Portlands’ Zachary Elowitch steps over would-be tackler Alex Turner of Oxford Hills for a long run during the first half of the team’s regular-season meeting last month. Slowing Elowitch will be key to the Vikings’ chances of winning Friday’s Class A North final. (Brewster Burns photo)
Three teams — Oxford Hills, Leavitt and Oak Hill — are one win away from playing for a Gold Ball. A fourth — Dirigo — won’t get a Gold Ball (the Maine Principals’ Association doesn’t officially recognize a Class E champion), but you can bet that if they win, whatever hardware the Cougars get will find a prominent spot in the trophy case.
Four very big games will be played over the next two days, probably in rainy conditions much like all of them played in last week. Here is a breakdown of each contest:
Class A North final: Oxford Hills at Portland
First meeting: Bulldogs won, 17-14, at Oxford Hills on Oct. 12.
The football playoff pedigrees are no contest. This is Portland fifth consecutive trip to the regional final, winning two of the last four. This is Oxford Hills’ first since 2000, and the Vikings are vying for their first regional title since 1999.
Oxford Hills’ players do have quite a bit of big-game experience, just not as much on the gridiron as in other sports such as baseball. The first meeting with Portland was as big of a game as either team had during the regular season. The difference was Portland’s ability to control the ball and the clock with a long touchdown drive to start each half.
Senior running back Zack Elowitch (34 carries, 169 yards), who was primarily responsible for the Bulldogs’ ground control, showed he’s only getting stronger with 267 yards and four touchdowns rushing in their 49-15 semifinal win over Edward Little. Junior QB Sam Knop, who scored both Portland touchdowns against the Vikings, will call his own number occasionally, but Elowitch is the workhorse.
Knop, who had half as many pass attempts as Oxford Hills’ Colton Carson this season, only threw four times in their first meeting, completing two and throwing an interception. The Vikings’ best bet to get off the field on third down is to stop Elowitch on first and second downs and force Portland to throw. It’s a tough assignment for a stout defensive front led by all-conference linemen Austin Doughty and JJ Worster and linebackers Parker LaFrance, Cole Dunham and Cade Truman, but a necessary one.
Portland’s defensive front is stout against the run, too. It also terrorizes quarterbacks, as Edward Little’s Leighton Girardin discovered last week. All-conference senior Nathan Kapongo, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound defensive end, brought him down four times for sacks to give him 14 on the year, adding to his school season and career sack records. Jonah Green, another monster pass rusher at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, also had a sack.
Oxford Hills was able to keep Carson on his feet for most of the first meeting, but something clearly wasn’t clicking for the Class A North Player of the Year that night. He completed just four of 17 passes for 77 yards, one TD and two interceptions. A second touchdown was called back due to a penalty. The Bulldogs also limited Carson, the Vikings’ leading rusher, to 14 yards rushing by taking away the counter plays that they like to use to get him to the second level of the defense.
When Carson finds a rhythm with his legs and right arm, the Vikings are tough to stop. Wide receivers Janek Luksza and Alex Turner have usually been in the middle of it with big plays, as has tight end Worster over the middle. The rest of the running game, consisting of LaFrance and Brown, also feeds off of the quarterback.
But don’t overlook the kickers. Portland’s Cristo Vumpa provided the winning margin in the first game with a 20-yard field goal at the horn to end the first half. It was his only make in three field goal attempts this season, but he was 34-for-35 in extra point tries. Oxford Hills has the same confidence in its all-conference kicker/punter Luksza, who was two-for-two on field goals and made all 37 of his extra point attempts.
Class C South final: Fryeburg at Leavitt
First meeting: Raiders won, 13-0, at Leavitt on Oct. 5.
Last month’s shutout of Leavitt pushed Fryeburg to the front of the list of B South contenders and earned its defense recognition as among the best in the state. The Raiders limited the Hornets to less than 100 yards rushing and picked off Leavitt QB Wyatt Hathaway five times in one of the all-time midseason statement-game performances.
Fryeburg’s defense continues to prove how good it is each week. Since giving up 36 points to Lisbon in Week 1, the Raiders haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than seven points in any game, and has only allowed 46 points total since the first week. The Leavitt victory was one of two shutouts they’ve posted on the year. Senior defensive lineman Tucker Buzzell was particularly tough on the Hornets’ running game, while senior Nathan Knapp starred in the pass defense with two of the five interceptions.
