Nothing like some added stakes for a 124-year-old rivalry.

The Cony and Gardiner high school football teams are set to face each other in the latest installment of the heated series, but don’t think you can just dust off the storylines from the last time or two or several in which the teams squared off.

Pride’s always on the line. This time, however, the season is, too.

Players always want to win the Cony-Gardiner game, which is a tradition dating back to 1892, but this is the rare year where both teams need to win it. Cony’s 2-5, Gardiner’s 2-5, and barring something shocking — namely fellow 2-5 squads Mt. Blue or Hampden beating playoff-bound Skowhegan and Brewer, respectively — the winner of the game makes the playoffs, while the loser sees its season end at the expense of its nemesis.

“It was a goal that we set several weeks ago. We wanted to make playoffs,” Gardiner coach Joe White said. “It’s a very fitting, culminating event coming up. The Cony game provides its own excitement and motivation, but now there are playoff implications added on top. … There’s a lot of feel-good pressure, and it makes for a good story.”

With a whole season’s worth of games behind the Rams and Tigers each year by the time they meet, each team’s playoff fate is usually resolved one way or the other by the time the game rolls around. Not so this year.

“It’s rare. I can’t think of another time, at least in recent memory, where the winner was in and the loser was out,” Cony coach B.L. Lippert said. “There’ve been times when neither was going to the playoffs, one was going and the other wasn’t, or both were going.

“Our goal all season has been to make the playoffs, an additional goal has been to beat Gardiner every year. They happen to coincide Friday night. There’s an element of pressure, but also excitement.”

Gardiner-Cony ’16 seemed headed for bragging rights only territory when Cony dropped four straight to fall to 1-4 and Gardiner was stuck at 1-5. A combination of big wins and good fortune kept both teams in the race, however. With only five Pine Tree Conference Class B teams reaching .500, the sixth and final playoff spot was opened to a losing record, and both the Rams (61-26 over Hampden Oct. 7) and Tigers (21-20 over Hampden last Friday) won must-win games to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Now they both face one more, in the game they circle every August.

Of course.

“When you look back, you might remember only one game from 2016, maybe a couple of games,” Lippert said. “This will be one they remember, for sure.”

• • •

Gardiner saved its season last Friday, which was enough to put a dash of pep in the Tigers’ step going into this week.

But while the win was uplifting, the way they pulled it off may have been the most encouraging part of all.

Gardiner trailed Hampden, 14-3, going into halftime Friday. The outlook was ominous; the second half has been a bugaboo for the Tigers, who lost their grip on a close 13-10 deficit against Lawrence the week before, allowed the winning touchdown with 10 seconds left in a 14-9 loss to Mt. Blue and nearly lost a 21-0 lead against Nokomis before holding on for their first win of the season.

This time, Gardiner rallied. The Tigers outscored the Broncos 18-6 after halftime, allowing them to eke out the crucial win while answering doubts about their ability to close out games.

“They were just itching for a break, something to go their way,” White said. “In the past, sometimes we go home at halftime. And boy, they came out in the second half and they did not let up one bit. The defense played relentless.”

The result of the comeback is a Tigers team that, even with their record, is feeling good about themselves with a chance to likely control their destiny in front of them.

“Now that we have the wins under our belt, I feel that we know we can actually do it and get a win,” senior linebacker Kaleb Caron said. “I feel like everybody has more hope.”

According to senior lineman Mike McArthur, being on the playoff bubble has gotten the team used to playing with the pressure it will meet Friday night.

“The last three weeks have basically been playoff games for us,” he said. “That gives us a confidence boost going into this Cony game, as well.”

• • •

The season couldn’t have gone better for Winthrop/Monmouth in Class D’s Campbell Conference. All the Ramblers did was win. And win. And win.

Now, as a result, they’ll have to wait. And wait. And wait.

Winthrop/Monmouth finished its regular season with a 54-6 win over Maranacook on Friday night, giving the Ramblers a 7-0 record and the conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs. It’ll be a while before they hit the field again. Boothbay’s withdrawing from varsity competition for this year gave each team in Class D South a bye week, which falls this weekend for Winthrop/Monmouth. Add to that the bye week it earned as the conference’s top seed, and the Ramblers won’t be back in game action until either Nov. 4 or 5.

Coach Dave St. Hilaire is happy to have the chance for his players to get healthy, but acknowledged that two weeks off does as much harm as good.

“It certainly throws off what you’re trying to do each week,” he said. “Having one bye week would be one thing, but to have two appears to be a challenge with how to keep things fresh for the kids. How do you keep them focused on what they want to accomplish?”

With all the time off, St. Hilaire said he’s focusing on maintaining the team’s conditioning in practice, while also looking for ways to simulate game action. Scrimmages are an option, though he said nothing’s lined up yet.

“It’s something that we’re open to,” he said. “It would be something like a controlled type of scrimmage, just so that we can kind of control what we’re trying to do. We’ve got a few possibilities.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM


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