GARDINER – Gardiner boys lacrosse coach K.C. Johnson has stressed the message all season to his slow-starting team. You want to play well late, he’s been telling them, and peak at the right time.

The theme may as well have applied to a rain-soaked contest Tuesday afternoon. Gardiner scored five straight goals in the fourth quarter, breaking open a duel with Maranacook/Winthrop and turning it into a 12-6 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference victory at Hoch Field, the Tigers’ third in a row.

“We cut down on our unforced errors,” Johnson said. “We stopped making errors, a lot of errant passes, a lot of stupid penalties that were just footwork penalties.

“It started to get better and better as we went along. … The IQ’s getting better. Our lacrosse IQ’s getting better. They can feel out games a lot better.”

Tanner Hebert and Parker Smith had three goals apiece to lead the Tigers, who only trailed once but were ahead only 7-6 going into the fourth. Sloan Berthiaume scored twice, while Kyle Johnson, Nate Phillis, Parker Hinkley and Cody Rizzo also had goals and Noah Keene made eight saves.

Skyler Boucher scored three goals to lead the Hawks (4-3), while Tanner Evans had two and Garit Laliberte had one. Will Hays made 13 saves.

“This one’s hard to move on from,” coach Zach Stewart said. “That’s really hard to see the level that we played for three quarters, being the better team for three quarters, and then just falling on our face for the fourth.”

TURNING POINT: The Class C Hawks were in fine position to steal the win against the Class B Tigers, with Boucher’s goal trimming the deficit to 7-6 with 1:49 to play in the third.

Everything changed, however, in the fourth. Parker Hinkley started the surge with a man-advantage goal, scoring from a tight angle to the right with 9:41 to play. Berthiaume gave the Tigers their first three-goal lead of the game with 4:28 left, burying a shot after being fed on the run toward the crease.

“We moved the ball well the whole game, (but) we started to finish,” Hebert said. “We brought it together, passing the ball better. I guess it took some time to get used to the field being muddy and everyone slipping around.”

In trouble for the first time, the Hawks soon saw their hopes for another rally vanish. Rizzo gathered a loose ball in front of the net after a collision and buried a shot with 3:56 to go, and Hebert notched his third goal only 33 seconds later.

That made it three goals in 65 seconds and an 11-6 advantage, and Gardiner rounded out the scoring with another Berthiaume goal with 2:41 to go.

“It was really unfortunate to play a game like that and have it end 12-6 and you’re getting doubled up on,” Stewart said. “I wanted everyone to think about what was the one thing you could have done differently in those last five minutes of the game. … Why was it different from any part of the game?”

One of those differences was personnel. Stewart had to pull ace defender Jacob Sousa to avoid a disqualifying penalty with the score 9-6, and the Hawks’ defense never recovered.

“That’s really where I think we fell apart,” Stewart said.

TRADING BLOWS: For much of the game, Johnson felt like he was in the middle of another close battle between the two steady programs.

“(This was looking like) the old rivalry it was for years,” Johnson said. “That’s a good team. They always leave it on the field.”

The Hawks struck first on Laliberte’s goal with 6:11 left in the first, but Gardiner went ahead on goals by Hebert with 3:22 left in the first and Smith with 10:22 to go in the second. Evans evened the game at 2-2 with 7:58 left in the half, but Hebert and Smith had tallies to put Gardiner ahead 4-2 with 5:55 left.

The Hawks had an answer. Boucher scored with 3:16 to go, and after Johnson scored for Gardiner just over a minute later, Evans struck again to make it 5-4 with 14 seconds left in the half.

Boucher evened the game for the last time at 5 with 10:51 to go in the third, but Smith gave Gardiner another lead with 7:53 to go in the quarter. It proved to be the winning goal, but the Tigers weren’t closed to finished.

“We’re starting to work together quite a bit, not trying to do too many one-man shows,” Smith said. “We’re just moving it around, and taking shots when we have them.”

Drew Bonifant – 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM