Tigers, Capers got to regionals with ground games, quality defenses

GARDINER — The two teams playing tonight for the Class C South championship couldn’t have taken more different paths to get there.

On one hand, there’s No. 2 Cape Elizabeth, the perennial contender that came into the season with high expectations and played up to them, rolling through a strong regular season en route to a second straight C South final in their 12th straight trip to the playoffs. On the other, there’s No. 4 Gardiner, a newbie to Class C with a proud history but a dreary recent past, and a team that had to resuscitate a lagging season for a chance to make it this far.

On the field, however, the similarities become evident. Both teams are hard-nosed offenses that force opponents to toughen up, especially against the run, in order to get off the field. Both teams have standout defenses, capable of pitching shutouts against even the best offenses that they face.

On paper, it suggests a close game, as was the case when they last met and Cape Elizabeth (8-2) came away with a 21-13 victory at Hoch Field. But that was nine weeks and over 40 degrees ago, and according to both coaches, the rematch instead has a first-time feel to it.

“It feels like it was an eternity ago,” said Tigers coach Joe White, whose team is on a four-game winning streak after starting 1-5. “We weren’t quite comfortable yet on either side of the ball. … It was our second game, and we were kind of feeling our way.”

“That first game feels like it was such a long time ago,” Capers coach Aaron Filieo said. “A lot has changed since then. It was a competitive game, and I think signs were there that both teams would have a good defense as the season progressed. But at that point, it was just so foundational.”

The teams have found their stride now, however. And they’re ready for a showdown with a state championship bid at stake.

“As a senior, it’s very, very exciting for us,” Gardiner wide receiver and defensive back Dimitri Paradis said. “If our defense plays like they have been, then I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to do anything against them. They’re a strong unit, and on offense, we’ve just got to keep pushing the ball upfield and doing what we’ve been doing.”

Both teams have overshadowed areas of strength. For Gardiner, it’s the rushing attack, which is led by speedy Collin Foye (102 rushing yards in the semifinal win over Leavitt) and hard-running Nate Malinowski, while for Cape Elizabeth, it’s a defense that allowed only 77 points in eight regular-season games and shut out Fryeburg Academy, 14-0, in last week’s semifinal.

But each team’s perhaps overlooked strength is the other’s trademark asset. That’s a defense for Gardiner that has allowed 14 points in its two playoff wins, and a ground game for Cape Elizabeth that, led by Ryan Weare and Jack Glanville, has mowed over opponents with an intimidating combination of speed, strength and power.

“Our defense has really been leading us. Probably the best in the league, in my opinion,” said Gardiner senior quarterback Cole Heaberlin, who will start despite leaving last week’s game with a sore shoulder. “(But Cape’s) aggressive. That’s really what they are, they’re kind of like looking in the mirror. They’ve got some big backs, 33 (Glanville) and 48 (Weare), those are probably some of the best running backs or backfield we’ve seen all year.”

And the Capers know how to test their opponents. Sometimes both backs get equal chances to batter the opposing defensive line, as was the case in Week 2 when Weare ran for 53 yards on 14 carries and Glanville ran for 85 on 19. Sometimes it’s Glanville’s turn, as it was often at the start of the season. Sometimes, as was the case last week when he ran 39 times for 129 yards, it’s Weare’s time to shine.

Both backs will get their chances early. Then the Tigers will see plenty of whoever’s hurting them most.

“We’ve used them differently according to the situation, and who we play,” Filieo said. “That’ll be our gameplan, and whether or not we end up honing in on one or two individual players, that obviously will depend on what they do and the conditions.”

Oh yeah, the conditions. After a first two months of fall that have felt more like an overstaying summer, Friday will be downright wintry, with temperatures in the mid-20s and a wind chill in the mid-teens.

“It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be a little bit painful to tackle,” Heaberlin said. “I think it comes down right to the fourth quarter. Who’s the tougher team? Who plays with more heart?”

And, the Tigers hope, who wants it more. After ending a four-year playoff drought, desire will be in no short supply on the Gardiner sideline.

“They really take pride in football, and they know what football means to the town of Gardiner and our community,” White said. “They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, and getting whaled on. This year they had an opportunity to do good things. It didn’t quite start out the way they wanted it to, but they’re certainly finishing on the right note.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM