It’s a phrase Chris Gardner has kept in mind for more than a decade. He first heard it from Waynflete boys soccer coach Brandon Salway as their teams were set to play for the 2008 Class C state championship.
“It’s amazing how smart talent can make you look,” said Gardner, now in his 17th year as head coach at Washington Academy in East Machias. “Coach Salway made that statement, and I thought to myself at the time, ‘That’s awesome.’ I’ve never forgotten that quote.”
Washington Academy defeated Waynflete 2-1 that day.
And while the talent has changed from year to year, Gardner has been a constant as the Raiders have captured Class C state titles in 2015 and 2016. WA also earned trips to the Class B North final each of the past two years before returning to Class C this fall.
All are highlights of his more than 200 career victories, a milestone Gardner reached earlier this month with a 2-0 victory over Bucksport. He has 206 wins after Tuesday’s 5-2 victory in their regular-season finale against Lee Academy.
Gardner is quick to deflect credit for that success. He acknowledges primary influences ranging from his coaching mentor, Charlie Fitzsimmons, at the former Lubec High School, and his assistant coaches over the years since 2003 with the Raiders.
But the biggest source of on-field support, he says, has come from his players.
“The strength of any program is to have longevity so the kids have a certain expectation, a certain style of play so they know what they’re getting into,” Gardner said. “If you do it right, the best coaches on the team are your upperclassmen.”
That’s one element of what Gardner describes as his unconventional approach to coaching, one that has led WA to a 14-2 postseason record over the past four years.
Gardner admits he is not big on putting his players through lots of drills.
“If you come to my practices you don’t see a lot of flags and ladders and cones. I try to teach between their ears first and assume they’re soccer players already,” he said. “I try to work on the mental part of the game, getting them to work together and paying attention to the details.”
One of Gardner’s perennial challenges at the outset of preseason practices each August involves integrating newly arrived international student-athletes at the independent school with returning players in time for the regular season just a few weeks away.
“Sometimes people will say it must be nice to have some exchange students, but it’s a double-edged sword in that each and every year you’re introducing new kids to the program who potentially are used to completely different styles of play, and sometimes you have to work on team chemistry,” Gardner said.
That, Gardner believes, is the most important piece.
“It’s always about putting the team together. If you teach the chemistry and life lessons first, the game will come,” he said.
Sometimes that amalgamation process will result in a sluggish start to the season. That was the case this September when the Raiders faced the two toughest opponents on their schedule, Orono and George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill, in their first three matches.
WA lost once to both teams, then played Orono to a scoreless stalemate in their second meeting. Since then the Raiders are 10-1 and have allowed just nine goals.
“That has kind of been a calling card for us, that if you’re going to beat WA beat us early because we hopefully try to be stronger later in the season,” Gardner said. “We’ve always been notoriously slow starters, and just as the schedule would have it this year, our most pointworthy games were the first few games of the season.
Despite that challenge, he believes the Raiders are getting it together.
WA is almost certain to be seeded fifth in the final Class C North Heal Points, meaning a likely third meeting against George Stevens — a team that defeated the Raiders twice during the regular season — in the quarterfinals.
“You’ve got to win four games [to capture the state title], and you can only play one at a time,” Gardner said. “We know they’re all going to be great squads, but we’ve had a pretty good success rate in the playoffs as of late. Hopefully we can continue that.”