Nov. 18—Held to just 20 yards in the first half, Thornton Academy needed a jolt.
So why not turn to a kid who played golf last season?
Junior quarterback Wyatt Benoit completed six straight passes on the first drive of the second half to put the Golden Trojans ahead of Portland in the Class A football state championship game Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Then he added scrambling touchdown runs of 13 and 65 yards as Thornton pulled away for a 24-14 win.
"He's a phenomenal athlete. I've seen him since coaching Little League baseball," said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal. "Nothing fazes the kid. He had a phenomenal year for us throwing and obviously running. If we were going to beat this team, we were going to need him to have a huge day for us."
After going 5-4 in the regular season, Thornton (8-4) won its sixth Class A championship since 2012. Portland (10-1 heading into its Thanksgiving game against Deering) lost in a state final for the fifth time since 2015 — the third time against Thornton. Last year, the Bulldogs lost to Skowhegan, 20-14, in the Class B final.
"This isn't going to be the last you hear of the Bulldogs," said Portland Coach Sean Green, in his first year with the Bulldogs. "I think we built a great foundation for our future this year. A lot of the young guys can take a lot away from these seniors."
Thornton had just 4 yards rushing in the first half, and Benoit, under pressure, was 2 of 6 passing for 16 yards.
Portland (17 carries, 48 yards) wasn't having much more success with its running game but led 7-3, thanks to a 59-yard pass from Wildcat quarterback Cordell Jones to Hunter Temple.
The Trojans came out throwing in the second half, with Benoit connecting on short passes to Jackson Paradis and Xander Cantera and a 12-yard wheel route to Mauricio Sunderland.
Then came a deep ball to Brady Kezal, Kevin's son, for 42 yards to the Portland 11. On fourth down, Harry Bunce scored on an inside run from inside the 1, and with JP Baez's point-after kick, Thornton was ahead, 10-7.
"We started passing and got some big completions," said Benoit, who played for Thornton's golf team as a sophomore after playing freshman football.
Thornton's defense forced a three-and-out, and then Shiloh Thao came clean, blocking a punt by Myles Hang to set up the Trojans at the Portland 22. Five plays later, Benoit (8 of 12, 86 yards; 17 carries, 81 yards) showed his elusiveness on a rollout run-pass option, getting away from Portland's fast defensive end, Lisandro Rodrigues, then cutting back for a 13-yard score and a 17-7 lead with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
Portland got back into the game with a 58-yard touchdown pass from Louis Thurston to Temple, three plays after Rodrigues forced a Benoit fumble recovered by the Bulldogs' other standout defensive end, Isaak Alkafaji. Justin Bouchard's point-after kick cut the lead to 17-14 with 29 seconds left in the third.
Thornton looked likely to have to punt the ball away when a would-be 45-yard option pass from Cantera to Brady Kezal was called back because of a holding penalty, setting up second-and-25.
Benoit took the next snap and rolled right, avoiding a free rusher. Ten yards down the field, he cut back and found open space, going 65 yards for the score.
"It was a designed pass play, but I saw Mauricio, our running back, wasn't really open and I saw a gap, so I started running," Benoit said. "The middle of the field, I noticed, was open. So I cut up and there was running room."
In the first half, both defenses were dominant against the run. Portland did have a counter, repeatedly getting receivers open deep as the Trojans struggled to adapt to an early injury to cornerback Ryan Camire. Because of misfires from Thurston (5 of 20, 110 yards) and one pass that glanced off Temple's outstretched hands, those deep shots didn't result in any points.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't connect. We liked a lot of our stuff in the pass game. We thought we could hit them up over the top and we just didn't make the plays we needed to," Green said.
In the second half, with sophomore Alan Sanroman settled in as Camire's replacement, Thornton held Portland to 91 yards (239 for the game).
Brady Kezal sealed the game with an interception with 4:07 to play, and Thornton ran out the clock from there.
"It was just crazy running off the field seeing everyone screaming and yelling," Brady Kezal said.