It was over 20 years ago, but Joe White can remember sitting at his locker, geared up in his Gardiner football uniform, and thinking.

The Tigers were getting ready for another duel with Cony in the epic rivalry between the teams, and White’s mind was years away. He was the latest in a long line of relatives to play in the series. And he was thinking about all of them.

“I’m thinking about what my grandfather did when he prepared, and what my dad did, and how they got their gear on and what they thought about,” White, now the Tigers head coach, said. “It’s a nice connection to have. It’s a nice thing to have.”

The Cony-Gardiner rivalry resumes with its 139th edition Friday night, with the Rams traveling south to face their nemesis. It’s a game that’s long been intertwined with White’s football identity. He grew up with it, hearing from previous generations about the game’s tradition. He’s played in it, seeing for himself the way the communities and schools rallied around the game. And now, from the sidelines, he helps write the latest chapters to the story.

He’s not alone — the coach on the other sideline can make many of the same claims. The Rams’ B.L. Lippert has his own deep ties to the game, first as the tag-along son of a Cony coach and then in the starring role of starting quarterback and head coach.

For both, the game is steeped in memories, dating back to their first snaps. And even before that.

“I feel really honored and blessed to have played in it, and now coached in it,” Lippert said. “Certainly a game I’ll always remember, and my senior class, whenever we get together or see each other it’s a game we talk about, for sure.”

Start with the family ties, of which White has plenty. His great-grandfather, Guy Hathaway, was part of Gardiner’s 1903 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship team. His grandfathers, Waldo White and Fran Whalen, played for the Tigers as well, as did his father, Jon, and his uncles Bob White, Jim Whalen and Mike Whalen.

Starting from childhood, Joe White heard the stories, and knew that Cony-Gardiner was something different.

“My family’s always been around the game,” he said. “It means a lot because it’s part of your tradition, it’s part of your culture. It’s one of those traditions that still stands, and people harass one another.”

Lippert’s family tree doesn’t have its roots in the game, but he did see the rivalry from up close with his father, Bob, serving as a Cony assistant — and letting his son know that one win felt sweeter than the others.

“He’s the one that taught me about the Cony-Gardiner rivalry and the outlook I should have every year as we get ready,” Lippert said. “He’s in his 60s now, and he doesn’t like orange and black, that’s for sure.”

While Bob coached the Rams, first as a volunteer starting in 1981 and eventually as the defensive coordinator, B.L. got to follow along and soak it all in.

“I grew up on the sidelines,” he said.

Eventually, both White and Lippert got their cracks at the series. White’s came first, as a center and tight end from 1991-94, while Lippert’s came as a quarterback from 1997-99. When the day of the game arrived, both White and Lippert saw the same spectacle. Loud, full crowds that were raucous from the opening kickoff to the final kneel-down, with the towns never shying from letting themselves know how they felt about each other.

“When we used to play at Capitol Park in (Augusta), the fans were right on top of you,” Lippert said. “So Cony fans, Gardiner fans had equal ability to express themselves to the other team.”

The memories during the game weren’t always as bright — Gardiner was 4-2 in White’s time while Cony was 1-2 with Lippert — but both had their moments of triumph. The first for White came in 1993, when Gardiner won only once all season — against Cony, 20-14.

“Guys were crying and laying on the field,” he said. “For a half hour after the game, guys wouldn’t leave. It was like the Super Bowl.”

That memory was trumped a year later by a 9-6 victory over the Rams, one that set the stage for a rematch the next week in the playoffs. The Tigers won that too, 15-0. White can still see the first game vividly, a contest in pouring rain that turned into a battle of wills.

“We beat them up there in a monsoon,” he said. “One of your typical Cony-Gardiner games where the grass is up over your knuckle and you can’t read numbers on the unis. They probably wouldn’t even play it nowadays.”

Lippert’s experience in the series started poorly with two losses, and he often had to go back to the sideline while hearing Tigers fans remind him of his struggles.

“I remember being a sophomore and getting a little hazing from the crowd in Gardiner,” he said. “I expected it.”

He had the last laugh as a senior, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-15 victory, though he said the feelings were filled more with relief than vengeance.

“We just wanted to win,” he said. “We didn’t care if it was a one-point game, a 2-0 game, it didn’t matter to us. … I don’t know about avenging any prior losses. It just felt good to win one.”

And to win one for a town that needed it. When the week of the game rolled around, the communities transformed. At Gardiner, there were activities at the school throughout the week, making the school days more like a continuous carnival.

“That made it so exciting,” White said. “There was something every day, whether it was people dressing up or they would go in and have contests in the gym, everything from arm-wrestling competitions to skits, which class had the best skit.”

On Thursday, the town engaged in a final rally, including a small parade that started at the downtown supermarket, went up the town streets and finished in the school gym, where the party was just beginning.

“The band would be playing and we’d do all kinds of stuff,” he said. “I think we used to hang a (fake) Ram off the basketball rim before it became politically incorrect.”

Over in Augusta, Lippert said the ceremonies were just as jubilant.

“We always had a bonfire. I’m not sure when that died out, but we would always have a bonfire the night before, a kind of rally,” said Lippert. “Those days are kind of gone and sometimes you miss it and wish it was still around.”

But that was years ago. Now, White and Lippert lead their own teams with a new generation of players, one that will soon share their own stories.

“You play for the history and the love and for those that set the course before you,” White said. “And that means as much as anything. That’s where I got more of an emotional high off the game, that I was following in the footsteps of people who use to tell me stories about it and I could make my own.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM