GARDINER — It might not seem as if there would be much that can stand in a 6-foot-4 woman’s way. Lizzy Gruber, though, knows otherwise.

Fate, at times, has seemed to be working against the Gardiner girls basketball star. For years, she battled a heart condition that touched every aspect of her daily life. Then, when she got the surgery to correct it, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic limited the opportunities she finally had at her fingertips.

“Looking back at the four years, it’s a feeling of, ‘Wow, you’ve been through everything,’” Gruber said. “You have surgery, and then, almost right away, things get crazy with COVID. It’s been weird, but I like to think that everything worked out by bringing us to where we are now.”

Where the Tigers are now is 18-0 with very real state championship hopes as tournament time begins. Gruber is also a bonafide star. Behind the challenges and the exploits is someone who is making the most of her moment — and, despite towering over nearly all, is still a little kid at heart.

Part of a group of seven seniors who have been together since first grade, Gruber has been a basketball standout for nearly two-thirds of her life. She’s always been the tallest of her peers, whether on basketball or volleyball courts or in the classroom. She’s developed the skills that have made that size even more lethal.

In second grade, though, a challenge arose that would affect Gruber for seven years. She began experiencing heart troubles stemming from a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), in which irregular electrical activity triggers episodes of rapid heartbeat. Her body, one that gave her a natural advantage, was also working against her.


“Every time it would happen, I would turn purple, and I couldn’t breathe,” Gruber said. “It would happen a lot during basketball, but it didn’t even have to be during basketball; I could be sitting in math class or in the cafeteria, and my heart rate would go up to 210. It wasn’t good.”

To make matters worse for Gruber, SVT is a tough condition to catch and diagnose. Whenever she went to the doctor to get an electrocardiogram, they couldn’t quite identify SVT as the source of her episodes. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that doctors could finally make the diagnosis.

With the condition finally diagnosed, Gruber went to Boston Children’s Hospital in January 2020 to get surgery. The operation, which has kept her free of heart problems since, was so successful that she was back on the basketball court a mere three days later.

“She literally had the operation that Friday, we came home Saturday, and she played in a game on Monday at Erskine,” recalled Gruber’s mother, Andrea. “They originally said she couldn’t, but then the hospital gave her the clearance, and she was ready to go play.”

The following year, Gruber led Gardiner to a 2021 Central Maine title, one the community couldn’t fully experience with no fans in attendance. Her junior year also ended with more limited fanfare as Skowhegan’s Jaycie Christopher stole the spotlight in Augusta. Furthermore, the Tigers got bounced in the regional semifinals.

Lizzy Gruber poses with some trophies she earned as a fourth-grader in youth basketball. Gruber, now a senior, is one of the top players in the state. Contributed photo/Andrea Gruber

All of that, though, set the stage for Gruber to deliver a brilliant senior season. She did so not only for the No. 1 girls basketball team (18-0), which will face No. 8 Brewer (6-12) at 8:30 p.m. Friday in the Class A North quarterfinals, but also for the volleyball team, which went 16-1 and finished as state runner-up.


Gruber’s individual accomplishments on the basketball court this year have been remarkable. She finished the regular season averaging 20.7 points and a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference- best 15.7 rebounds and 5.6 blocks per game. She also reached 1,000 career points and rebounds and was just named a Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist.

“She’s not afraid of the moment, and she’s not afraid of the pressure because nobody is going to put more pressure on her than she puts on herself,” said Gardiner head coach Mike Gray. “She knew, ‘hey this is my senior year; it’s my last shot,’ and she’s met every challenge that anybody could possibly throw at her.”

Behind Gruber’s 6-4 frame, those around her agree, is the heart of a child. She’s the first in line for snacks after practices or games; she knows and frequently sings the words to every Disney song, from the movies “Frozen” to “The Lion King”; she’s known for her impressions of many animated movie characters, especially the Grinch.

It’s why, her mother said, younger children are never too far away from Lizzy. It’s not unexpected for youth basketball players in Maine to be enamored with their elders in the high school ranks, but even kids who don’t recognize her from the sport seem to gravitate her way.

“She’s like a 5-year-old, really,” Andrea Gruber said. “You go anywhere, and there’s kids just clinging to her. We’ll go anywhere; we’ll go to Target, or we’ll go to Dave’s Diner like we did the other day, and there’s little kids coming up to her and hanging off her. It’s really something.”

Parents Andrea Gruber, left, and Dave Gruber, right, pose with Gardiner senior center Lizzy Gruber, bottom right, after she scored her 1,000th point during a basketball game on Saturday in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Gruber, her mom added, is good at identifying the right company, and at Gardiner, she’s had a lot of it. Back when she was battling heart troubles, her teammates were trained in how to help her in the event of an episode — no small responsibility for young girls whose minds can be easily overwhelmed by traumatic circumstances.


It doesn’t hurt, either, that one of Gruber’s best friends, Lilly Diversi, is the school nurse’s daughter. Nor does it hurt that her head coach, to whom Gruber can relate in terms of the experiences of being the tallest person in the room (Gray is 6-foot-11), has been a mentor of hers for years.

“We basically have no (outside) family here, so the people here are like my family to me,” Gruber said. “No matter what I’m going through, I know those people are always going to be there for me, whether it’s carrying me to the nurse’s office when I couldn’t move or helping me mentally or emotionally.”

Gruber is off to play Division I basketball next year at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She has goals of becoming a childhood psychologist, a career path that, as her mom pointed out, would be “a pretty good fit” given the personality and affinity for children.

Before that, though, Gruber has a few more basketball games to win in Augusta. There’s not much the decorated senior hasn’t done on local volleyball or basketball courts over her four years at Gardiner, but adding the team’s first Gold Ball in 48 years would make for a remarkable final act.

If the Tigers are going to get there, they’ll have to do so with a target on their backs. As the undefeated No. 1 seed, Gardiner is the team everyone is gunning for, and as the star player, Gruber is the first player opponents will try and stop — but that’s nothing she hasn’t dealt with before.

“It’s a big target when everyone’s gunning for you, but that’s also a great feeling,” Gruber said. “We cut down the nets in our own gym the COVID year, and it would be great to do it again (in Augusta). There’s no time left on the clock, so we have to give it all we can.”

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