GARDINER — There was a giant poster board with teammate Taby Hembree’s photograph adorned in flowers behind the Gardiner bench. The Tigers held hands and chanted “Family!” before taking the field. The visiting Leavitt team wore black and orange ribbons in their hair as a nod to the school colors of their hosts. The Tiger football team took a break during practice to stand along the end line during the national anthem.

Yet, the best tribute of all Tuesday afternoon was the play of Brianna Perry in Gardiner’s 2-0 loss to Leavitt, the Tigers’ first game since they were befell by tragedy when 16-year-old Hembree died in a car accident last Thursday.

Perry, a junior who was to be Hembree’s backup as goalie when the season started, made eight saves and held back a potent Hornets’ attack.

“It was tough, but I think we pulled together as a team for Taby,” said Perry, a classmate of Hembree’s. “We gave it all we got, and she was with us the whole way there.”

After a difficult and emotional five days, the play of Perry and the rest of the Tigers was just what the girls soccer community needed.

“It took us a while to start getting back into the swing of things, with just the new mindset,” senior captain Logan Granholm said. “But I feel like once we got out there and we started playing the game, everything just started to fall into place again. Any emotions we were feeling we were just putting out on the field.”

It was on the training pitch Monday that things finally started turning toward “normal,” first-year Gardiner head coach Jolaine Galibois-Barss said.

“They really wanted to play. Yesterday, we held a practice in the morning and the first 15 minutes were really hard. Then the first person cracked a joke, and after that it was OK to laugh and have fun.”

That positive energy carried over into the start of Tuesday’s Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference match with Leavitt. Gardiner went on the offensive early, holding the better run of play for the opening 10 minutes.

Slowly, though, the Hornets started to find their way offensively — but Perry came up with several huge saves. She made a great stop on Leah Maheux’s one-time bid in the 27th minute, turned away Sophie Gilbert’s point-blank shot from 12 yards out in the 29th minute, and pushed Alison Noniewicz’s drive off the crossbar above her in the 35th minute, recovering in time to thwart Emily Swan’s follow-up shot.

To say Perry was playing inspired goalkeeping would be an understatement.

“She was amazing,” Galibois-Barss said. “Bri was amazing, the girls were all amazing. They played their hearts out out there, and they were playing for Taby.”

“I didn’t feel any added pressure, because I knew the rest of the team was there,” Perry said. “We’re a family. We don’t let each other get down in the dumps. We hold each other up.”

Granholm, centering the back line in front of Perry, marveled at Perry’s play.

“She played her heart out for us. We couldn’t ask for anything more out of her,” Granholm said. “We made it tough a couple of times, but she definitely saved us.”

Leavitt (1-1-0) finally wore the Tigers (0-1-0) down in the second half, taking the lead on Maheux’s goal in the 48th minute and adding to that less than 20 minutes later off the foot of Gilbert for a 2-0 lead.

But, ultimately, the final score meant nothing to the Tigers on Tuesday. It was all about playing for Hembree, playing for one another,and reminding themselves and their school community that they are a family.

“It was a bit of mixed emotions,” Granholm said. “We were happy to be back on the field, but we were mostly just wanting to play for her. We wanted to put it all onto the field, like she always did for us.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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