GARDINER — The tailback takes the handoff and bursts toward the line. He takes one hit, then another, but doesn’t go down.

His legs constantly churning, the ball carrier sheds the would-be tacklers and slips through a hole to turn a busted play into a big gain.

Gardiner football fans saw plenty of that during the last three years, when the electrifying Alonzo Connor routinely drubbed defenses as he piled up more than 5,000 rushing yards in a standout career.

They saw some more of that last Saturday, when Connor’s successor — senior Steve Sirois — enjoyed his best performance of his career with a 126-yard effort in a 21-18 win over rival Waterville.

“I go out there and all I can do is play hard,” Sirois said. “Ever since seventh grade, I’ve been looking forward to the day when I could come out and do something.”

Sirois is doing plenty for the Tigers (3-0), who are transitioning well in the first season of the post-Connor era.

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound tailback is a big reason why Gardiner is still a formidable threat in a Pine Tree Conference Class B that most pegged as a two-team race between Leavitt (3-0) and Mt. Blue (3-0).

Gardiner hosts the Cougars on Friday at Hoch Field.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Sirois said. “I’ve been working very hard to get to where I am.”

Sirois is averaging about 100 yards a game.

“He’s taken the pressure off our shoulders,” Gardiner senior quarterback Dennis Meehan said. “We thought it would be really difficult to replace (Connor) but he’s jumped right in and got the job done for us.”

His breakout performance came Saturday against the Purple Panthers (2-1), when he rushed for a touchdown and several key first downs late in the game to help the Tigers kill the clock.

“Steve is in his second year of the offense,” Gardiner coach Matt Burgess said. “He’s bought into everything, which is great. He bought into the same-but-different philosophy on our offense. He understands what we’re trying to do. He’s worked hard to be a strong tailback in this league.”

Sirois acknowledged he is not trying to be the “next Connor.”

He does, however, hope to mirror Connor’s impact on the team in his lone season as a starter.

“They are big shoes to fill,” Sirois said. “I knew that. It’s been hard to live up to that. It’s not easy replacing him. The biggest thing about Zo was his speed. I feel I’m just as tough as he is, but I know his speed gets me all the time. When I get up to the line, I’m a lot like him. If there isn’t a hole, I’ll make one. I’ve been working very, very hard to get to his level.

“I wanted to show that we can still play football here without him.”

Senior captain Seth Wing, who is playing an increased role in the offense, said the ground game is still a strength.

“We came in and knew we had to go as hard as we could to fill those shoes of (Connor),” he said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I really think we’ve picked up where we left off.”

Added Meehan: “Steve just runs downhill. He keeps his legs turning. He can get hit once or twice but he just doesn’t go down. Alonzo is a great player, but Steve is a great player, too. Both are different. They have attributes the other doesn’t have.”

Burgess has diversified the offense with a steady passing attack.

However, the second-year coach made sure Connor got his touches, and he’s making sure Sirois will as well.

“Alonzo was a wonderful tailback and a heck of a football player,” Burgess said. “But we have different kind of athletes this year. With Alonzo, you had to get him the ball. We have a lot of those guys now, and (Sirois) is certainly one of them.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5640

[email protected]

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