GARDINER — As far as Joe White was concerned, he and his Gardiner Area High School football team were beaten by the model.

The Tigers’ upstart run came to an end in the C South final at Cape Elizabeth, with the hosts moving on to the state final with a 34-12 victory. The Capers were strong, relentless and efficient — exactly, White pointed out, the way they’ve always looked.

“They’ve always been the team that I’ve kind of tried to emulate, as far as execution goes,” he said. “I know (Cape coach) Aaron Filieo from a long time back. He’s a meticulous and detail-oriented coach, and he got that from his mentor.

“Aaron’s doing all the right things down here in Cape, and it showed tonight. … Cape knows about championship level.”

Gardiner may be figuring it out, however. After years of losing records, the Tigers were on their way to another one with losses in five of their first six games before they won four straight, the last two of which were playoff victories that vaulted them to the brink of the Class C title game.

They may not know that championship level yet, but this time, there’s optimism in Gardiner.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” White said. “This year’s turnaround really showed a lot of growth and a lot of improvement, and a will to want to compete at the next level. … To make it to the C South championship is a big deal for our players and our program, and so I think the most important thing to pull out of this year is that we can do it.”

White saw that winning instinct start to grow everywhere — in workouts, in practice, on late-game drives — and said the team’s play hit another level as a result.

“It’s great to have talent. We had some talented players this year,” he said. “But winning is a mindset, and if you’re not used to winning or not accustomed to winning, it can be really hard to break that losing mentality.”

Another reason for the optimism is that many of the players who keyed the culture shift will be back. The team has its starting linebacking corps back in Garrett Maheux, Cam Michaud and Nate Malinowski, its top two defensive linemen back in Roy Appleby and Dylan Spencer, one of its top two safeties returning in Blaise Tripp and a head start on replacing Collin Foye’s load in the backfield with Malinowski and Michaud.

“It’s a very positive outlook,” White said. “We had a lot of juniors and sophomores playing in that C South championship. … It’s nice to be able to play in games like that with a young group, knowing that many of them will come back and hopefully continue the run.”

• • •

Walter Polky arrived at Maranacook looking to establish a competitive culture at a program that hadn’t seen much success.

With year one over, it’s hard to argue he’s on his way.

Maranacook went 6-2 in Class E after going winless in Class D last year, and though the season ended Friday with a 20-14 defeat to Boothbay in the class’s championship game, Polky said it was clear to see the strides his group made.

“I thought the kids played really well all season long,” he said. “Every week you could see kids getting it a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. … The kids started buying in, and hopefully we can keep progressing.”

With 21 of 22 starters returning, Polky will be able to continue the program development with his players and keep building what the coach kept referring to as their “football IQ,” rather than having to groom an overhauled roster.

“As a coach and a coaching staff, it’s a great thing,” he said. “It’s another year of the same verbiage, it’s another year of the same system. … It’s letting kids develop instead of throwing kids into the fire before they’re ready, which is a wonderful thing as a coach and a great way to keep your program up.”

• • •

There was a wrinkle to Kents Hill School’s tradition-rich rivalry.

The Huskies rented out lights for last Friday’s 8-0 loss to Hebron Academy, setting up their fourth night game and first in three years — which also came against the Lumberjacks.

The wind was howling and the temperature hovered below freezing, but coach Steve Shukie said the opportunity to play a night-time game in front of a crowd of students — many of whom were in class the next afternoon during the typical game time — made the always anticipated game an even bigger deal for the players.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Shukie said. “I think the kids really enjoyed it, and I think they’ll remember the good parts about it, as opposed to the loss. We’ll try to do it again, if we can.”

The game wasn’t always planned for a night kickoff, but about a week before the game, the school decided to arrange the prime-time start.

“There were a couple of factors that played into it,” Shukie said. “It was something different for the players, and exciting. Hebron was into doing it. … It was kind of a last-minute decision to get everything together, but once we went with it, the school was great in getting everything set up for us.”

The Huskies (1-7) flirted with getting the win for their fans, but couldn’t sustain drives despite moving the ball well for parts of the game. Hebron scored on its first drive, and held on from there to claim the Headmaster’s chair for the fifth straight year.

“It was a really good defensive battle,” Shukie said. “The wind definitely took the ball out of the air. … We defended the pass well, we had a lot of tackles for loss. Just that first drive, they got us. We made our adjustments and played really well, but we couldn’t get the big play on offense.”

• • •

B.L. Lippert led Cony from a three-win regular season to a top-three spot in the Pine Tree Conference B this fall. Administrators noticed, naming Lippert the PTC B Coach of the Year.

Conference first-team All-Star nods went to receiver Jordan Roddy and guard Mitchell MacFarland of Cony, running back Austin Pelletier and tackle Colin Kinney of Messalonskee and tackle Elijah Gagnon of Brunswick.

First-team All-Star picks on defense included defensive end Nic Mills, linebackers Logan Leadbetter and Matthew Wozniak and safety Anthony Sousa of Cony, linebacker Alden Balboni and cornerback Tyler Lewis of Messalonskee and linebacker Sam Dorval of Brunswick. Special teams picks included Messalonskee’s Kyle Burger-Roy at kicker and punter and Roddy at return specialist.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM