Ask Joe White about the Cony-Gardiner series, and you’ll get stories of Tigers players breaking down in tears of joy after a win in his junior year or a rain- and mud-filled senior year game like what took place just last week.

The other games against the other teams came and went. But whenever the Rams and Tigers faced each other, the results left indelible marks.

“It’s one of those things,” said White, now the Gardiner coach. “I don’t remember much from any other games, other than those Cony games.”

The latest meeting in Maine’s oldest rivalry — the 140th overall, dating to 1892 — will take place Friday, with 5-2 Cony traveling to Hoch Field to face 2-5 Gardiner. It’ll be the final game of each team’s regular season, but neither one will see its year come to an end Friday night.

Cony is second in Class B North and has a spot in the Class B playoffs, and Gardiner, even with its record, is postseason-bound in Class C South thanks largely to an earlier win over 6-1 Morse.

It’s a vastly different scenario than last season, when the Rams and Tigers met to determine which team made the Class B playoffs. This time, in a change, Cony and Gardiner will have bigger and better things to play for.

“I can’t remember the last time both teams were headed to the playoffs when they’ve played this late in the season,” Cony coach B.L. Lippert said. “It’s been a while. … Sometimes it’s the end of the season for one team and not the other, so there’s an advantage that way. But both teams are going to the playoffs, and both teams are looking for seeding.”

A pair of punched playoff tickets takes away the game’s “do or die” sense, but both coaches agreed that it does little to take away from the importance and special feel of the game.

“I don’t think it diminishes it on either side,” White said. “The approach is going to be the same, as intense. I think your pride is on the line, historically and currently. I hate to say you put more time in the prep for Cony than for anyone else, but I can’t imagine their coach feels any differently.

“We’ve both played in this game, and our families have played in this game. It means a lot. Despite what postseason hopes lie ahead, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a heated rivalry and it’s really, really important to both towns.”

• • •

An effective passing game put Cony in position to knock off Messalonskee early last week, and a touchdown run by Anthony Sousa finished off the dramatic and pivotal victory.

But when asked about his biggest takeaways from the game, Lippert was looking elsewhere.

“I thought our defensive front in the second half was really outstanding,” he said. “We gave them a short field on an interception and held them to a field goal. That was all they had in the second half. … We were able to kind control the line of scrimmage in a lot of ways, and not a lot of teams are able to do that against Messalonskee.”

A quick glimpse at the stats would seem to indicate that the Rams didn’t, either. Messalonskee’s fine trio of Austin Pelletier, Tyler Lewis and Alden Balboni still found yards, gaining 168 yards on 34 carries for a 4.9 average. But the Cony defensive line — a group led by Allyx Chabot, Nic Mills, Mitchell McFarland, Devon Thomas and Tommy Hodgkins — didn’t let any of the backs get loose for back-breaking long runs, instead forcing the Eagles to, yes, have five or six yards on the ground, but string together those carries for long enough to turn them into points.

According to Lippert, it was just executing fundamentals.

“I thought we recognized the play,” he said. “It’s really just all-around effort. It’s reading the keys, it’s getting off blocks and when you get to the ballcarrier it’s getting him on the ground. I thought for four quarters we did a pretty good job of that, maybe as well as we’ve done all year.”

Lippert also had praise for defensive coordinator Brandon Terrill, whom he said has developed a habit for drawing up strong game plans.

“I have the utmost faith in him on the defensive side of the ball,” Lippert said. “I don’t really have too much to worry about. … I let him have the ultimate control of that defense. It’s really great, because I was calling both the offense and the defense a few years ago and it’s nice now to be able to step back while we’re on the defensive side of the ball, and really focus on ‘OK, that drive didn’t go very well offensively, what can we do?’ I wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t have a defensive coordinator who puts in so much work.”

• • •

The Gardiner ground game, searching all season for its footing, finally took off Saturday.

The Tigers came off a five-game losing streak against Freeport, running wild en route to a 33-20 victory over the Falcons, one that may have saved their season.

“It was a must-win,” White said. “It was 14-14, and all of a sudden, things just started working for us.”

The rushing offense, which had been dogged by inconsistency and poorly-timed penalties, couldn’t be slowed. Gardiner ran for 393 yards, getting two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Cole Heaberlin and 125 rushing yards from Cam Michaud.

The biggest day, however, belonged to shifty tailback Collin Foye, who ran for 213 yards and three touchdowns. Gardiner has normally used a balanced workload with its running backs, but White said Foye had something special working for him Saturday.

“He seemed to come alive,” White said. “I don’t think we’ve given him the opportunity to show that up to this point. There’s been a lot of shuffling around of backfield personnel. … Foye in the second half was really the spark that we needed.”

• • •

The forecast for Friday couldn’t be better: Partly sunny with temperatures in the 60s, and no threat of rain.

It’ll be a drastic change from last season, when the Rams and Tigers battled in a downpour on a muddy field that came apart with each dive, slide and cut. According to White, however, that wasn’t the worst weather he’d endured in his Cony-Gardiner experience.

“My senior year up at Cony in ’94, it rained harder then, if you can believe that,” White, a former Gardiner defensive lineman, said in reference to a 9-6 Tigers win. “By the second quarter, you couldn’t see anybody’s numbers on the jerseys. It was a slogfest, but it was just great. No team really outdoing the other.”

Cony’s only score that day came on a kickoff return.

“I was on the kickoff team that they scored on,” White said. “You couldn’t see who had the ball. … One of my friends on the kickoff team may have tackled me on that play.”

It should be clear skies and dry fields Friday, but White sounded like he wouldn’t some rain showing up in time for kickoff.

“Those conditions are just perfect for a Cony-Gardiner game,” he said. “There shouldn’t be anything beautiful or pretty about two teams from up and down the river going head-to-head for, basically, pride.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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