The Gardiner Area High School football team was on its way to another forgettable season. But you wouldn’t have known it watching head coach Joe White.

While the Tigers dropped five of their first six games, White didn’t let it show in his demeanor. He encouraged his players, enthusiastically letting them know when they ran a play just right. He reinforced that the playoffs, no matter how the previous weekend had gone, were in reach. He came up with gameplans he knew would lead to wins, and he said as much to his team.

“You have to lead by example,” White said. “You can’t walk around in practice and in the locker room like your season’s done. Because it’s not.”

And it wasn’t. Gardiner’s low point was also the turning point, as the Tigers (5-6) won their last two games of the regular season — beating rival Cony in the process — and scored two playoff wins en route to the Class C South final.

For his steady hand at the helm while leading the Tigers’ turnaround, White is the Kennebec Journal’s coach of the year. Cony’s B.L. Lippert and Maranacook’s Walter Polky were also considered.

“I really enjoyed watching these guys improve,” said White, who led his alma mater to its first playoff berth since 2012. “It really means a lot knowing this group had a positive experience.”

It didn’t look like 2017 would be much to remember for the Tigers when they dropped back-to-back blowouts to fall to 1-5, but White wasn’t writing his team off. A win over Morse in the opener had set Gardiner up for a playoff spot even with its record, and White reminded his team how dangerous it could be with that chance.

“He always had faith, even when nobody else did,” senior running back and cornerback Collin Foye said. “He always brought us back up. He never thought for a second we weren’t capable of what we did this year.”

“You’ve just got to keep plugging,” White said, “and following your plan for what you think is going to be a success.”

The plan did come with one change, however. Looking to spark the offense, White moved Foye to running back to increase the touches for the shifty senior. The results were immediate; Foye ran for over 200 yards in the win over Freeport, and added 100-plus-yard games in wins over Cony and then Leavitt, the South’s No. 1 seed, in the playoffs.

The move had an effect on the scoreboard as well. Gardiner kept building momentum during a four-game winning streak, one that included a win over Cony, then a win over Morse in a playoff rematch, then an upset victory over Leavitt in the C South semifinals. All along, White was at practice, sounding just as animated as he did when the losses were outnumbering the wins.

“I just have memories of some kid making a play in practice, doing something right,” Foye said. “He gets in their face, screaming ‘That’s how you do it, right there! Great job!’

“He’s louder than any kid on that team.”

At the same time, White allowed for time for his team’s run, one that brought back memories of Gardiner’s winning past, to sink in.

“More than once, the coaches, we were all sitting in the coaches’ room just laughing, having a good time and saying ‘Hey, let’s keep it going,’ ” White said. “Next practice, next game, next play. Let’s keep it going. We had fun doing it.”

The run did come to an end, on a frozen night in Cape Elizabeth. When the game ended, Gardiner players shuffled off the field, disappointed not just because they had lost, but because they had come to believe they’d win.

For the coach of a program that had become accustomed to losing, it was a sign of the change in culture he had been hoping for.

“The players felt the same (we did),” White said. “They were really pretty upset after the South final loss because I think they thought, in their own minds, that they could go all the way.

“I think they believe they can compete at that level going forward.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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