The Gardiner Area High School football team keeps stunning the Maine high school landscape, keeping its playoff run rolling with one upset win after another.

And the Tigers have found dramatic ways to get them.

On its way to the Class C South championship game — a date it had to bounce back from a 1-5 start and beat top-seeded Leavitt to make — Gardiner has honed an ability to play its best football in the most adverse circumstances. It has come out of seemingly nowhere; the team that won a total of five games over the previous three seasons has become dangerous in the clutch, rallying from fourth-quarter deficits to win the last two games and staging winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in the last three.

“This group is a very resilient group,” coach Joe White said. “Now, even though we’re not scoring a lot of points, these guys are scoring when they need to. Getting down and feeling dejected and saying ‘Well, this isn’t what we signed up for’ isn’t even on the radar anymore.”

Gardiner’s first show of resilience came against Cony in the regular season finale, when it kept the Rams off the board with an interception on the first series in overtime, allowing halfback Collin Foye to win it with a 10-yard touchdown run on the Tigers’ ensuing possession. But Gardiner then climbed out of a hole in its C South quarterfinal win over Morse after the Shipbuilders took an 8-7 lead with a touchdown and 2-point conversion with 5:50 to play. The Tigers had struggled to move the ball all game but broke through when they had to, getting a 45-yard run from Nate Malinowski on a fourth-and-3 with 4:17 to go for the lead and the game’s final points.

Gardiner’s heroics returned for the semifinal game against C South power Leavitt. The Tigers’ defense excelled all night but the offense, forced to adjust to an injury to starting quarterback Cole Heaberlin, couldn’t muster much of an attack — until the Hornets finally made it on the board with Tim Albert’s 11-yard run, making it 6-0 with 3:17 to play. Then the Tigers had an answer, with Foye breaking free for a 30-yard run for the winning touchdown on the ensuing possession with 2:15 left after a pair of Leavitt penalties but Gardiner in striking distance.

Whether late-game comebacks and dramas will be in store against Cape Elizabeth in the C South final remains to be seen, but if the Tigers are down Friday night, recent history suggests they won’t be out as well.

“They don’t think that way,” White said. “If someone scores, OK. We’re going to come right back and score.”

• • •

Roy Appleby was Gardiner’s best defensive lineman Friday night, notching one of the team’s two sacks, combining on the other and stopping one running play after another in the backfield.

And according to White, it was remarkable enough that the junior was out there to begin with.

“He was sick as a dog,” White said. “He went home not feeling well, and came back and we made him get on the bus and come over here, and he played a whale of a game, probably with a fever and everything else.”

Appleby didn’t appear hindered by the ailment, getting off blocks and disrupting the Leavitt backfield on one series after another. It’s the kind of performance that has become the norm for a player who has become a force in recent weeks as the Tigers have turned their fortunes around.

“(He’s) up-and-coming,” White said. “One of the better defensive players around.”

• • •

The season’s over, but Winthrop/Monmouth coach Dave St. Hilaire isn’t sweating how it ended — both in terms of the team’s final weeks and its final game, a 28-14 loss to No. 2 Madison in the D South semifinals.

“The win over Lisbon definitely made the season for the guys,” St. Hilaire said, referring to the sixth-seeded Ramblers’ 28-13 upset win over the third-seeded Greyhounds in the quarterfinals. “Anything that happened beyond that was just a little bit of added sweetness.”

There was certainly no regret over the way the team played down the stretch. Winthrop/Monmouth fell to 1-3 with a 34-8 loss to Spruce Mountain, but bounced back to win three of its last four regular season games — the exception being a two-point loss to Oak Hill — and then beat Lisbon to become one of conference’s last four teams standing for the third straight season.

“We knew we were going to finish strong,” St. Hilaire said. “We just knew deep down that the kids were going to get it. … I remember saying to the kids in the end zone after the Spruce game, ‘We’re going to run the table the rest of the season and go strong into the playoffs.’ And outside of the two-point loss to Oak Hill, we won the rest of them.”

The Ramblers got both better and healthier across the board, and saw their run defense, ground game and passing offense improve as they got deeper into the season. The most important progress, however, may have come at quarterback, where sophomore Keegan Choate made strides as both a passer and a rusher and will be the team’s anchor going forward.

“To have that as a sophomore, that’s definitely something we can build on,” said St. Hilaire, whose team also counts tight ends Evan Burnell and Jevin Smith and defensive end Noah Elegbede among its top returners. “We’re going to be pretty good next year.”

• • •

By all measures, it looked like a rebuilding year. Brunswick lost 21 seniors after last season, and when the Dragons lost their first six games, it seemed like that’s all they were going to get out of 2017.

But Brunswick rallied to win its second-to-last game, upset Cony in the quarters and fall just short of the B North title game with a 17-12 loss to Lawrence. Not bad for a rebuilding season, and according to coach Dan Cooper, the kind of finish the players always knew they could achieve.

“We believed that the whole season,” he said. “We never stopped believing that, even as we got to 0-6. It wasn’t like we were getting trounced, we just weren’t good enough to win games. We competed in all of them, but we just weren’t good enough to win all of them.”

Cooper said the early struggles were a product of both the team’s own growing pains and its opponents’ tendency to up their intensity against the defending state champions.

“Teams played very well against us,” he said. “Teams were kind of licking their chops when they saw 21 seniors graduate. … It was a disappointing start, but our kids believed the whole time that if we kept getting better, the record didn’t matter. We just needed to win a game or two to get into the playoffs.”

And even in their final game, the Dragons knew they were capable of continuing the comeback story.

“We just made some critical mistakes at important times of the game,” he said. “We felt we were as good as Lawrence. They just made the plays, and we didn’t.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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