GARDINER — The band played long after the final snap, and coach Joe White’s hoarse congratulations to his Gardiner Area High School football team were quickly drowned out by the jubilant cheers of his players.

Indeed, times are good in Tiger town once again.

Nate Malinowski, rarely used as a running back in recent weeks, broke off a pair of long touchdown runs, the last a 45-yard jaunt that put the Tigers ahead with 4:17 to play and lifted No. 4 Gardiner to a 13-8 victory over No. 5 Morse in the Class C South quarterfinals at Hoch Field on Friday night.

“It feels crazy. We haven’t been to the playoffs in six years,” Malinowski, a junior, said. “Just to win the first game is great, and we’re going to be moving on to Leavitt, and we’re excited about that, too.”

“Midway through the season, we were finding ways to lose. Now we’re finding ways to win,” White said. “It’s a big turnaround, shows a lot of growth, a lot of maturity. These senior guys are starting to believe that they can win on every down, every play.”

It was a rematch of the season opener in September, when the Tigers (4-5) beat the Shipbuilders (6-3), 26-6 in Bath. This one wasn’t as easy. Morse controlled the ball for most of the first half, then bounced back after Malinowski’s 44-yard run put Gardiner ahead 7-0 by taking an 8-7 lead on quarterback Corey Larmon’s 1-yard sneak and 2-point conversion pass to Parker Onorato.

It was Gardiner’s first deficit of the game. And White could see from his team that it knew what to do.

“They were excited after the 2-point conversion,” he said. “The kick return team came to me and they were just frothing at the mouth, ready to go. They’re like ‘Hey, let’s get it back and let’s take it to the house.’ “

Three runs gained 7 yards before Malinowski, on fourth-and-3, found daylight again. He took the handoff, slammed through a hole up the middle and was gone, racing nearly untouched to the end zone to put the Tigers up 13-8.

“I just saw an open hole to the right and I took it,” said Malinowski, who ran 10 times for 114 yards. “I had a couple of blockers right in front of me, I saw them blocking the left so I went to the right. … We definitely felt like we had to step it up, big time.”

It was up to the defense to finish it, and the defense did. Morse’s next series reached a fourth-and-16 from its own 37 and Onorato tried to pick up the yardage on a fake punt run, only for Kolton Brochu to slam him to the ground for a 4-yard gain. Gardiner turned the ball over on downs on its next series, and Morse’s desperation try to get down the field ended with an interception by Dimitri Paradis on a deep pass down the left sideline.

“Defense has been the story,” White said. “Hats off to all those guys that played D tonight, and the coaches that called the D. I have a great group.”

And asolid group of running backs. Collin Foye has flourished as the leading rusher of late, piling up big games in wins over Freeport and Cony, but the elusive senior struggled to find space Friday night as the Shipbuilders seemed to be on every juke, cut and sweep.

Instead, Malinowski, more of a contributor on defense than on offense this season, stepped up. He put Gardiner ahead on the Tigers’ third play of the second half, bursting through the line for a 44-yard touchdown run in almost identical fashion to his eventual game-winner.

“They’re all good, but it depends on the conditions,” White said of his running back stable. “Foye can run in the slop, but Malinowski’s a grinder. … They were shutting down the outside, it was groggy out there, Foye didn’t get much of a cut back so we started to run inside, keep it tight, and Malinowski’s the man for that.

That guy, he hasn’t run the ball much all year. And when his number was called tonight, he took it to the house.”

Morse bounced back, reaching the Gardiner 6-yard line before a turnover on downs gave the Tigers the ball back. Gardiner could only muster a short punt, however, and the Shipbuilders went 21 yards for the score, finishing the series off when Larmon’s sneak — Morse’s third try from the 1-yard line — found the end zone with 5:50 to go.

The Shipbuilders — who haven’t kicked an extra point all season — went for two and got it with a pass from Larmon to Onorato. It gave Morse the lead — and also set the stage for the Tigers’ dramatics.

“Our kids played their hearts out, Gardiner played their hearts out,” Morse coach Jason Darling said. “Our kids really did everything we asked, and then some. Just came up a little bit short.”

The teams battled through a scoreless first half that twice saw Morse threaten but get turned away by the Gardiner defense. The Shipbuilders controlled the first two quarters, running 32 plays to Gardiner’s 19, gaining 119 yards to the Tigers’ 34 and outpossessing Gardiner, 16:07 to 7:53. The Shipbuilders attacked the Tigers on the ground and through the air, using outside tosses and slants over the middle to pile up yardage, convert in tight spots and keep drives moving.

But whenever Morse appeared poised to turn that progress into points, the Tigers defense stiffened. The first test came when Morse marched from its 27-yard line to the Gardiner 20 on its second drive of the game, only to be forced into a fourth-and-14 that it couldn’t pick up.

Morse threatened once more on its next series, driving from its 20 to the Tigers 21, but again couldn’t finish. Tripp, a force on defense all game, tackled Onorato for a 2-yard loss, and after a 1-yard run and incomplete pass, Dylan Spencer smothered a screen pass to Tyreik Foster for a 5-yard loss and another turnover on downs with just 1:34 to go in the half.

“It feels really good to come through,” Tripp said. “At a certain point, when they get deep into our zone, it sparks us and we shut them down. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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