BATH — It didn’t take long — maybe a few minutes — into the Gardiner football team’s season opener to realize that this was a different Tigers team than the one that tried in vain last year to keep up with one team after another in the final games of what became a playoff-less endeavor.

This Gardiner team hit. It moved the ball, made plays to get it back, and moved it again. Confident howls poured in from the sideline after each play.

It wasn’t just that the Tigers won, 26-6 over Morse at McMann Field in Bath. It was that they seemed to know, from the first snap to the last, that they would.

“I was telling them in the huddle at the end, that I’ve seen that comeuppance from them since Aug. 14,” Gardiner coach Joe White said. “And it hasn’t stopped. It’s been fairly consistent. They brought the excitement into MCI last week, and just carried it on into this week, which was a tough week for them emotionally.”

Perhaps there’s a direct cause to the effect. Gardiner is playing in Class C after going 2-6 in the larger Class B last season, and the players have acknowledged since the start of the season that they felt their chances of competing for high playoff spots get a boost with the move.

“There’s definitely a different vibe,” junior running back Nate Malinowski (12 carries, 47 yards) said. “Since moving down to Class C, we’re a lot more confident because they’re better competition (for us), we can play with these guys more. It’s really helping out.”

It was evident early. Gardiner got the opening kickoff and cashed in on its first drive, converting a 3rd-and-10, 4th-and-2 and 4th-and-18 (on a 26-yard pass from Cole Heaberlin to Collin Foye) before Heaberlin found 6-foot-7 tight end Patrick Pelletier over the middle for a 6-yard touchdown pass and a 6-0 lead with 5:33 left in the first quarter.

Morse seemed to right the ship with both a 71-yard answer drive, finished off with a 10-yard run from Austin Baltazar (11 carries, 37 yards) that evened the score at 6 with 10:30 left in the half, and an interception by Parker Onorato on the next Gardiner drive. The turnover put Morse at the 2-yard line, however, and a fumbled snap — Morse had four throughout the game — three plays later resulted in a safety and an 8-6 Gardiner lead.

Restocked with momentum, Gardiner took command on the next series. Blaise Tripp returned the safety kickoff 32 yards to the Morse 24, and Foye peeled off runs of 13 and 11 yards for a 14-6 lead with 3:33 left in the half.

Gardiner kept up the pressure in the second half. Heaberlin (6-of-14, 67 yards) teamed up with Pelletier, lofting a ball to the back right corner that the towering tight end, despite tight coverage, was able to leap up and snag for a 9-yard reception and a 20-6 lead with 6:59 to go in the third.

“He knew where to throw it where I could get it,” said Pelletier, who had two catches, both touchdowns, for 15 yards. “Coach White installed those pass plays for me because he knows I can jump up and catch it. … When I run my routes, I zone out. I just look for the ball and go and get it. When it’s up in the air, it’s mine.”

Gardiner proved its ability to run the ball on its final scoring drive, a seven-play, 36-yard march that was capped by Cam Michaud’s 18-yard run with 7:54 to play. The Tigers switched up their featured back from drive to drive, and time after time, it worked. Between Michaud (10 carries, 50 yards), Foye (six carries, 48 yards) and Malinowski (12 carries, 47 yards), Morse defenders had little idea which back — and which skill set — to focus on from one possession to the next.

“I think it’s a good problem to have,” said Malinowski, like Michaud a harder runner than the fleet-footed Foye. “We all run differently. … It keeps them on their toes. They can’t get ready for anything.”

With the lead in the second half, the Gardiner defense snuffed out any Morse comeback hopes. Quarterback Corey Larmon, 5-of-5 for 52 yards in the first half, went 1-of-9 for five yards with two interceptions in the second half, and the Tigers began thumping any Shipbuilder who got his hands on the ball. On a pivotal sequence early in the second half, Kolton Brochu hammered a Morse punt returner, causing a fumble recovered by Jacob Fies that set up Pelletier’s second score.

The trend continued throughout the rest of the half, sealing a win and a good start to what the Tigers are hoping will be a good season in their new class.

“They haven’t lost any energy,” White said. “They’ve played positive and they’ve played tough since the 14th. It hasn’t faded.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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