GARDINER — Ten minutes. Nine minutes. Eight minutes. They kept ticking by, each one keeping time in what felt like a funeral procession marking the passing of the Gardiner boys soccer team’s once promising season.

And then the Tigers’ senior class, having never before appeared in a playoff game before, turned the final few of those minutes into a celebration of life. Hunter Bell’s first career goal equalized the score in the 79th minute before Casey Bourque cracked home the winner in stoppage time to lift No. 4 Gardiner to a 3-2 win over No. 13 John Bapst in a Class B North prelim Friday afternoon.

The Tigers, who last made a playoff appearance in 2013, will host a regional quarterfinal Tuesday. The Crusaders, who led by a pair of goals early on, finished off their campaign at 4-8-3.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous in my life,” Gardiner coach Nic Wallace said. “But again, I talk about it all the time and it’s a sign of growth. We never give up, we keep fighting. We could have easily rolled over and died, but we just kept battling. And battling and battling.

“That’s our team.”

Bourque finished with two goals for the Tigers (11-3-1), who learned something about themselves in the process of their first prelim win under Wallace.

“It’s what we’ve been learning all season. We never give up,” Bourque said. “We’ve won a lot of games 3-2 this year after being down 2-1 or 2-0. We’ve always battled back.”

They needed every ounce of that mindset Friday.

Despite a front-foot start from Gardiner, the Tigers found themselves trailing 2-0 before the pre-game jitters had time to wear off. Aidan Valley scored just 16 minutes in for a 1-0 John Bapst lead, and Lincoln Parker doubled the advantage eight minutes later.

All it took to get the Tigers back into the game was Bourque pulling one back in the 34th minute, when he was left alone in the left side of the 18-yard box to corral a bounding ball from deep in the midfield before turning to goal and firing home.

After taking 10 first-half corner kicks and coming up empty, or being unable to convert any of their six free kicks into goals, the second half couldn’t have arrived any sooner for Gardiner.

But the Crusaders did drop an extra man into their midfield and played most of the final 40 minutes out of a 4-5-1 formation, cramming the box with such effectiveness that Gardiner put just three second-half shots on target by the game’s hour mark.

When Bourque sailed a free kick well over the crossbar and Logan Keene failed to find a friendly head with his service off a restart along the left edge of the area, it felt like Gardiner’s time had run out.

“I was pretty nervous,” Bourque admitted. “Just watching the clock keep ticking toward zero was rough. It seemed like they packed it in a lot. Especially on our free kicks and corners, they had just about the whole team back in the box.”

And that’s when Bell ran onto a weak clearance at the top of the box and curled his drive into the net to knot the festivities at 2-2.

“I saw the corner and I just aimed for that, hoping it would make it through the hole,” Bell, a defender, said. “For a second, when that ball went through the air, I thought someone was going to jump out and block it. Sure enough, they didn’t.”

“The most unlikely of heroes for us — has never scored a goal and comes out of nowhere and puts a great shot in,” Wallace said. “When that went in, I had a feeling we had it.”

Riding the momentum of having equalized late on, Bourque got on the back end of a Keene cross at the right post, clipping the winner short side off metal two minutes past the 80-minute mark.

“This is the first time this senior group has been this far, so seeing that we could have gone out in the prelims was nerve-wracking,” Bell said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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