It’s just a game, on its face. But Gardiner coach Joe White knows there are times when football becomes more than that.

“It’s really, in many respects, the heartbeat of a small town like Gardiner,” he said. “It has a rich tradition. And when Gardiner football is doing well, you can tell. There’s a positive energy around town.”

So given that status, the team is aware when its community is hurting. And since the first day of September, when Gardiner junior Taby Hembree passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident the day before, the community has had to deal with an overwhelming combination of shock and grief.

The Tigers have felt it, too. And they’ve made it a point to help, while also taking Hembree on as a source of motivation.

“The kids are, like the community, very resilient and ready to help, ready to move on and ready to grow from what’s happened,” White said. “They’re winning in her name. Every breakdown is about Taby, and they really care about her and they really care about bringing people together and bringing back the excitement of football in the fall.”

Hembree was involved in the school and, as a keeper on the soccer team, the athletic community, so White said the news struck a personal chord for the players on the football team.

“Ultimately, they lost a classmate, and athletics are important in our community,” White said. “Regardless of the sport, I think if something like that were to happen to any team, classmates and teammates and kids who play sports just rally around the fact that someone’s lost a friend, someone’s lost a teammate and someone’s lost a daughter. … We’re not talking about sports anymore. We’re talking about life.”

The tragedy has left its mark both on the football team and its season. The Tigers stopped practice to stand along the end line during the national anthem of the girls soccer team’s first game of the season. They’ve had both games moved up a day to Saturday nights, the first because of the immediacy of the news, and the second this past weekend for Hembree’s funeral. After the first game, a 26-6 win over Morse, tight end Patrick Pelletier said the team played and won for Taby.

“They’ve been able to step up and take on a supportive role in helping … the Hembree family,” White said. “And on top of that, they’ve gone out and played football, and won. So that’s a good combination of things.”

The story stayed the same in Saturday’s loss to Cape Elizabeth. The Tigers took the powerful Capers down to the final possession before falling, 21-13.

“It’s hard to be excited and celebrate and play a game on the one hand and get emotional about that, and then on the other hand you have to bury a classmate,” White said. “The dichotomy is unreal, and they handled it so well.”

• • •

The Oak Hill offense is clicking, and Cruz Poirier is a big reason why.

The senior running back is off to a hot start with 347 rushing yards and four touchdowns through two games, leading the Raiders to a 2-0 record and a spot atop a competitive field in Class D South.

Coach Stacen Doucette credited the team for the impressive statistics, but said that he has been happy to see Poirier as productive as he’s been.

“There’s been no one that we’ve put more pressure on in three years,” he said. “It’s been him, and it’s nice to see him have some success. He’s been a hard-working kid.”

Poirier took a while to break through against Yarmouth on Saturday, as his first four carries went for a total of a loss of a yard. But once he found an opening, the Clippers couldn’t catch up. He got loose around the left end, then turned up the jets and beat the defense down the left sideline for an 82-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, then struck again with a 52-yard touchdown run in the third in which he started left, cut through the middle of the defense and then outraced the defense to the right pylon.

It’s that kind of running ability that makes the Raiders a threat to score from anywhere, but Doucette said it’s only part of what’s made him so valuable so far.

“He has a job to do, and you know what, he’s an exceptional pass protector,” he said. “And when you want to be talked (about) as an all-around, exceptional running back, you have to be able to pass protect. … He just doesn’t shy away from any accountability or pressure.”

• • •

Cony’s offense has been sputtering and coach B.L. Lippert isn’t denying it.

After scoring 19 points — just six in the second half — in a defeat against Falmouth, the Rams offense mustered only 12 points in a 20-14 loss to Skowhegan, and failed to score on six of eight possessions that went into Indians territory.

“We needed to make a play, and we had a couple of times where they blitzed and we had a screen called, didn’t block it or the running back ran the wrong way,” Lippert said. “Stuff like that (where) you need to make a play and we just couldn’t make it.

“At this moment, we’re not executing on offense. And that falls squarely on my shoulders as a playcaller.”

Cony has particularly struggled to pass the ball downfield, relying on heavy doses of screen passes and short throws to the flat. The passing game came up short against Skowhegan, and though heavy rain throughout the game made throwing a challenge, Lippert said he was still disappointed in the results.

“We couldn’t throw the ball in the conditions, couldn’t pass protect at all,” he said. “We really got handled physically, which is somewhat shocking.”

The Rams have even been unable to consistently find wideout Jordan Roddy, who hauled in 17 touchdown receptions last year. Roddy caught seven passes for 91 yards and a touchdown against Falmouth but was held without a reception against Skowhegan, and has gotten his hands on the ball more on the ground (13 carries) this season than through the air.

“They pretty much had him double-teamed,” Lippert said. “If we singled him up they put (Jon) Bell on him and somebody over the top. Particularly in these conditions, it’s going to be difficult to squeeze the ball into tight coverage like that.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM