GARDINER — It may have taken seven years, but the Gardiner Tigers are finally the kind of team Nick Wallace envisioned they could be when he took over the program.

They are tenacious. They are intense. They refuse to lie down for the opposition. They play with an edge, an energy and a passion for the game.

In short, the Tigers were the embodiment of their coach. That purpose led them to their winningest season and first playoff win under Wallace. For his efforts, Wallace has been chosen as the Kennebec Journal Boys Soccer Coach of the Year.

First-year Winthrop coach Jon Baehr, who led the Ramblers to a 10-win season, was also considered.

“I think he’s one of best coaches I’ve ever had,” Gardiner senior Casey Bourque said. “Before games, during practices, he’s a friendly guy, but he knows when to turn on the intensity. He never lets us give up on ourselves, and he holds us accountable.”

After winning 11 games this season, more than twice what Gardiner won in 2017, Wallace credited the players with buying into a philosophy he’s tried to instill from the beginning.

“This was one of the best teams I’ve ever coached,” Wallace said. “We didn’t have the drama, there was never any rift between our good players, which can happen sometimes. We just had kids who lived and died for each other. They didn’t want to let each other down.

“We’ve been working on that culture for a long time, but this year is the first time it really came to the forefront. Even if you’ve got couple good players, but they don’t want to all buy in all the way, it doesn’t work.”

Two wins marked Gardiner’s memorable season.

First, the Tigers beat Maranacook in the final minutes of a regular season game against the perennial Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference power. Then, after trailing 2-0 early in the first half, Gardiner rallied to score twice in the final seconds of a playoff win against John Bapst.

The victory against John Bapst best illustrated what Wallace had wanted from his team. Senior back Hunter Bell scored his first career goal to tie the game before all-conference player Bourque won it with his score.

“That was the greatest sports win I’ve ever been a part of,” Wallace said. “Any other team I’ve coached would have given up. We had everything going. We were attacking. In the second half, we had possession the whole time, but we just couldn’t put it in the net. Those players just kept fighting and fighting. With the leadership of our seniors, they wouldn’t allow us to quit, to stop playing hard. They took that role and they didn’t want to fail the person beside them.

“That was the mentality they all had.”

But Bourque, who Wallace mentioned along with other seniors Cam Babcock, Keeling Dorogi and Derek Malinowski as being important leaders for the Tigers in helping shape the program’s culture, said the coach is the one who deserves the credit.

Without Wallace, he said, the team would not have carried itself the way it did.

“For a lot of the seniors, it was our last time playing together and we all left it on field for Nick and for each other,” Bourque said. “We weren’t going to let ourselves down by giving up on a play or a game — it would be letting our family down.”

“I’ve preached for a long time, it’s not just about winning,” Wallace said. “It’s about life experiences — it’s about being committed, determined, and wanting to be the best player you can be. We finally epitomized what I wanted them to be all along.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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