Editor’s note: This is the 25th installment of our new series, “Remember When,” in which we revisit some of the memorable games, events, streaks and runs in high school spring sports we’ve covered over the last few decades.

The Gardiner and Maranacook/Winthrop boys lacrosse programs enjoyed one of the most fiercest rivalries in the sport for more than decade in the mid-to-late 2000s.

The games were tense. The coaches more so. And the caliber of play could easily be described in one word: Physical.

The Tigers and Hawks played for respect and, at times, supremacy in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference.

The showdowns, which drew larger than usual crowds, provided each team a measuring stick for success.

“All of the Maranacook/Winthrop kids looked forward to (those games), and I know those Gardiner kids looked forward to it,” said Zach Stewart, who coached Maranacook/Winthrop from 20013-2018. “Whenever (we played), we always got Gardiner’s best game. I would go scout Gardiner, and be like ‘Oh well, they’re decent. They’re OK.’ And then you get them on the field against the Hawks, and I go ‘Wow, these are totally different kids than the ones I watched the other day.’”

“It was the game you marked on your calendar,” added former Maranacook/Winthrop goalkeeper Zach Bessette, who played from 2011-2014. “It was all effort out (on the field). Unfortunately, we’re on the losing side of a lot of those games. But if you left everything on the field, you were happy with the effort. We lost a lot of overtime, one-goal (difference) games, which were heartbreaking for us, but we learned a lot from. There was no game like Maranacook playing Gardiner. That intense rivalry, not knowing who was going to win the game, because it was that close. If I could play any game in high school ever again, it’d be against Gardiner.”

Gardiner coach KC Johnson — who would have wrapped up his 22nd season as head coach this spring had it not been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — said the rivalry was born over a decade ago, when the Hawks were coached by Jared Knowlton. Stewart took over the Maranacook/Winthrop program in 2013, after Knowlton died of cancer at the age of 45.

“Zach stepped in, and that’s when things changed,” Johnson said. “Because his intensity, he’s a stickler for video, almost to the point of over-prepping his guys… They would raise our game. And I think we raised their game. For central Maine, it was pretty decent lacrosse.”

Both teams featured skilled players — and physical ones, too.

Gardiner boys lacrosse coach KC Johnson explains a drill during a 2017 practice at Gardiner Area High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo

“The quality of the game made it so that everyone was hyper competitive for those few games,” said former Gardiner player Jake Truman, who played from 2012-2015. “We were just giving it 100 percent the whole time. Nobody was holding back, just sprinting from end-to-end of the field. If you get the chance to hit somebody, you put them on their butt.”

That intensity wasn’t just limited to the players. It was common for Stewart and Johnson to jaw at each other on the sidelines.

“(Johnson) absolutely made me a better coach,” Stewart said. “I would watch video. Before we played Gardiner, I would watch video three times. We would do a bus ride, and we only had 20 minutes, and I couldn’t get through the game plan and tell everybody what their responsibility was. Every player on that bus that was stepping onto the varsity field had a responsibility. We were one unit when we were walking off the bus. Two by two, your helmets are in your right hand, your bags are over your left shoulder. You don’t make eye contact (with Gardiner players), you walk from (the bus) to (the sideline), I’m walking right behind you, I’m looking at KC, it was game time. We were on a mission, and KC brought that out a little bit… The kids knew it was that important to be that wound in, to be ready for that game. And then after the game, we shook hands, and then we’d talk. But (during the game), if he slipped up as a coach, I was on top of it, and if I slipped up as a coach, he was on top of it. It was just a really, really good few years of just giving it all we had for our kids, the program and just trying to better ourselves as coaches.”

“It was heat of the battle,” Johnson added. “We would say stuff across that midfield line to each other. I remember he called the ref over one time, I was talking to Zach Glazier. And I’ve known Zach Glazier since he was a toddler at the rink. He was talking to me, and (Stewart) went ‘Ref! He’s talking to my player!’ And I’m like ‘Really? I’m not talking smack with him.’ Both Zachs, because I love Zach Glazier, and he was that kind of competitor, too.

