GARDINER — The Gardiner Tigers are relying on youth to power their offense this year. And their backfield keeps getting younger.

Four sophomores will start in the backfield of the Tigers’ new Wing T this Friday night when they travel north to face Skowhegan. Tailback Cam Michaud, fullback Nathan Malinowski and wingback Garrett Maheux played significant time in their opening night loss to Messalonskee, and on Friday, they will be joined by quarterback Tanner Hebert, who is stepping in for junior Cole Heaberlin after Heaberlin suffered a broken foot.

Coach Joe White and his staff are banking on the shift to the Wing T with younger and more athletic players sparking an offense that finished next to last in points scored in 2015 and last the two previous years.

They are also the players can help change the culture of a program that has won three games in the last three years and is searching for its first playoff appearance since 2012.

“They don’t like to lose,” White said. “It’s like that group in 2007, when Kyle Stilphen played quarterback and Bass Chadwick was at tailback and that core (that won the state title). I’m not trying to make any parallels, but those kids didn’t like to lose. It was unacceptable. These sophomores don’t really know how to lose. This is unfamiliar territory for them to have people hang 40 or 50 points on them on Friday night.”

Much of that sophomore core had success last year at the freshman and JV levels. They had even more success on the ice as part of Gardiner’s 15-5-1 Class B North championship hockey team.

They admitted they weren’t quite prepared for the varsity-level size and speed they encountered in last Friday’s 45-21 loss at Messalonskee, but that makes them no more willing to accept the outcome.

“We’ve grown up winning all the time,” Hebert said. “We don’t want to start losing now.”

There were glimpses of what White and his staff saw over the summer when they decided there was no time like the present to have the sophomores take on a central role in the 2016 season.

White said he first took notice of the group when they were freshmen more than holding their own against older players.

“They were above the level of competition there,” White said.

The sophomores started to get an idea they wouldn’t spend this season watching from the sidelines in July, and took advantage of the opportunity.

“We kind of heard about it over the summer, and we all felt like we could play,” Michaud said.

“Throughout this preseason, they stayed pretty level with the varsity competition,” White said.

Michaud was among the first to see more playing time in preseason. He continued to show that promise when he ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns last week.

“I really took advantage of the unbalanced formation we were running,” Michaud said. “I could kind of get lost behind the blockers and then break it outside.”

Like most of the sophomores, Michaud stands 5-foot-7, weighs 150 pounds and has speed to burn. White installed the Wing T to take advantage of that speed and athleticism.

“He cuts on a dime and redirects and he finds these holes,” White said. “Just when you think he’s bogged down, he breaks away from the pack.”

“It’s easy (to block for him) because he’s got that speed to just break it,” Maheux said.

Malinowski, who only outweighs Michaud by about 10 pounds, earned the job of being his lead blocker during the preseason.

“They work really well together. When you watch Malinowski at fullback and Cam at tailback, it’s like peanut butter and jelly,” White said.

“He finds the holes well so I can just push my guy wherever he wants to go,” Malinowski said “As long as I keep them from tackling, he’ll find a way through.”

Maheux, the tallest of the group at 5-9, stepped in for junior Collin Foye at wing-back when Foye suffered a collapsed lung during a preseason scrimmage, but could ultimately see some time spelling Michaud.

“Maheux ran tailback in the JV game on Monday and he’s just a caliber above what’s out there,” White said. “If those guys can play to that next level on a varsity field, then we’ve got something.”

White thinks the Tigers may have something in Hebert, who missed three weeks recovering from surgery to remove plates from a broken collarbone suffered during the offseason. Athletic and strong enough to play anywhere on the field, his initial role was to serve as a jack-of-all-trades before Heaberlin went down.

“He’s another kid that we can groom to do this and be like another running back out of the backfield,” White said. “And he’s such a phenomenal athlete, he throws a beautiful ball. We didn’t even see that until we saw him fire off one day, and he makes it look easy.”

“I was pretty surprised (to get the nod at QB) because I figured that Eli Kropp would step in since he’s been quarterback before. But I know all the plays so, I guess, do what you’ve got to,” Hebert said.

The sophomores have picked up the new offense fairly quickly, White said.

“You don’t have to do a whole lot of fancy stuff. They almost run the play like it’s drawn up and they improvise as they go,” White said.

Matt Boynton, a converted soccer player, is a fifth athletic sophomore starting at flanker. Several of the sophomores also start on defense. Michaud, Maheux and Malinowski are linebackers, Hebert a safety.

White acknowledged the influx of sophomores into such prominent roles has ruffled some feathers among upperclassmen. But the talent and attitude they bring to the team could have a ripple effect, even if the win/loss record doesn’t change overnight.

“I told them their job is just to step in, have fun and do what they do, because I’d like to see others grab on and rise up to the level, (and) because we’re going to put 11 guys like this on the football field,” he said.

“It’s no secret that we’ve been playing with kind of a hang-dog, get punched in the face then tuck your tail between your legs and run away by halftime (mentality), because it’s 7-6 at the end of the first quarter and 41-6 at the end of the game; it’s 20-10 at the half but 50-10 by the end of it,” he added. “We need to change the conversation in and around here, and it’s not, hey, he’s better than you; it’s, hey, I want people to play like that.”