GARDINER — There was never any panic. There was no resignation. No desperation.

There was concern. There has to be when you’re looking at a 1-5 record more than halfway through a season that was supposed to be so much more. But even at its lowest point, the Gardiner Area High School football team still had a chance. Still had a shot to make the Class C playoffs, even compete for a South region or state championship. So out of that concern came determination, focus and a resolve to make sure that when postseason football rolled around, the Tigers would be part of it.

“Coaches on Saturday practice after a loss would take us over and look at the Heal points,” senior lineman Austin Weymouth said. “Knowing our position was a good outlook and we weren’t out of this, I think we all started to focus and dial it in.”

The team whose playoff chances seemed to be flickering in early October is alive and well as the calendar prepares to give way into November. The Tigers are winners of their last two games, one a dramatic overtime win over archrival Cony, and set to host No. 5 Morse as Class C’s fourth seed in a first-round game Friday night.

Gardiner began the season with high expectations and an unwavering sense of optimism. And now, after a trying five weeks, they’re back.

“We’re headed in with a new sense of confidence,” senior running back and defensive back Collin Foye said. “We’re ready now, we feel really good.”

“It would have been very easy at 1-5 for these guys to say ‘Here we go, we’ll be 1-7, won’t make playoffs,’ and hang their hat on the negative,” coach Joe White said. “They didn’t.”

At first, there was nothing to worry about. Gardiner was losing games after an opening-week win, but to good teams, and by a few points and plays. The Tigers lost to Cape Elizabeth by eight, Leavitt by 19 and York by three, though the latter loss stung as a penalty took away a long touchdown run that likely would have iced the win.

“The worst time we had was right after the York game, because it was such a close game,” senior lineman Ben Calloway said. “That hurt us pretty bad.”

Bad went to worse. Gardiner lost to Fryeburg Academy, 32-6, then got pummelled in a turnover-ridden 41-7 loss to Winslow. The mistakes were piling up, the bright spots were diminishing, and the Tigers were sliding further away from a winning brand of football with each week.

“We hit bottom the Fryeburg and Winslow weeks,” White said.

When the next day rolled around, however, the players weren’t greeted by criticism, but by encouragement. The opening win over Morse was carrying enough weight to keep Gardiner in the playoff picture, and at every opportunity he got, White made sure to stress it to his players.

“We did use that as a motivator on several occasions,” he said. “When you’re 1-5 and still in fourth place or fifth place and you still have a playoff chance, just keep driving that to them. ‘Hey, the season’s not done after eight games. You’ve got to keep going.’ ”

The players, especially the seniors, followed their coach’s lead. Even with five straight losses hanging over them, there wasn’t the finger-pointing and blaming that can spread throughout a team that’s given up on its chances.

“When someone quits on the team in the game, so to speak — they’re hanging their heads, they’re not doing the play — it kind of (settles) over the whole team,” Weymouth said. “But when there are two people, whether it’s a captain like Collin or a head coach that’s still so positive, that beats the negativity.”

The turnaround took place quickly. Gardiner bounced back from the Winslow loss to beat Freeport 33-20, burying the Falcons with a strong second half.

“They just came alive and went on a run,” White said. “At one point it was 33-14 and Freeport didn’t know what happened.”

The surge continued against Cony. The Rams had won five straight games in the annual rivalry, but Gardiner stunned its nemesis with a 13-7 victory in overtime, with captain Foye finishing off the upset with a 10-yard touchdown run.

“We had a lot of odds against us,” Weymouth said. “You hear in class, ‘You guys aren’t going to win, it’s the same thing for five years.’ We came in to play, we showed up and won, and it was a huge confidence-booster.”

It hasn’t been all team spirit and attitude that’s brought Gardiner back into the regional playoff picture. The Tigers have cut down on turnovers, and trimmed their penalties. Their defense has remained stifling and aggressive. They’ve made more of a commitment in the running game to Foye, who ran for 213 yards against Freeport, then 99 yards against Cony and the top scoring defense in Class B North.

But attitude has been an undeniable part of it. When Gardiner junior Taby Hembree died from injuries sustained in a car accident before the first day of school, the Tigers picked up the burden of lifting the spirits of both the school and the community. The result was a 26-6 win over Morse in which Gardiner commanded play from the first kickoff to the final kneel down.

“I posted an article in the paper after the Morse game, and it talked about the inspiration they rallied around the community, and supported the family of that young girl,” White said. “And I told them ‘You don’t need to necessarily recollect on those sad times, but you need to understand you played with an emotion that was sky-high, and you’ve got to find that again. Find something else to fill that emotional void.’ ”

They have.

“Right now, everyone is just dialed in and ready to see where we can go,” Calloway said. “You can stand around at practice and everyone’s always happy, upbeat, jogging around, flying around. We don’t seem to want it to end.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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