TURNER — The Gardiner Area High School football team couldn’t score. Couldn’t move the ball. Couldn’t do much of anything on offense, really.

Until it had to.

And then the hole opened up, Collin Foye ran through it and No. 4 Gardiner got the only points it needed, coming away with a stunning 7-6 upset victory over top-seeded Leavitt at Libby Field.

Leavitt (8-2) had a 6-0 lead with 3:17 to play, and appeared poised to hand Gardiner another heartbreaker — nothing new in a series that had included one close game and tight playoff battle after another, the last seven of which were won by the Hornets. Instead, it was the Tigers (5-5) doing the celebrating after a score and a stand that sent them on, somehow, to the C South final.

“These guys have been down so many times, these seniors especially, the last three years,” coach Joe White said. “These guys have come through some amazing adversity. To be down 6-0 after a slugfest against the best team in the conference (and win) really shows a lot of grit and a lot of characters from our leaders.”

The deficit was only a hole at 6-0, but it felt like a gorge. Gardiner, which lost quarterback Cole Heaberlin to a shoulder injury on the first series, struggled to move the ball beyond runs for 2, 3 or 4 yards, and it was only thanks to the Tigers defense that Gardiner had a chance to come out of Turner with the win — a defense that finally blinked when quarterback Tim Albert (15 carries, 43 yards) ran in from 11 yards out to finish a 53-yard drive and give the Hornets the lead, though the extra point try hit off the right upright.

Faced with one last drive to save the season, Gardiner finally found success — with an assist to Leavitt and officials’ calls. An unnecesary roughness call after the ensuing kickoff gave Gardiner the ball at the Leavitt 47, and after a run for 2 yards, Foye threw long on a trick play after taking the pitch from quarterback Sean Michaud.

The pass fell incomplete but the officials called pass interference, putting the ball at the Leavitt 30 and prompting boos and jeers from the angry crowd.

“It’s either a pick or a touchdown, that toss pass,” White said. “It ends up being a pass interference penalty, it put us in a good spot.”

Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway was tight-lipped when asked about the call.

“You saw it,” he said. “You can report what you saw.”

The Tigers took advantage on the next play, with Foye — bottled up most of the game as the Hornets keyed in on the run — bouncing left, finding green turf instead of green jerseys, and scampering into the end zone for the tying touchdown with 2:15 to play.

“I saw green grass,” said Foye, who ran 18 times for 102 yards, gaining 67 combined on his first and last carries. “Just like (his winning run) against Cony, it just opened up.”

That left the matter of the extra point – no sure thing, considering kicker Austin Weymouth had booted a 25-yard field goal try wide right in the first quarter. But with the game on the line, the senior’s kick was perfect.

“Knowing that I could put the point on the board, as the kicker, that wins the game, I almost puked,” he said. “I was in so much shock. But then, realizing my situation and knowing that I’m a good kicker, I (thought) ‘I’m just going to do this.’ “

Leavitt got a break on its final drive, as a taunting penalty gave it a first down and the ball at its 37. The Hornets’ penalty woes flared up again, however as a holding penalty put the Hornets into a first-and-29 jam, and the drive ended with a turnover on downs when a heave from Albert (6-for-18, 46 yards, one interception) down the left sideline fell incomplete with 43 seconds left.

“I always thought we could do it,” Foye said. “But now that it’s here, I’m kind of shocked. It’s just the greatest feeling.”

The story appeared destined for a different ending after Leavitt’s one scoring drive, which came after a night spent getting turned away on the verge of points time after time by the resilient Gardiner defense. The Hornets, who averaged 35.5 points per game during the regular season, came up empty on their first seven drives, five of which entered Tiger territory before Gardiner would come up with a stop to keep its hindered offense within striking distance.

“We just don’t give up,” said junior Roy Appleby, a force all game on the defensive line. “When our quarterback went down, we knew what to do. We had to not let them score.”

“Our defense is the best in the league,” White said. “We are just an outstanding, gritty defense, and boy, they’ve held tough all year.”

With time ticking away, however, Leavitt finally struck. A 12-yard pass from Albert to Damion Calder moved the ball to the Gardiner 39, Brad Moreau had an 11-yard run to the 27 and a 9-yard run to the 13, and Albert finished the drive with a rush around the left edge for the score.

It was Leavitt’s only lead, and it wouldn’t last. Minutes later, Gardiner players were celebrating their shocking comeback, and Leavitt players and coaches were forced to deal with how a season so promising crashed to such a bitter halt.

“I coached very poorly tonight,” Hathaway said. “We were very poorly coached with that many penalties and that many mistakes. That one’s on me.”

Gardiner had the game’s first crack at points, as Foye took his first carry of the game around the right side for 37 yards, with a face mask penalty added on putting the ball at the Leavitt 11-yard line. The drive stalled there, however, with Heaberlin having to walk gingerly off the field after being hit on a third-down incompletion and Weymouth pushing his 25-yard field goal try right.

The rest of the half’s chances went to the favored Hornets, but the Gardiner defense came up with stops to ensure the opportunities didn’t translate into points. The Hornets reached the Gardiner 43-yard line on their second drive before Appleby hit Albert’s arm on a third-down pass attempt to force a punt, started at the 29 the next series after a fumble and went backwards, and came up empty after reaching the Tigers 31 on the next drive thanks to a combined sack from Appleby and Garrett Maheux.

It was the same story in the second half, as Gardiner kept turning aside what felt like an inevitable Leavitt breakthrough. And when the Hornets finally got it, the Gardiner offense finally had the answer.

“I’m just proud of how they played,” White said. “I’m running out of stuff here.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM