Tyler Salley graduated Gardiner Area High School in 2011. And every once in a while, the ghosts come back.

They’ll be there this weekend, when Salley takes the Libby Field sideline with the Gardiner football team for its Class C South playoff game with Leavitt Area High School. Salley’s an assistant with the Tigers, coaching the offensive and defensive lines, and before that he played those positions at Gardiner, where championship games were the expectation.

And Leavitt, every time, was in the way.

“When I’m there on Friday, I’ll have goosebumps and stuff, remembering playing there,” Salley said. “That’s where my career ended.”

The Tigers and Hornets go back, way beyond this season. There was a time when the two programs were the Pine Tree Conference’s best, and from 2005-2012, they met every year — sometimes twice. There was talent dotting both rosters, and the names from up to a decade ago still jump to the minds of the matchups’ key coaches and players in vivid detail.

There was Josh Strickland, Matthew Pellerin and Jordan Hersom, now a Gardiner assistant, for the Hornets. Alonzo Connor, Devon Brown and Salley for the Tigers. And when they met, often in poor weather, always in front of packed crowds, the teams knew the games would be ones to remember.

“Those games with Leavitt, they were always the hardest-hitting games,” said Oak Hill athletic director Jim Palmer, who coached the Tigers from 2008-10, going 0-5. “You could tell in the stands how much hitting was going on, and you could tell by our guys the day after, when you go through your workouts, how sore they were.”

Now, with both teams in the same class for the first time since 2012, the rivalry is back on.

“It’s good that we’re facing each other again, and in the playoffs,” current Gardiner coach Joe White said. “It’s the perfect atmosphere.”

“It just seemed like every game we played with them, it always seemed to come down to some sort of big play in the fourth quarter,” said Mike Hathaway, who has coached Leavitt since 2002 and is 8-2 against the Tigers. “There were a lot of good players on both teams throughout that time.”

And a lot of good teams. Gardiner and Leavitt both won Class B state crowns in that stretch, they combined to make four state finals, and twice, in 2009 and ’10, they met to decide the Eastern Maine championship. Still, while the quality of the teams and their annual collision course for playoff glory created a rivalry between the schools, the coaches involved said it was a good-natured one. Ill will was for Gardiner-Cony, or Leavitt-Winslow.

Leavitt-Gardiner? That was about respect.

“I’d never put the hatred and dislike into a rivalry from that regard,” said Matt Burgess, who coached Gardiner from 2011-14 and went 0-2 against the Hornets. “They were good, hard-fought, competitive football games.”

“We would be 7-0 and they would be 6-1,” said Hersom, who quarterbacked Leavitt to back-to-back state finals in 2009 and ’10, “and after that game, regardless of the outcome, we knew we’d probably see them again.”

If there was some room for bitterness and resentment, however, it came in the teams’ playing styles. Leavitt-Gardiner wasn’t just a test of each roster and coaching staff, but a challenge to each program’s football philosophy. Gardiner was proud of its old-school running attack and hard-nosed defense. Leavitt enjoyed spreading teams out, going between running and throwing the ball and trying to light up the scoreboard.

“I think they were always built up that way,” Hathaway said. “We always had a pretty potent offense and they were always the top-ranked defense.”

“We’re Gardiner football and we like to play power football, and we see them playing in the shotgun and moving guys around,” Salley said. “I just remember telling (my teammates) ‘Tradition is going to beat swagger.’ ”

That wasn’t the only emotion involved. Gardiner was one of the teams that came down to Class B in 2005, and Leavitt felt a need to prove it could hang with — and beat — the former Class A teams.

“I think it was a pride thing for the rest of the teams in the league,” Hathaway said. “To show guys that we could play with them, too.”

Leavitt beat the Tigers that year, 21-18, and two years later gave Gardiner, on its way to a state title in coach Matt Brown’s final year, a test in a 14-6 loss. After that, the balance shifted. Leavitt gained the upper hand, winning the remaining games between the two, and even following up a 36-0 win in 2009 with a 13-0 win in a rainy Eastern Maine championship game.

“Josh Strickland had a phenomenal day that game,” Hathaway said. “That was our first run at a state championship, so that probably sticks out in my mind the most.”

“We hung in the whole way, we played tough, we just couldn’t quite score on them,” Salley added. “It was tough. They were just all over the place.”

The teams were at it again in 2010 after Leavitt won 34-13 in the regular season. The Hornets got over 200 rushing yards from Hersom to top the Tigers, led by Connor’s dazzling running, 27-7.

“They were always the game of the week,” Palmer said of the two title games. “A lot of times the game would be tight into the third, beginning of the fourth quarter, and they would put one in that would put it away.”

Leavitt won 41-6 in 2011, then eked out a 6-0 win in 2012, again in the rain, on a third-and-long Conor O’Malley touchdown run.

“They were kind of in a prevent look, so we called timeout and we just ran a little inside trap play to Conor,” Hathaway said. “He split the safeties and took it 80 yards for a touchdown. … That was like an old-school, Hoch Field, rain, mud, both teams running the ball right at each other, that type of game.”

For years, that was the last time the teams faced each other — though the fire between the teams continued to simmer. Realignment in 2013 put Leavitt in Class C and Gardiner in B, but the teams played a scripted scrimmage in the 2014 preseason. Gardiner took the lead over its former rival, and Burgess, coaching his final season, took advantage of an old adage.

“Mike likes to compete, everyone likes to compete, so he said ‘Hey, one more series?’ And I said ‘No, thank you. We’ve gone through all the series we’re going to go through today,’ ” he said. “We were going to head on home because we snuck away with one extra score.

“That’s how competitive it was.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.