No matter the year, the setting or the records, the annual Cony-Gardiner game always means something. Talk to players — past or present — and they will be quick to quip how special this rivalry is, was and forever will be.
Tonight, it resumes at Alumni Field in Augusta, where the rivals will play a regular season game for the first time in nine years.
“It’s special,” said Cony coach Robby Vachon. “I don’t want the kids to lose sight of the fact that it is Cony-Gardiner. It’s very important. It’s important for the fans and it’s important for the communities. We want to make sure our kids understand it.”
Gardiner dropped to Class B in 2005, forcing the rivals to continue the series through exhibition games played either at the beginning or end of the season.
Cony joined Pine Tree Conference Class B this fall when high school football again expanded to four classes. Cony leads the all-time series 68-57-10. It’s won three of the last four meetings and four of the last six.
The game tonight will affect Crabtree points, which determine playoff positioning, but that matters only to Cony.
At 5-2, the Rams are playing for a chance to earn the No. 2 seed and a bye into the PTC B semifinals. Gardiner (0-7) has long been eliminated from playoff contention.
“It’s great to have this at the end of the season,” Gardiner coach Matt Burgess said. “For us, we’re having a rough season, so to play this game so late in the season, it makes the last week that much important. If we were going into the last weekend without playing our rival, it would be a much more difficult week. The kids have been engaged and energetic all week long.”
Added Cony senior quarterback Ben Lucas, whose team is coming off a tough 35-21 loss to Greely last week: “The Cony and Gardiner games will be the ones you will remember later on in life and at at class reunions. They are 0-7 but if you win that game you pretty much can consider their season a success.”
The Tigers, like they’ve done all season, will likely rotate Eli Fish and Matt McKenna at quarterback. Fish will start the game.
For Gardiner to win, it will need to string together a few long drives to keep Lucas and the vaunted Cony offense standing on a sideline. Junior tailback Brad Weston averages a team-high 85 yards a game.
Defensively, Burgess knows what his team is up against when Lucas does get the ball. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound quarterback has thrown for 2,204 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. He’s completed 136 of 226 passes (60 percent) and thrown just six interceptions.
“He can throw the ball down the field with accuracy,” Burgess said. “He’s good at what he does. We know that. Their offense is quite prolific; it can keep you up at nights.”
Chase Begin, Josh McKelvey, Hunter Russell and Tyler Caron will start in the secondary for Gardiner. All are juniors except Russell, who’s a freshman.
“We can’t take them lightly,” Lucas said. “They are a dangerous team. Hopefully, we can pick them apart and put some points apart, but you just never know. We just don’t want to have back to back weeks where we are sloppy. We want momentum going into the playoffs.”
The Tigers will field a young team tonight, with just one senior — tackle Luke Chaffee — in the starting lineup. The Rams will start 10 seniors on offense and eight on defense.
“We’ll try to throw a couple wrinkles at them,” Burgess said. “We looked at the Greely film to see what they did. We’ll have to throw some curveballs at them, change things up on them a little.”
Added Vachon: “We’ll have to be ready for anything.”
Bill Stewart — 621-5640