BAR HARBOR, Maine — The first four decades of football at Mount Desert Island High School had produced just one playoff victory.
But two more postseason success stories have come in the last eight days alone, and suddenly the Trojans will be back home next Saturday — playing for an Eastern Maine championship.
Nolan Hall capped off a wild first half with a 78-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and the MDI defense clamped down after intermission to lift the Trojans to a 28-21 victory over defending state champion Gardiner in a Pine Tree Conference Class B semifinal Friday night.
The win was the eighth in a row for second-ranked MDI (8-1), which will host No. 5 Morse of Bath at 1:30 p.m. next Saturday for the regional title.
“It’s tremendous,” said MDI coach Mark Shields. “It’s tremendous for this community. It’s tremendous for this program, and more importantly it’s tremendous for our kids and I’m just so proud of them.
Offense dominated the opening two quarters of this contest, with third-seeded Gardiner (6-3) jumping out to leads of 7-0 and 14-7 as touchdown runs of 62 and 6 yards by Forrest Chadwick offset a 59-yard scoring run by MDI’s Odane Gaynor.
But the upstart Trojans gained momentum by answering Gardiner’s touchdowns with equalizing scores of their own, as Terrence Jones (17 carries, 81 yards) scored on a 3-yard run to forge a 14-14 tie with 5.3 seconds left in the first quarter.
“It’s a good thing we matched them early because if we didn’t, it probably would have been a completely different game,” said MDI senior Jasper Cousins. “Just by us staying close, it kept our heads in the game, and every time we scored, it kept boosting us and made us want to win even more.”
MDI’s defense then forced Gardiner into the lone punt of the first half, and Hall’s 28-yard punt return set up a 54-yard drive that gave the Trojans their first lead.
Gaynor (five carries, 126 yards) broke off a 41-yard gain to the Gardiner 11, and two plays later quarterback Tyler Crawford rolled left and found tight end Nate Ward open in the end zone with a 9-yard touchdown strike.
Gardiner responded with a 12-play, 62-yard march capped off when quarterback Mike Denham rolled left into the end zone from 3 yards out to tie the game at 21-21 with 1:50 left in the first half.
But the Tigers, who had squibbed their first few kickoffs in an effort to keep the ball away from MDI’s bevy of playmakers, sent the kickoff straight to Hall this time.
The senior gathered the ball at the MDI 22, and glided patiently upfield behind Gaynor’s lead blocking. When Gaynor went left, so did Hall, who broke through Gardiner’s defensive wall near midfield thanks to another block from Ward and raced down the sideline to give MDI back its seven-point lead with what turned out to be the game’s final points.
“I just heard Odane calling ‘Go left, go left, go left,’” said Hall. “I just listened to him, made one juke and I was gone.”
The second half was played in stark contrast to the first two quarters, as neither team really threatened to score.
Gardiner — which was without starting fullback and linebacker Peter Caradonna, who had undergone knee surgery earlier in the day from an injury suffered two weeks earlier — became further shorthanded after intermission as Chadwick, who rushed for 125 yards on 17 carries in the first half, was limited to just two second-half carries due to an ailing knee of his own.
“We put some sophomores in some positions these last two games you don’t want to have to put sophomores in, you want to have 17-year-olds in there,” said Gardiner coach Jim Palmer. “But you do what you have to do.”
MDI ganged up against the rest of the Tigers’ offensive threats, with linebackers Cousins and Camden Fernald playing key roles along with linemen Dan Hales and Taylor Stewart, Ward at end and Crawford and Jones in the secondary.
Gardiner’s best threat came late in the third quarter, when Denham drove the Tigers to the MDI 28 before Jones stripped him of the football and Cousins recovered at the 18.
Gardiner got to the MDI 36 on its next possession, but Crawford tackled Chadwick two yards short of a first down on fourth-and-six.
“The first half they ran better than we tackled,” said Palmer. “The second half became a nice defensive struggle, but you can’t give them four scores and expect to win the game.”