PORTLAND—Cheverus’ boys’ basketball team has gone from being the nail to being the hammer.

And the hammering has just begun.

Tuesday evening at Keegan Gymnasium, the highly-touted Stags opened the season against visiting South Portland, the two-time Class AA state champion, and after a sluggish start, served notice that they’re going to be as good as advertised.

The new-look Red Riots, who already had a game under their belts, shot to a quick 12-6 lead before Cheverus came to life.

The Stags closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run to take the lead for good, extended the surge to 18-1 and by the half enjoyed a 35-24 advantage.

Cheverus led by as many as 17 points in the second half and while South Portland fought hard until the end and even drew within eight points in the fourth quarter, the Stags didn’t relent and thanks to three players scoring in double figures, went on to a 58-49 victory.


Senior Gio St. Onge led the way with 22 points as Cheverus won its season opener for the second year in a row and in the process, dropped the Red Riots to 0-2.

“At the beginning, we weren’t the hammer, we were the nail,” said Stags coach Richie Ashley. “Then we set the tone and once we get going, we go.”

Different expectations

South Portland has won the past two Class AA state titles, but graduation has taken its toll and a relatively inexperienced squad opened with a 64-50 loss at Gorham Friday, despite 27 points from junior Manny Hidalgo and 15 from senior Gabe Galarraga. It was the first time in five years the Red Riots began a season with a loss.

Cheverus, meanwhile, got to the Class AA North semifinals a year ago, losing a painful decision to Oxford Hills, and with four starters returning, is viewed as one of the favorites this season.

The longtime rivals didn’t meet last winter and hadn’t played in a countable game since March 5, 2021, during the COVID-shortened season (a 58-46 Red Riots’ win in Portland).


Tuesday, South Portland sought its eighth consecutive win in the series, but instead, the Stags beat the Red Riots for the first time since Jan. 23, 2017 (60-55).

Cheverus scored its first points of the season 42 seconds in, as sophomore Jameson Fitzpatrick set up junior Leo McNabb for a layup.

South Portland drew even on a layup from Galarraga (off an inbounds pass from Hidalgo) and after McNabb set up St. Onge for a layup and his first points, a 3-pointer from senior Chris Keene with 5:20 left in the first quarter gave the Red Riots their first lead, 5-4.

A free throw from junior Rocco DePatsy momentarily tied the score but a left-handed runner from junior Tom Maloji put South Portland back in front.

After Galarraga added an old-fashioned three-point play (basket, foul, free throw), St. Onge made a free throw, but with 2:26 remaining, a jumper from sophomore Darius Johnson made it 12-6 Red Riots.

And that proved to be the visitors’ highwater mark.


After returning to action, junior Sammy Nzeyimana sparked the run with a driving layup, followed by a steal which led to a layup by St. Onge. After Nzeyimana made it a one-point game with a free throw, McNabb buried a 3-pointer from the corner with 32 seconds left to put Cheverus in front for good.

As time wound down, after a steal by Fitzpatrick, St. Onge set up McNabb for a layup and the Stags took a 16-12 advantage to the second period.

Where they would add to the lead.

Thirty-five seconds in, Nzeyimana fed St. Onge for a layup. Nzeyimana then set up Fitzpatrick for a layup to stretch the lead to eight.

With 6:29 to go before halftime, Galarraga made one of two free throws to snap a nearly four-minute scoring drought and a 14-0 surge, but a jumper from Fitzpatrick, a driving layup by St. Onge and a 3-ball from St. Onge made it 27-13 with 5:28 on the clock.

“We want to get the ball to the open guy and get the best shots possible,” St. Onge said. “We’ll score a lot of points this year by finding the open man. We’re doing a good job sharing the scoring role. It’s a good team effort.”


“I thought at times that’s probably the best I’ve seen Cheverus play since Coach (Bob) Brown was here,” Ashley said. “We were moving up and down, fast breaks, bounce passes, unselfish play, rebounding.”

Galarraga tried to stem the tide with two free throws, but Nzeyimana banked home a runner.

After Galarraga converted an old-fashioned three-point play, McNabb countered with two foul shots to make it 31-18.

A floater from Hidalgo and a jumper from Johnson cut the deficit to nine, but out of a timeout, the Stags got bank shots from senior Maddik Weisberg and freshman Quintin Eason before a pair of Johnson free throws made it 35-24 Cheverus at the break.

The Stags then threatened to run away and hide to start the second half, as McNabb set up Weisberg for a layup, St. Onge converted a three-point play and Fitzpatrick hit a foul shot for a 17-point advantage.

But South Portland refused to buckle.


After Galarraga scored on a putback, Maloji banked home a 3 to cut the deficit to 12.

St. Onge then took a pass from junior Shema Rwaganje and made a layup, then he drove for a layup to restore order.

Late in the frame, Galarraga and St. Onge traded baskets before a Galarraga contested bank shot pulled the Red Riots within 47-33 heading for the final stanza.

There, South Portland would make things interesting, but Cheverus was able to slam the door.

Just 21 seconds in, Galarraga scored on a putback while being fouled and added the and-one free throw. McNabb then twice set up Fitzpatrick for layups to make it 51-36, but Galarraga banked home a shot, Hidalgo drove for a layup, then, with 3:31 to go, Hidalgo buried a 3 to cut the deficit to 51-43.

The Red Riots then had a chance to draw even closer when they forced a Stags’ miss, but Nzeyimana got the offensive rebound, passed to DePatsy and DePatsy found McNabb alone in the corner for a backbreaking 3-pointer.


Nzeyimana added two free throws and after Galarraga made a layup, St. Onge hit a free throw with 1:12 remaining for a 57-45 advantage.

South Portland crept within eight again, as Hidalgo scored on a driving layup and Galarraga got a leaner to fall with 43 seconds on the clock, but 13 seconds later, Fitzpatrick made a free throw to slam the door and Cheverus went on to a 58-49 victory.

“It feels pretty good,” St. Onge said. “I’m excited. We feel like we’re the favorites. We just go out every night and play the way we want to play. Play unselfish and make sure everyone gets their touches. We like the expectations. The best place to be is where the expectations are high.”

“I think we played well,” Ashley said. “We have a lot of guys who played a lot, but we’re still young. We only have two seniors. We’ll have lulls like any team. We have to learn. South Portland is good. Galarraga is tough. We battled him well. Sammy did a great job on Manny. We got good contributions from a lot of guys. Some of the guys were playing at St. Brigid’s last year and now they’re playing against the two-time champs.”

St. Onge paced Cheverus with 22 points. He also had four rebounds and a pair of assists.

McNabb added 12 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks and Fitzpatrick also finished in double figures with 10 points, three rebounds and three steals.


Nzeyimana had seven points and five assists, Weisberg tallied four points and grabbed nine rebounds, Eason had two points and DePatsy added one.

The Stags only turned the ball over 12 times and made 11-of-21 free throws.

For South Portland, Galarraga led all players with 26 points. He also had eight rebounds and blocked a shot. Hidalgo had nine points (to go with five rebounds, five steals and four assists), Johnson finished with six points and five rebounds, Maloji had five points and Keene three.

The Red Riots made 8-of-12 foul shots, but turned the ball over 17 times.

“We have to be able to endure the runs,” South Portland coach Kevin Millington said. “It’s two games in a row. For 10 minutes against Gorham, we were minus-30 and the rest of the game we were plus-16 and this was the same thing. When you have inexperience, offense takes time. We had no rhythm or timing. We want to go to Gabe, but he has three guys around him, so we have to get more movement so he gets more opportunities. We have to get situations where Manny can attack one-on-one and not one-on-three. The offense will come. I was more disappointed defensively. I thought we gave up too much penetration. We have to do a better job of getting in positions defensively.”

No breathers


South Portland, which has lost two straight to start the season for the first time since the 2005-06 squad began 0-5, hopes to bounce back, but the road gets no easier.

Thursday, the Red Riots go to Scarborough. They finally play their first home game next Tuesday against two-time reigning Class A South champion Falmouth, then have a state game rematch versus Portland.

“It’s a work in progress, but unfortunately, the schedule won’t get easier,” said Millington. “I think we have some really talented kids, but we’re young. We’ll get there. I like to think we’ll be really good by the end of the year.”

Cheverus stays home to battle Oxford Hills in a playoff rematch Friday night. The Stags’ first road game comes Tuesday of next week, at Thornton Academy.

“We have to move on,” said St. Onge. “We’ll have no trouble getting fired up for Oxford Hills. We have to stay consistent and keep working hard. I love this group. We want to get better every day and be ready in February.”

“This was a good start, but we have to work on some things,” Ashley said. “I’m not sure we’re the favorite. Portland’s still the defending champ. Preseason polls don’t matter. There is so much parity in the league.  I’m proud that we’ve come from being kind of a laughingstock to people thinking we’re good, but we have to prove it on the floor. We have a tough one Friday and the following week is brutal.”

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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