As his team embarked to Thornton Academy for a preseason tournament, Gardiner boys lacrosse coach KC Johnson had a simple answer when asked what he looked for when evaluating the Tigers.

“I want them to be athletes and we’ll go from there,” Johnson said. “My philosophy is just to try and build during the season. We go from the baseline out and build from there. Every team has its own personality. This one took the bull by the horns.”

Gardiner stormed through the regular season, finishing undefeated, en route to winning the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B title.

The Tigers earned the top seed in the Eastern B playoffs and marched to the regional final, where it fell to Yarmouth.

For leading Gardiner to yet another strong season, Johnson is the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel Boys Lacrosse Coach of the Year.

Messalonskee’s Tom Sheridan and Zach Stewart, of Maranacook/Winthrop, were also considered.

“This was the most enjoyable year,” said Johnson, who resigned after 15 years at Gardiner because of a job requirement. “The kids knew the system inside and out. They formed their own identity. I really wanted the kids to just enjoy this season, to enjoy the way they were playing. It was important for me to see that.”

The Tigers did, said senior captain Keegan Smith, but Johnson still faced some challenges along the way.

One of the biggest?

“We didn’t have the competition like the teams in the south had,” Smith said. “We could’ve easily slacked off but he didn’t let that happen. I know that was tough for him.”

Game management was another challenge for Johnson, whose team often enjoyed big first-half leads. He said coaching those type of games wasn’t easy at times.

“Really, it was about knowing when to call the dogs off in the games,” Johnson said. “We had a killer start to the season, and the tough part was knowing when to shut kids down without ruining any momentum. We just had that lunch pail mentality. We showed up, worked hard and tried not to get ahead of ourselves. It was tough at times. It was tough not to look forward to that Oak Hill game or to Maranacook.”

Smith, who led the Tigers with 83 points, said Johnson pushed the team hard and made everyone better.

“He pushes you in practice,” he said. “He gets us all going. As soon as we start to slack off, he gets the intensity going. He’s a relaxed coach when we’re working hard. The biggest thing with him is that he wasn’t afraid to try new things. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without him. He’s a great coach.”

Fellow senior captain midfielder Seth Wing agreed.

“He made a huge commitment to us,” he said. “He knew what he needed to get from the players and he really brought it out. His biggest challenge was getting us fired up for big games because we didn’t have a bunch of them. He knew how to get us motivated. He pushed us a lot and was very, very demanding — but in a good way. It was a lot of fun playing for him.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5640

[email protected]

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