Gardiner quarterback Chase Burgess throws a touchdown pass to Zach Kristan against Mt. Blue during a football game Friday at Hoch Field in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

OAKLAND — Between a combination of tough matchups and surprising results, only two Pine Tree Conference teams got wins to open the 2023 season.

Down south, Messalonskee put the state on notice as it pummeled Falmouth 47-8 in Blair Doucette’s debut as head coach. Gardiner, meanwhile, rolled to an easy 37-12 win over Mt. Blue that was a huge confidence-builder for a team losing a slew of key players.

Coincidentally, the only two teams to start 1-0 will face off at 7 p.m. Friday when the Eagles host the Tigers at Veterans Field in Oakland. Although it’s still early, one team is guaranteed a 2-0 start that could prove massive in a league where parity could make wins hard to come by.

It can’t be overstated what Messalonskee accomplished last Friday against Falmouth. Taking on a team many saw as a championship contender, the Eagles thoroughly dismantled the Navigators to send a message to the rest of the region that the Messalonskee of old is no longer.

“We were 5-27 over the past four years, and we hadn’t won an opening football game in the regular season since 2017,” Doucette said. “We’re six to eight guys deep at the skill positions, and that’s something we’re really fortunate about. It’s great for us to have that depth this year.”

Those strengths at the skill positions sure showed for Messalonskee in Week 1. Doucette’s son, Tatum, completed 9 of 14 passes for 264 yards and five touchdowns, while Sam Dube rushed 17 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Four different receivers had touchdown receptions of 40 yards or longer.


Although Gardiner was not quite as prolific in the win over Mt. Blue, the Tigers had a similar thing going. Making his first start at quarterback, Chase Burgess completed 11 of 18 passes for 143 yards with two touchdowns, both of which went to Zach Kristan (five catches for 74 yards).

“You know Zach’s always going to be open,” said Burgess, who said last Friday’s performance was a big boost after a tough preseason exhibition against Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale. “I always know I can come back to him if my first or second reads aren’t open because he’s going to be there.”

Messalonskee’s Drake Brunell, left, runs past Gardiner defensive back Cody Dingwell during a football game last season in Oakland. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Gardiner head coach Pat Munzing said the 41-7 loss to the Ramblers left some of his players a bit discouraged as they closed out the preseason. Yet the Tigers shook that disappointment off to enter the showdown with the Cougars energized and focused, and the mood heading into Oakland looks to be the same.

“That exhibition game was tough, but we kind of told them, ‘Look, guys, we’re not preparing for our exhibition game; we’re preparing for Week 1,’” Munzing said. “I’m really proud of the way they turned it around, and now, we’re confident we can continue that growth as we go into Week 2.”

Given what Doucette and Burgess did at quarterback in Week 1, it can be expected that both will be counted on to make plays Friday at Veterans Field. That puts the onus on the two secondaries, and luckily for both Gardiner and Messalonskee, they both have experienced units capable of keeping opposing passers in check.

Although the personnel losses were plenty for the Tigers rolling into 2023, they did return two key secondary pieces in Evan Ahearn and Cody Dingwell. Dingwell had an interception against Mt. Blue in the opener, and Evan Michaud, a key piece at linebacker, also dipped back into coverage on occasion and came away with an interception of his own.


“I think the biggest thing for us is that we’ve got a really good secondary with some really good corners,” Munzing said. “We did a lot of seven-on-seven passing stuff this summer, and I think that puts us in really good shape. We hope to disguise some things and maybe throw in a few wrinkles and things they haven’t seen.”

With Messalonskee succeeding in stopping a strong Falmouth ground game led by junior back Indi Backman and a well-built offensive line, the Navigators were forced into numerous passing situations. The Eagles were no less successful at stopping those with Drake Brunell intercepting Tre Walker three times.

Gardiner, though, presents a much different challenge. The Tigers are a bit thinner on the lines and stronger at the skill positions on offense, and the complexity of their coverages and blitz packages on defense means Doucette’s game plan will look a lot different in Week 2.

“They’re fast at their skill positions, and they’re very well-coached,” Doucette. “Their kids can execute things like zone blitzes that are pretty impressive for high school football. They understand their assignments, and they’re going to be a formidable challenge.”

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