NEWPORT — Concern was growing. Joe White didn’t try to deny it. The win, the Gardiner Area High School football team’s first of the season, was slipping away. And the Tigers could feel it.

“You do start to get a little bit of a pit in your stomach,” said White, Gardiner’s head coach. “They’ve got momentum. How are we going to stand tall, stand tough, and come back? I think everyone (felt) a little bit of angst, but the kids decided to swallow and keep fighting.”

It wasn’t easy, but it was enough.

Gardiner scored three first-half touchdowns, then hung on through a furious Nokomis rally to grab a 21-19 Pine Tree Conference Class B victory.

“It’s got to start with a win. It did today,” said White, whose team got 106 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns and a 27-yard touchdown reception from Cody Spencer. “They needed a win to get momentum and go into the second half of this season. There are teams coming up on the menu that we can beat.”

Gardiner improved to 1-3 by winning a game that, against a Nokomis (0-4) team that has endured a frustrating September of its own, White knew the Tigers had to have.

“Yeah, definitely. It’s a must-win,” he said. “You’re fighting to stay off the bottom so you can get a playoff spot, and the kids are thinking they want to make a run at playoffs.”

Considering the way the Tigers came out, White’s message got through to his players. Gardiner scored on its first two possessions and a third time in the second quarter, taking a commanding 21-0 lead into halftime. The Tigers looked more like a 3-0 team — rather than their 0-3 mark before Saturday — running wild against an overwhelmed Nokomis line, stifling the run and hurrying Warriors quarterback Andrew Haining into one rushed incompletion after another.

But something funny happened on the way to the blowout: the Warriors woke up. Nokomis came out for the second half and suddenly couldn’t be slowed, with Haining (19 of 35) throwing for all but 27 of his 251 yards after the break. He was especially sharp on the first two drives of the second half, during which he went 8-of-9 for 120 yards. The first drive was a 66-yard march that culminated with Haining’s 13-yard pass over the middle to Tyler Pelletier (five catches, 66 yards), and the second covered 49 yards and ended with a 6-yard toss from Haining to Chance Graves (five catches, 74 yards) that made the score 21-12 with 2:23 left in the third.

“I think they had a good gameplan for us,” Nokomis coach Matt O’Connell said. “They were moving guys around, so they were making it hard for us. Realistically, we just told our guys (to) have a look on the field, and if you see some open space, sit down, and the ball’s probably coming.”

Gardiner mistakes set the stage for the rally, as Spencer fumbled between the two scores, the Tigers got to the Nokomis 17 but turned the ball over on downs on the next series, and Cam Michaud lost the ball on the first play of a series early in the fourth quarter.

The Warriors seemed poised to take advantage on the next series, driving all the way to the Gardiner 1, but the Tigers defense stiffened, keeping Haining out on a keeper on fourth down.

“I’m very proud of the team,” White said. “They’re learning how to finish games, whether they’re up or down.”

Nokomis got the ball back and converted, moving 37 yards and scoring on Haining’s 9-yard pass to Cody Rice to move within 21-19 with 2:21 left.

“They have no quit in them,” White said of the Warriors. “They’re a second half team anyway, and have been as long as I’ve known them.”

The pressure to seal the win fell to the Gardiner offense, a challenge the Tigers passed when Spencer ran for seven yards and Nate Malinowski (eight carries, 38 yards) got six on third down for a game-clinching first down.

“It’s good to get back in the win column,” Spencer said. “It’ll boost everybody up for next week.”

Gardiner seemed set to waltz into the win column after an impressive first half. Spencer ran six times during the first drive and capped it off with a 2-yard run with 3:17 left in the first, then struck again on the next series when he got free down the sideline, found some space and hauled in a 27-yard pass from Eli Kropp to make it 14-0.

“I ran my slide, and I saw the linebacker coming in. I took a quick glance downfield and noticed there was a big hole,” Spencer said. “I just cut it up, put my arm out and Kropp put it in the perfect place.”

The third score came after a bad Nokomis punt left the Tigers only 19 yards to cross. After a penalty, Spencer took the handoff and broke loose around the left edge for a 24-yard score with 1:32 left in the half.

“Cody’s an outstanding back,” White said. “He’s very fast, he makes quick cuts, stops on a dime and redirects, and it’s very difficult. If we run toss to the left, you never know. He might turn it back to the right and score a touchdown.”

It was Spencer’s third touchdown, and the Tigers needed all three. A battle was waiting in the second half, but White’s group had just enough to survive.

“The kids did not hang their heads,” the coach said. “They fought right back, they tightened up and just played the rest of the second half trying to make plays.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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