GARDINER — It may be billed as an exhibition game these days, but the Cony-Gardiner football game still brings fans out of the woodwork. More than 3,000 showed up on a warm Friday evening at Hoch Field to watch teams square off for the 135th time in one of the nation’s oldest high school football rivalries.

For Gary and Carolyn Burns, attendance was a no-brainer. What better way to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary? Burns first played for Cony in the 1950 game and the scores of the three games he played in are a fresh as yesterday.

“13-12 (win), 6-2 (win) and 7-0 (loss),” Burns said.

Burns was honored at halftime as a former player and contributor to the football program along with Norman Pelletier who played on the 1981 state championship team for Gardiner and later coached at the youth level.

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About 20 players from Gardiner’s 1981 state championship team showed up and were recognized at halftime. Team member Brad Hill was one of the organizers.

“We started organizing in February,” Hill said.  “Tomorrow night we are going to have a get together at the Legion hall where we have three different activities going on.”

The ‘81 team avenged a regular-season loss to Winslow by beating the Black Raiders in the state title game at Bowdoin College. Some of the key team members included Peter Story, Frank Smith, Biff Lougee, John Helm, Chris Davis, Vic Goodwin, Norman Pelletier and John Joyce.

“We were small, we were strong, we were quick and we were disciplined,” Hill said. “We had three coaches who got everything out of us that they could.”

John Wolfgram was the head coach while Rob Munzing and John Burgess were assistant. Burgess and Wolfgram announced the game as it was streamed live over the Internet on the Kennebec Journal’s website.

“They were just a great group of guys and they cared about each other,” Burgess said. “It sounds cliché but it was really true.”

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Gardiner head coach Matt Burgess and his brother and assistant Andy got an early indoctrination to the game. So did Cony offensive coordinator B.L. Lippert. Their dads — John Burgess and Bob Lippert — were defensive coaches at their sons’ schools and got them on the sidelines early.
“Mathew was five days old and he hasn’t missed a game since,” John Burgess said.

Burgess wasn’t sure how much knowledge he passed to his sons.

“They got the love and the passion for, that’s what they got,” he said.

Lippert waited until B.L. was a year old before getting him on the sidelines.

“He’s been on the sidelines since 1982,” Bob said. “I used to bring him to practice all the time. I watched films all week and he’d sit there and watch them with me.”

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It’s been several years since Gardiner fans heard public address announcer Sam Shaw, but he was on the P.A. on Friday night, with some of his familiar catch phrases like “taken down by the Gardiner cat pack.”

Shaw was pressed into service after George Phelps stepped aside recently and said  he’ll announce the field hockey and soccer games next week that are part of the Drive Out Cancer Challenge . He’s even considering coming back for football games this season.

Shaw announced football games for 25 years before leaving the mic nine years ago.

“I look at Gardiner’s roster today and I don’t know a kid on it,” he said. “I did it for 25 years, but I was coaching junior high football at the same time. Those kids I announced I coached.”

A familiar voice that was silent Friday night was Don Brown, who retired from radio this year after announcing Cony-Gardiner games since 1968. His greatest thrill in sports broadcasting, he said, was announcing in 1981 when his son Ray played for the Tigers years after getting in a life-threatening car accident.

“It was an emotional thing for me because here’s my kid playing on a state championship team and 14 years we didn’t think he was going to make it through life.”

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Proceeds from the game and contest between both schools athletic teams will go to the Alfond Cancer Center in Augusta. The idea began four years ago with the field hockey teams and has raised thousands of dollars to date through gate receipts, concessions and auctions.

Honorary captains who have succumbed or survived cancer are chosen for each game. Friday night’s captains were Cindy Donnell, an Ed-tech at Gardiner area High School who has been cancer free for two years and Ronnie Hopkins, who played at Gardiner on the 1954 state title team and had three sons who played at Cony. He passed away from cancer in 2003.

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Three of the officials in Friday’s game played in Cony-Gardiner games and all three were winners their senior year. Mike Hopkins played for Cony in the 1977 game which the Rams won 13-0. Jeff Mertzel played for Gardiner in the 1986 game won by the Tigers 41-0. And Rusty Hopkins played for Cony in the 1988 game which the Rams won 22-0.

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The Great American Rivalry Series, a company headquartered in Kentucky that spotlights high school rivalries around the country in conjunction with U.S. Air Force made its third appearance at the game.
Each year the organization distributes $500 academic scholarships to a player from each team. Frank Chepke was Gardiner’s recipient while Sam Hopkins won the scholarship for Cony.

The Drive Out Cancer Challenge continues Monday with a number of events including a volleyball game between the schools at 4 p.m., a cross country team relay from Augusta to Gardiner via the Kennebec River Rail Trial at 5. Also taking place at 5 at Hoch Field will be a girls soccer game. A putting contest between the golf teams will be held at 6 and the boys soccer team play at 7.

On Tuesday, the junior varsity field hockey teams play at 5 p.m. followed by the varsity game at 7.

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638
[email protected]

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