Nov. 16—Getting to a state championship football game is nothing new for either Thornton Academy or Portland High, the two teams that will meet in the Class A final at 11 a.m. Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The Golden Trojans (7-4) are in the Class A final for the fifth straight season and have won five championships under Coach Kevin Kezal (2012, 2014, 2015, 2018, 2021). But those four losses this fall sure look odd. You have to go back to 2006 to find a Thornton team that lost four times in a season. Thornton started the season 0-2, losing to Portland and then defending champion Oxford Hills. Another set of consecutive losses left the Trojans' record at 4-4.
"Yeah, we've seen it all," said senior two-way tackle Liam Hieger. "And because of that, we know how to play."
But a 45-0 thumping of Sanford in the regional semifinals and a 21-13 regional final victory against old rival Bonny Eagle has Thornton back in the championship game.
"Having those two losses in midseason really showed what we need to do to get to the place where we want to be. We've hit our stride for the most part," said senior defensive back Brady Kezal, son of Kevin.
Portland comes in 10-0, with one win a forfeit. Seven of the on-field wins have been blowouts by at least 26 points. The Bulldogs' two close wins featured last-minute go-ahead touchdowns: a 31-yard Louis Thurston to Reegan Buck pass with 48 seconds to play in the season-opening 35-28 win over Thornton, and a 76-yard sprint up the middle by Cordell Jones in the 29-22 victory Saturday against Oxford Hills in the North final.
This is Portland's fifth trip to a state final since 2015 — all on its home field, Fitzpatrick Stadium. Three coaches have taken the Bulldogs to a title game in that span: Jim Hartman to the Class A finals in 2015, 2016 and 2018; Jason McLeod last season in Class B; and Sean Green this season in Portland's return to Class A after three seasons in Class B.
What Portland has not done recently is win a state final. Last year, Portland was pushed around early by Skowhegan in a 20-14 loss. That came a year after a 10-0 Bulldogs team was shocked by Marshwood, 35-0, in the South final. Hartman's regional champs played Thornton tough in a 24-14 loss in 2015, hung with Bonny Eagle for a half in 2016 (a 34-14 loss), and were no match for Thornton in a 49-14 loss in 2018.
Portland's players say things are different this year, thanks in large part to Green and the new coaching staff.
"We have a saying around our team that we're the New Dogs. And those Old Dogs lost those state championships," said Thurston, a junior. "We're the new dogs and we're going to finish the job."
Portland senior left tackle/defensive tackle Anthony Laboy said the Week 1 win at Thornton was a key step for Portland.
"It set a tone for the rest of the season, knowing that we can compete with Class A teams, and it kind of motivated us, knowing that it's a new era of football for Portland, and we just progressed over the season," Laboy said.
Since that game, the teams had different paths.
Thornton played the toughest schedule in Class A — by far. Thornton's opponents have a 59-16 record.
Portland played a weaker schedule. Its opponents in the nine actual games were a combined 35-44.
The Golden Trojans played the other top teams in Class A — Portland, Oxford Hills and Bonny Eagle — in the first three weeks of the regular season. They lost 35-21 to Class C South champion and the No. 1 team in the Varsity Maine football poll, Leavitt, then went to defending New Hampshire Division I champion Bedford (10-0 and in New Hampshire's semifinal round) and took a 38-7 beating to fall to 4-4.
But Thornton never doubted it could still reach the championship game.
"Like we told out kids, we didn't lose to a team from (Class A South) all season," Kevin Kezal said. "We knew we were playing good teams. We knew three of the four losses, had we made a few plays, shown a little more emotion and enthusiasm, we probably had a shot to win those games."
Portland has never been short on enthusiasm, often inspired by its aggressive defense that loves to blitz and cause havoc. The Bulldogs have allowed an average of less than 150 yards per game, just 80 on the ground. They have been targeting a title since the first day they met their new coach.
"We talked about winning a Gold Ball every single week," said Green, the red-bearded coach who went 25-8 and won the 2021 Class C championship in three seasons at Cape Elizabeth.
If Thornton is to keep Portland from achieving its goal, it will need to limit the Bulldogs' big plays. In the season opener, Portland had seven plays from scrimmage of 24 or more yards, and three went for touchdowns.
"We've got to keep everything in front of us and eliminate the big plays," said Brady Kezal. "I think if we eliminate the big plays, we have a good shot, but if we don't do that, it will be a hard game to win."