They’re not the ones to grab the headlines, stuff the stat sheet or make the highlight reel. While the Cony and Gardiner football teams have plenty of players that are — standouts like Jordan Roddy and Eli Dutil for the Rams, and Collin Foye and Cam Michaud for the Tigers — there’s a good chance that the 140th edition of Maine’s longest running rivalry will be settled on defense, where grit, instincts and aggressiveness prevail.

And where Cony’s Logan Leadbetter and Gardiner’s Garrett Maheux have come to thrive.

For all the attention the Rams get for their spread offense and the Tigers draw for their balanced running attack, it’s been hard-nosed defense that’s put each team in position to make the Class B and C playoffs, respectively. Cony (5-2) is on a five-game winning streak and allowing only 17.3 points per game, best in Class B North. Gardiner (2-5) suffered a pair of blowout losses but was airtight in its other five games, allowing 16.6 points per contest while playing high-scoring squads Leavitt, Cape Elizabeth and Morse.

And both teams’ head coaches, B.L. Lippert of Cony and Joe White of Gardiner, know the players who set the tone.

“Something that he brings to the field is an intensity that we want other people to thrive off,” White said of Maheux, the team’s leading tackler at outside linebacker. “It’s aggression for four quarters, 48 minutes, non-stop. … Garrett’s really started to show he can step up to a level above his competition and make some big plays.”

Lippert spoke just as warmly of Leadbetter, who the Cony coach said was leading the Pine Tree Conference in tackles entering the week while playing out of the middle linebacker spot.

“He really is one of the smarter, if not the smartest guys on our defense,” he said. “He’s not your prototypical 6-foot-2, 225-pound inside linebacker, but he makes up for that by being smart, taking good angles. And when he hits you, you’re hit.”

Both play what can be thankless roles, hustling into position to make tackles while running backs and receivers get the credit for the carry. But White and Lippert said their contributions jump off the film screen.

“As far as any kind of limelight, not so much,” White said. “(But) coaches around the league have certainly known and noticed. All you have to do is watch film to know that you want to keep an eye on No. 28.”

It’s a niche that each player is happy to fill.

“I don’t like being in the spotlight too much,” Leadbetter said. “When I can contribute under the radar a little bit, it’s nicer. I know I’m there, I know I’m doing my job. It’s better to let them have their glory.”

Maheux, a junior despite being only 15 years old, has been groomed for this role since he arrived at Gardiner and impressed coaches and teammates alike with his tenacity and intensity.

“He really excites the rest of the defense, and the team in general,” senior defensive back Kolton Brochu said. “He has the athletic ability to run downhill, but is still strong enough to stop the run. He can go side to side. He can’t be outrun by too many people.”

“(I just) get there before they do,” Maheux said of his approach. “Flying around, getting there, hitting everybody, all that. It’s good stuff. … (I try to) play 100 miles an hour.”

White loves the aggression, but said the team has worked with him to channel it into controlled bursts, and learn to distinguish between times to take off with the snap and times to sit back, read and react.

“He’s become a much greater, disciplined player on defense,” he said. “It’s balancing that aggressiveness with some patience and allowing things to happen in front of him versus just chasing. Now he’s actually able to balance when it’s time to go and when it’s time to slow. He’s getting probably 10 or 12 tackles a game just based on an improved instinct at the outside linebacker position.”

That showed in a loss to Winslow, where despite the 41-7 result, Maheux was constantly on the ball, driving through blocks and racking up tackles for short gains and losses.

“Coach has told me to break down more, and not fly in so hard,” Maheux said. “That’s been a big thing. That’s what helped me, my coach told me to crack down a little bit, and that helped a lot. … Don’t go in too hard. Stay at home.”

For Leadbetter, it’s been the opposite. The senior has brought a measured, steady presence to the defense, all while playing with an injured labrum that was going to keep him sidelined until he learned he could play with it — just so long as he could manage the pain.

“I missed it,” said Leadbetter, who was on the varsity team as a sophomore. “I said, ‘It’s my senior year. Let’s just go play.’ ”

Leadbetter has emerged as a running back and receiver for the Rams as well, but feels far better on the other side of the ball, where his versatile skill set makes him an ideal fit to lead the Cony defense.

“I like defense better where I can just sit back, read what I need and then follow throughout, inside-out, go through the line and make tackles,” he said. “It’s just a different mindset for me, and I like being able to watch the running back and go get him instead of trying to run the ball.”

He’s been a crucial addition to the Cony defense, helping to turn a unit that was often punished by other teams’ running attacks a season ago into one that has prevailed in one tight spot after another.

“He can help us in every way. When he’s blitzing, he does a really good job of changing direction and running down the play and knowing where it’s headed,” Lippert said of his linebacker, who had 10 tackles and an interception last week against Messalonskee. “When he drops into coverage he has a pretty good sense for reading the quarterback’s eyes and he can cover guys man to man.”

Or, as Leadbetter puts it, whatever the team needs.

“I’m just kind of the underdog that just does what I need to do to help people do their jobs,” he said. “I’ll do different things that they need, and if they need me then they’ll put me there.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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