Gardiner has never been a basketball town.

It’s always been football first in Gardiner. When you think of boys sports at the school, football is the first one that comes to mind, always. Decades of Friday night success will do that.

“There’s a winning tradition there, so why not bring that to our program?” Gardiner boys basketball coach Jason Cassidy asked.

Basketball has been an afterthought in Gardiner. A couple hours in the Bangor Auditorium on Saturday afternoon is going to help change that.

The Tigers knocked off an undefeated Mt. Desert Island team, 70-58, to advance to the Class B state championship game. It was the first regional title for the Gardiner boys, who before Saturday had never even played in the regional title game.

“This year, we really just broke out,” senior center Aaron Toman, who scored 16 points in Saturday’s win, said.

To say the Tigers broke out is an understatement. This season, they built a new floor on the foundation that was set over the past few years.

Over the last 40 years, the Gardiner boys basketball program has had just 16 winning seasons. Seven of those have come since 2005, and four of those are under the watch of Cassidy, who took over the Tigers for the 2007-08 season.

The Gardiner boys basketball fortunes started to turn a few years before Cassidy’s arrival, with the group of players led by Sean McNally. Now an assistant coach with the Tigers, McNally was a finalist for Mr. Basketball before a successful playing career at the University of Maine. He loves helping these Tigers build on the success his group started six years ago.

“These kids are great. They’re like sponges. They absorb everything we tell them,” McNally said. “They believe in everything we tell them. They believe in us and we believe in them. When they’re out on the court, we trust they’re going to make the right decisions.”

In the past, the football and basketball cultures at Gardiner mixed, but poorly. Cassidy has embraced the player who may not make a summer game because football season is approaching. Alonzo Connor, Matt Hall and Justin Lovely, three key members of the Gardiner football team this past fall, were also key members of the basketball team this winter.

“We just plugged away. We went up to Livermore to Travis Magnusson’s tournament. We drove all over heck up here to Bob Cimbolek’s tournament. We played as many games as we could get ourselves in,” Cassidy said. “It’s hard. The kids are working very hard in both programs.”

It feels like now, it’s not an either or situation. Why not excel at both?

“Put them together with the (basketball) skill kids, and they give you a certain toughness and edge,” said Rob Munzing, a former Gardiner football coach who has lived in the town since the early 1970s. “Matt and Alonzo are perfect examples of this. They don’t play a lot of summer basketball.”

What basketball tradition Gardiner, has, Cassidy embraced. One of his assistants is former head coach Art Warren, the coach of the 1974 Tigers, who before this season had the school record for wins in a season with 18. Saturday’s win over MDI was Gardiner’s 19th.

If there’s an opponent on Gardiner’s schedule, chances are, Warren scouted it.

McNally remembers having to talk up the Gardiner basketball team to fill the gym. When he was a sophomore, McNally’s Tigers upset Brunswick in the Eastern A quarterfinals. That helped turn the town’s eye toward the gym. That glance is now a stare. “They have the whole town behind them now,” McNally said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

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