WATERVILLE — For about a minute early in the fourth quarter Tuesday, it appeared as though the Gardiner boys lacrosse team had enough to spark the fear of a Tiger comeback up and down the entire Messalonskee sideline.

Gardiner’s Sloan Berthiaume scored twice in the first 63 seconds of the period to cut the Messalonskee lead to three, and suddenly the Eagles’ certain grasp on a Class B victory was slipping. But converted attacker Dawson Charles scored 19 seconds after Berthiaume’s second goal as Messalonskee scored four unanswered goals to close out a 16-9 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference victory at Thomas College over the undermanned Tigers.

It marked the third straight win to open the season for Messalonskee (3-0). The Eagles are averaging more than 13.6 goals per game and have yet to be held to single digits.

It felt like an early-season senior night for Messalonskee, with four of its five goal scorers coming from its senior class. Standout midfielder Austin Pelletier netted six goals in the win, while Charles finished with five. Colin Kinney and Alden Balboni added two goals and three assists apiece.

“Starting off the season 3-0 is huge,” said Charles, who returns to the field of play this season after spending the last two springs as Messalonskee’s goalie. “It’s a huge season for us with so many seniors.”

For Gardiner (1-2), missing 10 players from its lineup due to ineligibility or absences, Berthiaume finished with five goals. Garrett Hinkley and Parker Hinkley each scored twice.

MAN UP: Statistically speaking, the contest was even.

Messalonskee outshot Gardiner by a narrow 28-26 count, and the Tigers enjoyed a 27-22 edge in ground balls.

The difference was in the special teams areas. Messalonskee scored seven goals with the man advantage and added an eighth while shorthanded.

“We’ve been banging a lot with the four-man rotation, and we’ve found some pretty good shooters,” Pelletier said. “Movement is key, and everyone’s in the same mindset. Everyone’s looking for each other, looking for that second pass instead of just taking the first shot.”

“Offensively, we moved the ball and were unselfish with it,” Messalonskee coach Tom Sheridan said.

The man-up situations were where Gardiner’s lack of depth showed up.

“We didn’t do that against Brunswick (a 20-8 loss on April 17), but we weren’t in the box against Brunswick,” Gardiner coach K.C. Johnson said.

Messsalonskee broke a 2-2 tie with three consecutive man-up goals in the final 1:10 of the opening period.

GETTING DEFENSIVE: The Eagles allowed only three second half goals — two to Berthiaume in a span of 48 seconds in the fourth quarter — to allow its many attacking threats plenty of breathing room.

Junior goalie Wade Carter made eight saves behind the Messalonskee back line of Chase Warren, Matt Trembly and Nick Poulliot.

“I think the difference between our team last year and this year is team defense,” Sheridan said. “We had good defenders last year, but this year there’s more teamwork. We’ve talked a lot about approach and slide work.

“We’re getting better defensively every time out, and that’s what you want to see.”

“Even in the first week in practice, we all noticed that our defense was really coming together and solid,” Pelletier said. “They’re really stepping up… and everyone’s taking that mindset that we don’t want people scoring on us.”

When Gardiner did enjoy long spells of possession, it was limited almost entirely to the perimeter. The Tigers had a hard time either finding open men in front of goal or completing passes to that dangerous area.

“No penetraton. Nobody was cutting,” Johnson said. “We’re still working on our offensive sets. This is probably, what, 10 days outside for us so far? We’re a work in progress. When we get everybody back, we’ll be all right. It just so happens that our two toughest matchups in Class B came back-to-back.”

HIGHLIGHT REEL: The best of Pelletier’s half-dozen tallies came in the final minute of the first quarter, when Gardiner goalie Noah Keene (11 saves) picked up a ball in his crease and attempted to make the clear himself by running the ball up the right sideline.

Pelletier cut him off, knocked the ball free of Keene’s crosse and picked it up. With Keene stranded in no-man’s land, Pelletier fired from nearly 40 yards away — connecting with a perfect one-hopper into the cage to hand the Eagles a 4-2 lead at the time.

UP NEXT: Gardiner will try and snap its two-game losing streak at North Yarmouth Academy on Saturday. The Tigers expect to have many of the 10 players missing from Tuesday’s game back in the lineup. Messalonskee, meanwhile, will put its unbeaten record on the line at Greely on Friday.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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