GARDINER — Things looked shaky early on for the Gardiner girls basketball team. The Tigers were young, they were raw, and the record was showing it, as Gardiner dropped its second straight game to open the season on Jan. 18.

What a difference a month can make.

On Friday, those same Tigers looked like the same formidable opponent they were last year, racing out to a hot start and holding off Maranacook 55-36.

After starting 0-2, the Tigers have won seven straight, and they’ve been doing it with a completely different rotation than the one that brought them to the Class A North final last winter. Anchored last season by juniors and seniors, this team features freshmen and sophomores in key roles, and according to coach Mike Gray, they’ve been learning on the job.

“Everybody besides Kassidy (Collins) and Lizzy (Gruber) has a brand-new role this year. Everyone’s job is different this year,” said Gray, whose team got 17 points and 16 rebounds from Gruber and 10 points apiece from Collins (11 rebounds) and McKenna Johnson. “We knew it was just going to take its time. … It was just ‘Let’s go out and build and get better,’ and they’ve bought into that 100 percent.”

Graduations and opt-outs left several vital spots up for grabs this season, and it became up to underclassmen to take over. A trio of sophomores in Johnson, Savannah Brown and Megan Gallagher became the guard rotation, while junior Piper LaVoie, sophomore Kylee Nichols and freshman Taylor Takatsu went from players who rarely, if ever, saw varsity minutes to key players off the bench.

Maranacook senior Gabby Green, left, and Gardiner sophomore Lizzy Gruber rebound during a game Friday in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

It was a learning process. Gardiner dropped its first two games to Mt. Ararat and Hall-Dale.

“We started off pretty rough,” Johnson said. “We knew we were better (than that). We were like ‘Let’s keep going and win some games.'”

Gray wasn’t worried. His team didn’t get to begin practice until Jan. 11, so from the opening dribble, his players were behind.

“We weren’t ready to be playing yet. We didn’t have any skills and drills in December, like a lot of teams did,” he said. “We had two nights of tryouts, two days of practice, and then a game on Friday and a game on Monday. We just weren’t ready.”

It’s been a different story since, and it was again Friday. Gardiner dictated the game from the opening possession and seized command, taking a 22-2 lead into the second quarter. Maranacook (8-3) struggled from the field early, going 1-for-13 in the first quarter, and that played into Gardiner’s advantage on the boards as the Tigers outrebounded the Black Bears 18-7 in the opening stanza.

Gardiner sophomore Lizzy Gruber, left, plays defense on Maranacook senior Gabby Green during a game Friday in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Maranacook, led by Gabby Green (15 points, seven rebounds) fought back in the second quarter, narrowing the gap to 29-18 by halftime, but the Tigers scored 15 of the first 17 points of the third quarter to pull away again.

Those sophomores who were scrambling to catch up at the start of the season looked at ease Friday. In addition to Johnson’s 10, Gallagher and Brown hit shots in the third quarter to deny Maranacook a comeback.

“We’ve kind of all just glued,” Johnson said. “We’re starting to pick it up. … We come in here and we act like it’s nothing to us.”

Gruber, who started as a freshman last season, has been impressed with how her classmates have improved.

“We’ve definitely started to find our rhythm,” she said. “I’m really proud of the girls, and how everyone’s worked. Everyone knew the spots were up for grabs, and everyone’s worked really hard to fill roles, and worked 10 times harder to help our team throughout the season.”

Gruber, like her coach, figured it was a matter of time before everything would click.

“It started out a little rough, but once we got into our groove, we knew what was going on,” she said. “We know how to play basketball, and we’ve been together for so long that it just feels right again.”

Maranacook also got eight points from Anna Drillen. The Black Bears were playing their third game in as many days, and coach Karen Magnusson said the team didn’t meet the Tigers’ challenge out of the gate.

“We had to be tough. We weren’t tough that first quarter, but we were much tougher later on,” she said. “We could look at (fatigue) and say it’s a factor, but it wasn’t the rest of those three quarters. Those three quarters, we found the energy, we found the momentum, we ran the floor, we did the things. We needed to come in with a better mentality.”

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