Sharon Gallant was well-groomed for the position, but she still had one of the toughest coaching jobs in Maine high school sports this fall.

Gallant was replacing Moe McNally, a person so respected in the field hockey community that the annual senior all-star game is named after her. McNally won over 400 games and coached the Tigers since 1979 — not just before any of this year’s players were born, but probably before most of their parents had even met.

Worse, Gardiner looked like it was headed for a down year, and some people would automatically assume that was Gallant’s fault.

“When you do follow someone who’s been that incredibly successful, it’s definitely a little bit scary,” Gallant said.

Gallant, who had been McNally’s assistant for 15 years, made it all work. She guided the Tigers to the No. 1 seed in Eastern B, and a spot in the state final game. That makes her the choice as the Kennebec Journal Field Hockey Coach of the Year. Oak Hill’s Betsy Gilbert and Winthrop’s Jess Merrill were also considered.

“I was just hoping for home-field advantage (in the first round),” Gallant said. “I had no idea — I mean no idea — that we would be 1 in the East.”

It made Gallant’s transition easier that Gardiner had an impressive senior class — one that was especially motivated by the idea from the outside that the Tigers weren’t going to be that good this season.

“In preseason, we definitely set our goal high,” Gardiner senior Lilly Chepke said. “I think a big part of it was all of our seniors were leaders. I think that every senior played an important role, and really held our team together.”

Gallant knew she could call McNally when she got in a bind and needed advice, and the players also respected her.

“She already knew our players,” Gardiner senior Emily Malinowski said, “and she knew how we played. So it was really good for her to be our coach.”

In taking over the head coaching role, Gallant didn’t change much, but the changes she made were extremely beneficial. She made sure Gardiner got regular season and exhibition games on turf, so the Tigers would be ready if and when they played on artificial grass in the playoffs. Gallant also embraced the way the game is changing, encouraging her players to use turf-like skills. Center midfielder Abby Dyer became one of the most proficient players in central Maine at lifting the ball long distances.

“I definitely wanted to try to get them to add 3-dimensions, add some lifts and that sort of thing,” Gallant said. “I think that’s going to be so important the next few years.”

Gallant made her biggest move late in the regular season. Although the Tigers were on their way to a 12-1-1 record, she called up freshmen Mikayla Bourassa and Hailee Lovely from the junior varsity and gave them key roles.

“Our JV practices with our varsity for the majority of our practices,” Gallant said. “I think that’s a real benefit to our program. So I had seen the two of them anyway along the way. When I look back at it now, it’s probably one of those moves that could’ve sunk ya.”

But the only thing the move sunk was Gardiner’s opponents. Bourassa solidified the Tigers defense. Lovely assisted on her sister Nickyia’s game-winning goal in the regional final against Belfast, and then Hailee herself scored in the state final against York.

“I think it worked really well,” Malinowski said. “Mikayla Bourassa was a really strong spot on our team, and we really needed that. Hailee was a good fill-in, whenever someone was tired or having an off day.”

Gardiner lost to York, 2-1, in the Class B state championship game. Still, that loss was one of the high points of Gallant’s season.

“We had heard that this York team was an absolute powerhouse,” Gallant said. “We knew going in that we were definitely the underdog. To play that well together, against this team that was an amazing powerhouse, I couldn’t have been happier.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

Twitter: @Matt_DiFilippo

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.