GARDINER — It’s been quite the journey for the Gardiner volleyball team this season. Literally and figuratively.

Few teams have had as punishing a road schedule as the Tigers have had this fall. By the end of the regular season Tuesday, Gardiner will have traveled approximately 907 miles over the course of eight matches. For perspective, that’s the same distance from Gardiner Area High School to Greensboro, North Carolina, one way.

But you wouldn’t have noticed any weariness from the team during practice last Wednesday at the Bragoli Gymnasium. The Tigers were upbeat, laughing and shouting while warming up for practice.

They have every right to be happy. They own an 8-5 record — already beating last year’s 5-9 mark — and have locked up a spot in the Class B playoffs, where they will make their first appearance in program history.

Still being a relatively new program, Gardiner coach Maitland Hallett said the improvement has come from gaining experience, and players believing in themselves.

“It’s just a matter of (the players) being confident,” Hallett said. “I have a ton of confidence in what they can do, it’s just that, we have a program where most of these kids don’t know volleyball until they walk on the court as freshmen. Without all those touches from 6- to 8-years-old on up — like they do down south — a lot of times it just comes down to trying to be confident.”

For the players, growing closer as a team has also been a reason for the turnaround.

“I think it’s a big change in our spirit from last year,” senior libero Elly Basinger said. “We’re a lot more excited and together.”

“The more we work together, the more we work better as a team,” senior setter Aiyana McNeill said. “We’re a lot stronger as a team, so we’re stronger on the court. It translates on the court.”

It wasn’t in the original plans for the Tigers to have such a brutal road schedule. A home meet was planned for early September against the Maine Girls Academy. But when the Portland-based school closed for good in July, a replacement match had to be scheduled. The only available opponent was Ellsworth. At 220-mile round-trip, it has been by far the longest trip Gardiner has made this season. But the Tigers made it worthwhile, beating the Eagles 3-0.

“We had never traveled further than Wells and York — (we went to) Massabesic once,” Hallett said. “Ellsworth, that was a treat. It’s just a long day. How do you keep (the players) pumped up for two hours and fifteen minutes into the trip? The Wells (games), the Yorks, that’s just a trip down the interstate. It seems quicker.”

From Sept. 4-18, Gardiner had five matches — all on the road — a stretch that covered 657 miles, most of the team’s mileage this year.

Taking rides that long in school buses can be taxing on any athlete. How did the Tigers stay up and motivated for matches?

“We jam out (to music) on the bus,” McNeill said.

“And a lot of naps,” Basinger added.

Beyond the karaoke and nap sessions, the Tigers have also credited offseason work — playing winter volleyball — as a major reason for the improved play. Five Gardiner players participated last year, an impressive number for one program, playing with and against players from different classes and in some cases, different states.

“It majorly helps, and it’s an awesome experience,” McNeill said.

“Being able to compete against them as well, it really pushes you to your limit,” Basinger said.

The work has paid off on the court for Gardiner, highlighted by a 3-1 victory over rival Cony on Sept. 25. Aside from the rivalry, the win was particularly gratifying because it was a year of revenge in the making. After Gardiner took the first two sets, Cony won the next three in a row to take a 3-2 victory last season.

“It was a great feeling, considering they took over last year,” Basinger said. “(Last year’s game) crushed our spirits a lot. But coming into this year, it was ‘we have to win.'”

“I wanted to beat them, I just had this fire in my heart, because our whole high school (career), we’ve lost to Cony,” McNeill said. “It’s our senior year, and we were just like, ‘it’s (time to win) now.'”

The win was gratifying for Hallett, as well.

“After the loss last year, when we were up 2-0, it’s one of those things about confidence where they were so worried about making a mistake, when the six of them are on the court and all are thinking the same thing, (losing) is almost inevitable,” Hallett said. “Coming into this year, I just told them ‘You just have to do your job and you have to do it well, take satisfaction out of that. (The win) was a goal, we wanted to beat a team that’s been established for a while.”

Though the road of the regular season has hit new territory, the journey is far from over. Now that a spot is secure in the Class B playoffs, the Tigers seek more than just an appearance in the postseason.

“The whole team still has fire to beat the rest of the teams,” McNeill said. “We want to beat these last three teams (in the regular season) to be in the best standing (for the playoffs). Although we’re excited, we’re not getting too cocky of ourselves.”

It’s been a long road, but not one the Tigers want to get off of just yet.

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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