The Raiders are just as physical on offense as they are on defense. They went mostly to the ground in the first meeting, relying on running back Calvin Southwick. He had 19 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 26-7 semifinal win over Gardiner. Senior QB Oscar Saunders and running back Liam Chisari pitch in more than capably in the run game, and Saunders, who had a touchdown pass in the first game, will make a defense pay for stacking against the run.
Like Fryeburg, Leavitt’s defense has been its most consistent strength (the Hornets gave up one less point than the Raiders during the regular season). Linebackers Tommy Casey and Riley Parmenter back linemen Cole Melanson, Max Pelkey, Cam Jordan and Cole Morin on a big, athletic front. The speedy secondary is led by Stephen Gray, Allen Peabody and Dasean and Damien Calder.
The Hornets used just about every running back on the roster to join Hathaway in rolling up nearly 400 yards rushing in their 33-7 semifinal win over Cape Elizabeth. Bradley Moreau, Mark Herman, Jordan, Peabody and the Calder twins are just a few of coach Mike Hathaway’s options. Many of them figure prominently in the passing game, too.
Class D South final: Oak Hill at Wells
First meeting: Warriors won, 56-13, at Oak Hill on Sept. 22.
The allure of a No. 7 vs. No. 1 seed is to see a potential upset for the ages, and this would fall into that category. The Raiders have earned the right to have the opportunity with two clutch road wins in overtime. But Wells, which has earned state championships the last two years, going back to when it was still in Class C, has won its last 26 games.
For a brief moment, Oak Hill had thoughts of ending the streak they were tied, 13-13, early in the second quarter of the first game. But the young Raiders weren’t ready to react to how the Warriors would react to a young upstart trying to give them a game, and the game quickly turned into a rout.
One reason for the rout was the same reason the Warriors have rolled over most of their opponents this year, senior running back Tyler Bridge, who rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another.
Bridge has been as dominant as any player in the state this year, but the Warriors can do damage with junior running backs Payton Mackay and Devin Chace running and senior QB Matt Sherburne running or throwing.
The Raiders have come a long way since their first meeting with the Warriors, but the center of their attack remains the same. Sophomore QB Gavin Rawstron has compiled over 2,500 yards of total offense this year. His ability to run the offense efficiently has allowed coach Stacen Doucette to pick up the pace. The Raiders’ emerging depth up front and running back rotation of Quentin Pelkey and Reid Cote has helped take pressure off of Rawstron and given him more time and room to find receivers Caleb Treadwell, Sam Lindsay and Liam Rodrigue down the field.
Getting down the field against Wells’ defensive front, led by ends Morgan Welch-Thompson and Matt Tufts, can be a chore, but the Raiders will need to move the chains regularly to keep the Warriors from wearing the defense down. Or the defense, led by Treadwell and Ethan Richard, will have to force the Warriors into uncharacteristic turnovers.
Class E final: Dirigo at Freeport
First meeting: Freeport won, 34-14, at Freeport on Sept. 28.
Freeport High School’s sparkling new Joan Benoit Track and Field isn’t a typical Class E venue, but it’s a fine spot for a championship game, and one the Dirigo Cougars are probably glad they’ve already gotten to know, despite the results.
Two things were apparent to the Cougars after their first trip — the Falcons have plenty of size for the trenches and plenty of speed to burn on the turf at the skill positions.
Running back Adam Ulrickson provided much of the latter with 180 yards and three touchdowns rushing, plus a 75-yard kick return for another score. Fellow running back Caden Benedict added 99 yards and QB Anthony Panciocco 80 yards to a rushing attack that shredded the Cougars for 375 yards. Led by Jack Lavorgna and Liam Burnette, Dirigo’s defense will need to keep that speed contained in tight spaces.
The Cougars may have bigger concerns on offense, where leading rusher Alex Gorham was limited in last week’s 17-14 semifinal win over Maranacook by an ankle injury that has troubled him for the latter part of the season. Fellow running back Dallas Berry was able to take up some of the load with 75 yards and a touchdown, plus the clutch game-winning field goal. But the Cougars may need more from him, as well as running back Chandler Redmond and sophomore QB Cole Brown, if Gorham, who had 20 carries for 153 yards in the first game, isn’t close to 100 percent.
Maranacook’s Joe Albert, left, dives in to help two other teammates try to bring down Dirigo’s Dallas Berry during last week’s playoff game in Dixfield. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)