They’ll be among the shortest players suiting up for the 142nd meeting between the Gardiner and Cony football teams. But don’t be fooled.

For Blaise Tripp and Colten Manning, their contributions to their teams well exceeds their heights and weights.

Few players on either roster are smaller, but few leave a bigger impact on their teams. The 5-foot-6, 142-pound Manning has settled in as a coverage ace for Cony’s playmaking secondary, providing consistency and reliability at the No. 2 cornerback spot.

Skowhegan’s Camden Green, left, gets tackled by Cony’s Colten Manning on Friday night in Skowhegan. Cony won the game 35-7. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

“All year long, teams have tried to pick on him. He’s not particularly tall, and with Adrian on the other side, I think teams naturally say ‘Hey, let’s throw it over there at No. 34,’ ” Cony coach B.L. Lippert said. “Outside of a catch or two that he gave up early … he’s been answering the call for the most part, and has really helped solidify both sides of the field.”

For Gardiner, Tripp’s impact can be seen pretty much anywhere. The 5-5, 125-pound senior starts at free safety, but also returns kicks and catches passes and takes handoffs whenever the Tigers want to put the ball in his hands.

As it turns out, that’s pretty often.

“He’s an outstanding specialist, he’s back on kick return and punt return, and whenever we need a big play offensively, he fills in as the slot back really well,” Gardiner coach Joe White said. “We run the jet sweep really well, he gets the corner quickly. Blaise can cause a lot of problems for teams when he gets into space and finds a gear.”

Size was never an advantage for either player, but Manning, a district champion in the 100-meter dash while living in Texas, learned an important truth when he started playing the game as an eighth-grader.

“Speed kills,” he said with a smile. “As a shorter corner, you can definitely keep up with people and that makes it easier on deep routes where you can beat your man.”

He tried safety, but was told corner would be a better fit. From there, Manning — with the help of brother Colin, a Cony receiver — went to work working on his technique.

There’d be days where I’d go out in my yard and I’d do lots of quick hitches to practice blocking hitches, all day, every day,” he said. “And there’d be days … Colin would help me run routes and I’d try to read the route, just to get a little better at reading routes and able to pick the ball off eventually.”

Quarterback after quarterback that has tried to test him, seeing the size advantage that inevitably takes place, has ended up regretting it.

“He’s got great speed, so he’s always got the ability to make up ground,” Lippert said. “He’s got good timing, knocking balls down and knowing when to put his inside hand up. I think his football I.Q. is really high as well. He understands route concepts, he understands what offenses are trying to do.”

Manning does well in zone, but he loves the challenge of man-to-man defense.

To me it’s much more fun, and it kind of shows more skill in your position,” he said. “I like the one-on-one showdown. … It gets that energy pumping.”

In Gardiner, Tripp had to fight the size battle from the start. Like Manning, he figured out how to play to his strength.

All middle school I played D-lineman, which is hard to believe,” he said. “I always beat the guy in front of me because of how fast I was. So I mostly just relied on my speed.”

Tripp found his true home at free safety, where his quickness and nose for the ball often put him at the center of the play. Last week, he had a forced fumble and 55-yard return for a touchdown against Messalonskee. Last season, he picked off three passes in a game against York.

“He’s a very intelligent football player,” White said. “He’s able to identify certain reads pre-snap and get himself in a position to make plays. … He became an outstanding defensive player for us, on account of his ability to fly around and make plays. He gets excited, and when he’s up and going, the rest of the defense is.”

Gardiner defensive back Blaise Tripp plays defense and causes MCI tight end David Young to drop the pass during an exhibition game on Friday Aug. 25, 2017 at Hoch Field in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Tripp likes to make plays on the ball. But he loves when he gets to make plays on the ballcarrier.

“I like hitting people,” he said. “I like being in the middle of the field, and being able to come downhill when they’re running the ball. … I always get low, and drive (my) legs when (I) hit.”

Even at 125 pounds, Tripp brings down the players he hits.

“He’s another one on our defense who makes a really great open-field tackle,” White said. “He’s good at going low and taking down the big backs. … Pound-for-pound, (he’s) one of our toughest players.”

The two will face off Friday, hoping to lead their teams to a big win.

“When Cony week comes around, we have a different type of intensity out there,” Tripp said. “You can feel it on the practice field.”

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