Avery Gagnon and Bryce Connor began playing sports together long before they wore the red and white of Dexter Regional High School.
“His mom used to babysit me,” Gagnon recalled this week, just before the Tigers’ basketball team began a film session in preparation for Saturday night’s Class C state championship game against Dirigo of Dixfield set for 8:45 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
“I’d go over there and we’d play basketball or football out in the backyard.”
The duo has come a long way from those toddler times, as they’re now upperclassmen who have collaborated on two of the more substantial plays in recent Dexter sports history.
The latest came Monday night when Connor found Gagnon open along the left baseline, leading to Gagnon’s short bank shot for the winning basket with 38 seconds remaining as the Tigers erased a 13-point deficit with five minutes left to stun George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill 42-40 at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center for their second straight regional title.
The same duo hooked up last November for the game-winning touchdown pass on a broken play as time expired to give Dexter’s football team a come-from-behind 34-30 victory over Maranacook of Readfield to capture the 8-player football small-school state title at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
“It’s weird because you just know what each other is going to do,” said Connor, a junior quarterback and point guard. “You know each other’s style. It’s just chemistry and it’s unmatched.”
Both agree such heroics are merely part of their contributions to team success during each season, but the Tigers’ ability to overcome adversity in championship settings is something that can’t be underestimated.
“Especially on a confidence level, I feel like we can do anything, we can overcome anything,” said Gagnon, a senior running back and forward. “We’ve already proven that, I feel.”
Dexter trailed throughout the football state final but stayed close enough to have one last chance to snatch victory from likely defeat.
The Tigers got the ball near midfield trailing 30-28 with 5 ½ minutes left and reached the Maranacook 14-yard line before facing second down and 10 yards to go with 15 seconds remaining.
Connor rolled left, looking to pass to one of three receivers crossing the field in front of him while Gagnon was tasked with blocking Maranacook’s weak-side defensive end to protect his quarterback.
“[Gagnon] wasn’t even on my mind on the play because I’m looking down the field waiting for a receiver to get open,” Connor said.
Connor neared the left sideline, but with defenders approaching him and no one open he reversed direction and ran back across the field.
Just after the scoreboard horn sounded to signal that time had expired, he suddenly eyed Gagnon near the right sideline and with a defender racing after him Connor passed the ball to his longtime friend.
Gagnon caught it at the 5, cut back toward the middle of the field to escape several tacklers and crossed the goal line.
Dexter suddenly had its only lead of the game — and the timing couldn’t have been better.
“It was just like playing at recess,” Connor said.
Monday night’s winning basket was less impromptu, except time was running down after George Stevens finally relinquished the lead when Dexter’s Seth Robbins capped off a 14-0 run with a 3-pointer with 1:35 left only to regain a 40-39 edge on a Teague Smallidge jumper with 1:01 remaining.
Dexter then worked the ball around GSA’s zone defense, first to the right side and then back to the left to Connor, who knew exactly what he was going to do and wasted little time in doing it.
“With us getting the zone moving I saw Avery open and we know what he can do down there,” he said. “He’s always there [on the baseline] and I’m always looking to get it to him.
“I could have made that pass with my eyes closed a hundred times, over and over again.”
Gagnon was quick to act once he caught Connor’s pass.
“I’m not much of a finesse guy, I’m more of a power guy,” he said. “It’s one dribble, bump [the defender] off and go right up.”
It was Gagnon’s only field goal of the night, but it qualified Dexter for its second straight state championship game once the Tigers made one more defensive stand, junior forward Kayden Kimball rebounded a missed shot and Connor added an insurance free throw with two seconds left.
“I had no doubt the whole game that we weren’t leaving that building with a loss,” Connor said. “That’s just all these guys’ heart and grit.”
The Tigers hope not to need another last-second play to win the program’s first state championship since 1986, but if they do certainly Gagnon, Connor and their teammates already have some memorable comebacks to boost their confidence.
“I feel like having that experience makes it easier on the mind to calm down and really just live in the moment and not feel the pressure,” Gagnon said.