“I think Zach, in that clip of time, made me a better coach, made him a better coach, made our programs more solid. And that was the first bunch of years where there was a lot of respect down south for our kids and our programs. That’s what we all strove for. For lack of better terms, we didn’t get the games that we needed to be on the next stage, which was a state championship-worthy, or regional finals, without playing each other. That intensity level was there.”

Gardiner would get the better end of the 2013 season, finishing the regular season undefeated and winning the KVAC B title – thanks to the play of Keegan Smith, who had 83 points that season — before falling to Yarmouth in the Eastern Class B final.

The teams often met three times during the season, including the KVAC title game.

“It was usually a regular-season game that felt like a playoff game,” Johnson said. “It was the physicality, the intensity. The kids were sold on it. That was a game.”

“They were just always great games,” Truman added. “Ones we always looked forward to. We knew we had all the great kids. Us going against them was always just great across the board. Everyone was skilled, we all knew what we were doing. It was just great all around.”

Maranacook/Winthrop turned the tides in 2014, as the Hawks finished the regular season undefeated and made it to the Eastern B semifinals before falling to Yarmouth. Maranacook/Winthrop was led that season by Glazier (54 goals) and Toby Smith (47 goals). The duo accounted for 166 total points that season, with Bessette leading the way on the defensive end at goalkeeper.

Maranacook/Winthrop lacrosse coach Zach Stewart poses during a 2016 practice. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file photo

“That year with Zach Glazier and Toby Snith, when they went so far, that was their coming out year, that was the year they came alive,” Johnson said. “They were solid. They were probably — if you go in the history of KVAC — they were probably one of the better KVAC teams to ever step on the field. I’ll say the same thing with my years with Seth Wing as my captain. Those were my years, those were our high level, compete-level teams.”

Bessette especially remembers the Hawks beating the Tigers for the 2014 KVAC championship.

“To get on to the winning side of that and winning KVACs after losing two years previous to Gardiner, it was a great feeling,” said Bessette, who is now an assistant coach for Maranacook/Winthrop/Spruce Mountain under Kyle Dennett. “I think we won by 10 or 12 goals. And the feeling was, we finally got that win. We can now move on and say ‘OK, we did that.’ Playing Gardiner, you just knew it was going to be a tough game, and you knew you had to give it your all.”

It might have been even more memorable to Bessette, because the year before, as he put it, the Tigers beat the Hawks for the KVAC title in controversial fashion.

“It was my junior year (in 2013), and we were playing the KVAC championship at Thomas College,” Bessette said. “It was a tie game, there was maybe 30 seconds left, and Zach Glazier, he was on attack, he got the ball from the (Gardiner) goalie, the goalie had tossed it up in the air. From what we were told — and what I saw — was a clean takeaway, no interference, he took the ball and scored. But the ref said goalie interference. Gardiner will say it was, I’ll say it wasn’t. And then the game went into overtime, and Gardiner ended up winning the championship game.”

Both Gardiner and Maranacook/Winthrop would reach the regional final one more time — the Hawks in 2016, Gardiner in 2017 — but both then fell to Yarmouth. The Tigers have remained a consistent playoff presence in Class B, reaching the quarterfinal round in 2018 and 2019.

The Hawks dropped to Class C in 2018. Last year, Dennett led Maranacook/Winthrop/Spruce Mountain to the Class C championship game, where it fell to North Yarmouth Academy 17-5.

“(In last year’s game), and this is with Kyle Dennett coaching, the kids still hate Maranacook kids,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Really? Really? Zach’s gone.’ I like Kyle, I coached against Kyle when he was in high school. It wasn’t the same (type of game) for me, but the kids, those two programs, Gardiner and Maranacook, rose the level, totally. It was high-level lacrosse.”

“It was a great rivalry that you wish you could go back and play again,” Bessette added. “Unfortunately, you can’t.”

 

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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