the 42, Thurston hit Temple on the right side and Temple did the rest, putting on a show by breaking four tackles and eventually outrunning the rest of the defense all the way to the end zone for a 58-yard score with just 29.4 seconds remaining in the period. Bouchard added the extra point to cut the deficit to 17-14 and it was very much game-on.

On the final play of the quarter, Sunderland ran for two yards. The first snap of the final stanza saw Benoit gain eight yards for a first down at the 38. The Bulldogs then jumped offsides and after Sunderland ran for two yards and Benoit kept the ball for one, a three-yard burst by junior Henry Kenniston set up first down at the 49. Wales then tackled Benoit for no gain and successive illegal procedure and holding penalties backed Thornton Academy into a secnod-and-25 hole at the 34.

Portland was on the brink of getting the ball back with a chance to go ahead, but instead, Benoit made the play of the game to turn the tide for good.

Benoit dropped back to pass, eluded the rush of junior Colin Kelly, took off toward the sideline, where he sidestepped Alkafaji, then he cut back, picked up blockers and suddenly had nothing but green turf in front of him. Benoit then turned on the jets and didn’t stop until crossing the goal line for a backbreaking 66-yard scamper with 8:22 left, capping a seven-play, 72-yard, 4-minute drive.


“That wasn’t even a pass play,” Benoit said. “I saw a gap and I hit it. It was the best feeling ever.”

“I saw him and said, ‘Go, go’ and I knew he had it,” said Brady Kezal.

“Wyatt can hurt teams running the ball or throwing the ball,” added Kevin Kezal. “He had a phenomenal year for us. He’s so calm. He made some great plays today.”

“I think we got burned over the top a couple times on hard play-action passes and our contain rush got a little bit loose a couple times and against a kid like Wyatt, that just can’t happen,” Green said. “If you let a kid like that free, he’ll make plays. With a mobile quarterback like him, you have to maintain a contain rush and squeeze the pocket. You have to make sure you have two high rushers and your interior rushers keep their lane integrity. We lost some lane integrity unfortunately and he was able to bust it.”

Baez added the extra point and suddenly, the Bulldogs could feel the game slipping away.

Portland hoped to answer when it started its next drive at its 24, but after Jones ran for five yards, McGowan picked up two, but on third-and-3, McGowan was dropped for a three-yard loss, then Thurston had a fourth down pass attempted deflected incomplete to give the ball back to the Golden Trojans at the Bulldogs’ 28 with 6:17 to play.


Thornton Academy couldn’t score, but it would milk some time off the clock.

After an illegal procedure penalty backed the Golden Trojans up five yards, Sunderland ran for four yards, Benoit lost two, then Sunderland ran for three. After an offsides penalty set up fourth-and-5 from the 23, Sunderland only gained two yards, giving Portland the ball back.

The Bulldogs began what proved to be their final possession of the season at their 21 with 4:32 on the clock and after Jones caught a pass for 11 yards and a pass interference penalty moved the ball to the 47, an illegal motion penalty moved the ball back five yards before Thurston threw under pressure and Brady Kezal dove to intercept the ball at the Portland 47 with 4:07 remaining.

“I was playing (man-to-man defense) there,” Kezal said. “I stayed with my guy and just broke in and caught it.”

“I’m so proud of Brady,” Kevin Kezal said. “He did a great job as a captain. Last year, he played the whole year with an ankle injury and had to get surgery after the season. Today, he had a phenomenal day. I’m so happy for him.”

All that was left for the Golden Trojans to do was run out the clock and after Sunderland ran for four yards, then for three and senior Hunter Boudreau picked up a first down with a three-yard burst, consecutive five-yard runs by Sunderland brought the clock to 0:00 and at 1:21 p.m., Thornton Academy was able to celebrate yet another championship by virtue of a 24-14 victory.


“It’s awesome,” Benoit said. “It’s even better to have a start like we did and have everyone say we’re out of it and we won’t even make the playoffs. To do this, it’s amazing.  Everyone wrote us off and no one was counting on us to win this game.”

“It’s been a dream of mine to celebrate with my Dad like that,’ Brady Kezal said. “I grew up seeing other guys do that and now I get to be in their shoes. We played five games against undefeated teams. We knew our schedule coming into the season would be hard. When we were 0-2, we knew what our next step needed to be. We just had to stay positive. We always knew we could compete with anybody.”

“I’m so proud of these kids,” Kevin Kezal added. “You just go out and have to practice hard and get better each week. It was just a matter of growing and learning how to play 48 minutes. We did a great job of that today. This team overcame so much this year. Our motto today was ‘Believe.’ The offensive coaches did a great job. Give Coach (Steve) Stinson, Coach (Nick) Tabor, Coach (Brian) Morrison, Coach (Josh) Pulsifer a ton of credit. They went in at halftime and made a few adjustments and found a few areas we could attack.”

Thornton Academy finished with 197 total yards, with 201 of them coming after halftime.

Benoit was the star, running 11 times for 100 yards with two touchdowns and completing 8-of-12 passes, good for 87 yards.

Sunderland gained 50 yards on 19 carries.


Brady Kezal caught two passes for 51 yards.

The Golden Trojans overcame 11 penalties for 94 yards and one turnover.

Try, try again

Portland wound up with 232 yards, but turned the ball over twice and was flagged nine times for 60 yards.

Jones, who has run wild in recent weeks, was held to just 31 yards on 10 carries. He also completed 1-of-2 passes for 59 yards and a TD and caught two passes for 22 yards.

“We had to muscle up on Jones,” Kevin Kezal said. “They’re big and athletic and physical up front. Our kids did a great job holding up up front and we did a much better job this time tackling and wrapping up.”


McGowan finished with 33 yards on 13 attempts and caught a pass for 26 yards.

Thurston completed five passes for 110 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Temple was the top offensive weapon, catching three balls for 121 yards and two scores.

“We just didn’t play our brand of football today, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Green said. “If you keep giving the ball back to TA and allowing them to maintain possession, eventually they’ll make plays. They have great players. I’m proud of our resiliency. We got the ball back in the offense’s hands, but unfortunately, we didn’t execute. We didn’t do enough to win the game. Credit and congratulations to Thornton Academy. They had a great game plan today.

“It was a strange year, but your goal every year is to be in this game and we got here battling through adversity. All you can ask for is an opportunity to play and coach in this game and unfortunately, we just came up short today.”

Portland actually isn’t finished for the 2023 season. The Bulldogs will meet Deering in the city rivals’ annual Turkey Day game Thursday.


“The benefit to playing that Thanksgiving game is that we’ll get to be together one more time as a family,” Green said. “We’ll cherish that moment and get after it next week.”

Then, Portland will say goodbye to a tremendous senior class, before looking ahead to 2024.

Which figures to be another terrific campaign.

And perhaps the season that the Bulldogs will finally break through.

“We had a tremendous senior class and the message to the returning guys is to remember this,” Green said. “We built a great foundation for the future this year. It doesn’t change what happened today. That will hurt for a long time, as it should, but this isn’t the last you’ll hear of the Bulldogs.”

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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