Gardiner’s Lindsey Bell returns a shot to Cony’s Sidney Halle during a match Monday in Augusta. Bell won 6-0, 6-0. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

AUGUSTA — Late in their match at first singles, Cony’s Sidney Halle left a ball short just above the service box and Lindsey Bell pounced.

Bell leapt into the air and delivered a crushing forehand that, though it wasn’t the final point of the match Monday, served as the perfect exclamation point to her 6-0, 6-0 victory in Gardiner’s 4-1 win over rival Cony in girls tennis. The end would come one point later, finalizing both the Tigers’ ninth win of the season and Bell’s emergence as one of the top singles players in central Maine.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” Bell, a sophomore, said. “It was just one of those moments where I was like, ‘It’s right here,’ so I really got excited and I went for it. It’s one of those shots where I was already winning, so why not go for it and try and make a learning opportunity out of it?”

Not that Monday’s win changed what Gardiner coach Patrick Quinn already believed about Bell. That came two weeks ago, when Bell qualified for the Round of 48 at the state singles tournament. With her two wins in the preliminary rounds, Bell became the first Gardiner girl to make the Round of 48 since 2004, according to Quinn.

The nine wins this season for the team are also the most in Quinn’s five-year tenure.

“We won a lot of matches last year, but we had to cobble things together to do it,” Quinn said. “This year, our singles players especially have been really consistent for us.”

Bell played doubles during her freshman season. Though she’s reticent to set concrete goals for herself, she did admit to wanting to earn the No. 1 singles spot for the Tigers this season and also make the coveted Round of 48 at the state tournament.

Gardiner’s Lindsey Bell returns a shot to Cony’s Sidney Halle during a match Monday in Augusta. Bell won 6-0, 6-0. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

With Monday’s win over Halle, Bell is now 12-3 this season. Her only losses are to three of the region’s bona fide best — Ellie Hodgkins of Erskine, Madeline Dwyer of Maranacook and Lincoln’s Caitlin Cass.

“I definitely learned a lot playing against Ellie,” Bell said. “That’s not saying anything against the other players, but I just played better against her. It all goes back to trying to hit winners when I can’t. Against Maddie, I hit a lot of dumb balls. Don’t get me wrong, she played well, but I didn’t play up to the way I wanted to.”

The perfect coupling of what one might expect with something less obvious helped Bell transform herself from a very good doubles player into an emerging talent on the singles scene. Unsurprisingly, she spent most of last summer hitting as many balls as she could to get key repetitions with all of her shots.

Then, early this spring, she figured that the best way to be a better player was to not try and take all of those shots she spent all offseason mastering.

Cony’s Sidney Halle returns a serve to Gardiner’s Lindsey Bell during a match Monday in Augusta. Bell won 6-0, 6-0. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

“I just felt it coming together,” Bell said. “I would go for winners every time, but you don’t really need to do that. You just need to get it back in play and then wait for the right time.”

That, said Quinn, is where Bell’s maturation process has been most noticeable.

“She would always try to pound everything, and she would try to go for too much too soon,” Quinn said, noting Bell’s doubles background, where the pace of the game is much different and points are finished off quickly. “It’s like a light went on for her.”

The depth on the current Gardiner squad paid dividends for Bell, too. Senior Kiara Goggin (who beat Katherine Boston 6-3, 6-2 on Monday) and junior Hannah Foust (a 6-2, 6-2 winner over Cony’s Mandy Cooper) are exceptional players who have given Bell somebody to drill with and compete against during the season. As a trio, Bell, Goggin and Foust are a combined 22-6 this season in their matches.

That’s not lost on either Bell or Quinn, noting that quality depth for the Tigers has helped Bell — and everyone else — improve.

“We’re pretty good,” Bell said. “We can beat teams in our conference, but we’re not overpowering. We’re consistent.”

Bell doesn’t measure her success in wins and losses, or in how far she is able to advance is this week’s Round of 48 — or subsequent state singles tournaments later in her career. She’s cognizant of the fact that there are other, capable players on the opposite side of the net. She does, however, judge her successes and failures against herself.

“It’s about what I do on the court,” Bell said. “Hitting more balls in, getting more first serves in, less unforced errors — those type of things. Improvement in my strokes and more consistency. I don’t try to base my game off (wins and losses), because there are other players who are a component to the matches.”

Gardiner’s Evan Wells returns a serve against Cony’s Andrew Boston on Monday in Augusta. Wells won 8-6. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Cony’s No. 1 doubles team of Virginia Tobias and Josephine Nutakki scored the lone Rams’ point on Monday. They beat Gardiner’s Caitlin Paul and Susan Strickland 6-3, 6-2.

For a Cony team (2-7) trying to cling to the final playoff spot in Class A North — they are in a Heal point tie with Hampden Academy for the eighth and final slot — head coach Kirk Cooper said his first doubles team has been a consistent duo capable of swinging matches.

“We played together a lot last year, too, and that’s helped,” Tobias said.

“We haven’t had many times to get outside,” Nutakki said of the unusual spring weather. “Hopefully, we can hold onto the last spot.”

Gardiner’s Jed Malinowski returns a serve to Cony’s Reed Hopkins on Monday In Augusta. Malinowski won 8-4. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

On the boys side Monday, Gardiner beat Cony by the same 4-1 score the girls enjoyed. Cony won at No. 1 singles with Alex Stewart, but Jed Malinowski and Evan Wells countered with wins for the playoff-bound Tigers.

Cony’s playoff hopes likely boil down to an upcoming makeup match against Brunswick. A win would at least have the Rams in position for seventh-place — the final Class A North playoff spot for the boys — should any of the teams above them falter down the stretch.

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