GARDINER — For four years, it was hard for the Gardiner girls basketball team not to stand among the tallest — not with two giants, both figuratively and literally.

Part of the foundation of Class A North girls basketball since the turn of the decade was Gardiner’s Lizzy Gruber, a 6-foot-4 Division I prospect who last year was named Miss Maine Basketball. The Tigers’ head coach, the 6-11 Mike Gray, was the architect of it all, the brains behind one of the state’s most feared teams.

Neither are in James A. Bragoli Memorial Gymnasium this year as Gardiner prepares for the 2023-24 season. With Gruber now at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and Gray having retired after 19 seasons, Gardiner is instead aiming to both turn the page and suggest that one of the area’s top programs has staying power.

“I think our girls definitely have the same winning mentality of the past few years, and I think they’re just as hungry,” said new Gardiner head coach Britney Gero. “People are looking at us like it’s going to be a rebuilding year, but to these girls, it’s so much more. They’re ready to surprise some people.”

It’s been hard to match Gardiner in terms of consistency over the past four years. The Tigers won the Central Maine Class A/B title in 2020-21 and were A North runners-up last year, going 20-1 with a loss to Lawrence in the regional final. Gardiner was an impressive 67-11 over that span, going undefeated at home.

None of it could have happened without Gruber. As a senior last year, she averaged 20.7 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.6 blocks per game, earning Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A North Player of the Year honors. She surpassed both the 1,000-point and 1,000-rebound marks for her career.


Filling the shoes of such an impactful player isn’t easy, but try Gardiner must. The Tigers will do so with one of the region’s other top post players, Taylor Takatsu, who was the team’s No. 2 post presence without Gruber last year but will now anchor the paint.

Gardiner seniors Taylor Takatsu, bottom left, and Megan Carver laugh while doing a strength and conditioning during a Nov. 22 practice in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Taylor Takatsu is a beast, so we’re still going to be very strong in the post aspect,” Gero said. “I think we have a lot of players like that that are ready to take over a bigger role this year. The kids below them have been working hard for this moment, and they’re ready to show what they can do.”

Gardiner will have other post options in forwards Megan Carver and Taryn Nichols, both of whom saw significant game action last season. The Tigers also bring back a pair of noteworthy guards in Emilee Brown and Brianna Smith, who came off the bench a year ago.

The roles are now bigger for those players, who have been playing behind Gruber and fellow 2023 graduates Savannah Brown, Megan Gallagher, McKenna Johnson and others since they were young. Stepping into the spotlight themselves, though, is something they’re embracing.

“It is exciting not having them because we have to step up now,” said Brown, a junior. “It’s been really good going into a different role and not having those seniors (from last year). It’s a bit different, but we’re still moving forward, and we’re all getting better together.”

Then, there’s the coaching change. Gray had been a longtime staple on the bench for the Tigers, whom he had coached before any of the players on this year’s team (or last year’s, for that matter) were even born. Now, in comes Gero, one of Gray’s former players and an assistant of his since 2010.


The differences between the two have already become apparent in Gardiner’s first few practices. The Tigers, Brown said, have focused a lot more on conditioning than they did under Gray. That fits into the style that Gero said she wants to play, which emphasizes speed and defense.

New Gardiner girls basketball coach Britney Gero talks to players during a Nov. 22 practice in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“There’s a lot more running and a lot more conditioning,” Brown said. “These first few preseason practices, we’ve been conditioning a lot. We want to be a fast team this year; we want to be a run-and-gun team that plays good defense and is gritty. We’re going to be feisty.”

It’s a change of pace, but one is always necessary when a team undergoes a major change in personnel. Between the aforementioned players and additions from junior varsity such as guard Addy Serber and forwards Avayda Catchings and Brynnlea Chaisson, Brown is hoping the style keeps the Tigers in the hunt.

They know the general consensus isn’t expecting them to be there; they’re seen, Gero acknowledged, in terms of what they’ll be missing in the paint and on the sidelines. That’s only driving Gardiner more as the Tigers look out to disprove the naysayers expecting a big drop-off from them in 2023-24.

“I think as a team, we want to show people that last year’s seniors weren’t everything and that there’s a whole other group that can do just as well,” Takatsu said. “It’s definitely going to be different, but I think it’ll be fun. It’s our chance to do our own thing now.”

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