It took 37 years, eight games and two overtimes, but 14th-ranked Tabor College finally scaled the mountain known as the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference to win its first football championship.

With the dramatic 43-42 double-overtime win over Bethel College (4-3, 4-3) on Saturday, the Bluejays reached a major milestone in their rags-to-riches story.

“This was one of the top games I’ve ever been involved in,” an emotionally drained coach Mike Gardner said when it was over.

“When I was in college, we played the defending national champions at their place and won-so there have been others, but it’s definitely right up there at the top.”

Tabor broke into the scoring column first on its second possession. Striking like lightning, Tabor started on its own 43-yard line and scored in two plays.

First, quarterback Ricky Ishida hit Layne Frick for a 28-yard pass, and one play later, Ishida scurried the remaining 29 yards for a 7-0 lead.

After the teams traded possessions, Bethel next attempt was cut short when C.J. Hill intercepted a Victor Flores pass at the Tabor 28-yard line.

Five plays later, Ishida connected with freshman Caleb Marsh for a 10-yard touchdown pass. Tabor led 14-0 after one quarter.

Bethel broke its scoring drought when Phillip Barron hooked up with Greg Enns for a 56-yard pass to put the ball at the Bluejay 4-yard line.

Three plays later, Barron hit Peter Garabaldi with a 10-yard scoring strike to cut the Tabor lead to 14-7.

Later in the quarter, an Ishida pass was picked off by Reginal Johnson, who returned the ball to the Bluejay 13-yard line.

The Tabor defense held, but Bethel salvaged a 26-yard field goal to cut the lead to 14-10 with 5:02 left in the first half.

But Hill once again made his presence felt, returning the ensuing kickoff 67 yards to the Bethel 24-yard line.

Tabor wasted little time, scoring three plays later when Ishida hit Frick in the end zone for a 20-yard score. The Bluejays led 21-10 with 3:31 to play, and took that lead into the locker room at halftime.

The game was a stalemate until Brian Kimsey’s punt was blocked in the third quarter. Bethel recovered the ball at the Bluejay 40-yard line.

Five plays later, Flores carried the ball in from eight yards out. The Threshers’ 2-point conversion attempt failed, but Tabor’s lead was cut to 21-16 with 6:16 left in the third quarter.

Tabor began its next drive on its own 39-yard line and pieced together a 10-play, 61-yard drive capped by a one-yard run by Ishida that increased Tabor’s lead to 28-16 at the end of the third quarter.

Tabor’s defense stood tall as the fourth quarter started, when Brian Durowaiye stuffed a Bethel fourth-and-1 from the Tabor 5-yard line, giving the Bluejays’ possession with 8:37 remaining.

But just when the contingent of Tabor fans began dreaming of its first, the Bluejays failed to move the ball and had to punt from its own end zone.

Kimsey’s attempt was again blocked, but the ball rolled out of the end zone for a 2-point safety that cut Tabor’s lead to 28-18.

After offsides penalty on the kickoff, Bethel returned the re-kick 55 yards to the Bluejay 27.

Five plays later, Barron ran in from 13 yards out and Tabor’s lead was down to 28-25 with 5:12 to play.

The Bluejays gain two first downs on their subsequent possession, but were forced to punt with 2:36 left, giving Bethel the ball 80 yards from the goal line.

Pass plays of 20 and 25 yards helped push the ball downfield. But Tabor’s defense eventually stiffened, forcing a Thresher field-goal attempt.

Michael Montez calmly booted the 25-yarder with just 23 seconds remaining, elating the capacity Thresher crowd and quieting the visitors from Hillsboro.

Gardner said his defense did a great job despite giving up the game-tying field goal.

“I was really proud of our defense,” he said. “They battled and fought and I thought we called a good game, but we just ran out of gas. We had some guys make a couple assignment errors, but I think our kids just got too tired.”

In overtime, the Bluejays got first possession. Beginning on the 25-yard line, Ishida hooked up with Ben Brown for a 22-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage.

Marcus’s kick gave Tabor a 35-28 lead and Bethel was given a chance to retaliate.

The Threshers answered when Barron scored on Bethel’s sixth play of the drive-a four-yard run to tie the game at 35 and send it into a second overtime.

This time, Bethel got the ball first and took just four plays for Flores to score from a yard out. The Threshers led for the first time, 42-35.

Needing a touchdown to keep pace, Tabor gained just five yards on its first three downs. Facing fourth-and-4 at the 19, Ishida hooked up with Marsh for a 12-yard gainer to keep Tabor’s hopes alive.

“It was amazing to think we had a sophomore throwing a pass to a freshman in that situation, but Caleb did a great job of catching the ball,” Gardner said. “Especially in a game that had all the passion and emotion this one did.”

Carries by Ishida and Ted Telemaque moved the ball to the 1-yard line, but Ishida’s run on third down came up short, setting up a fourth-and-goal with the game on the line.

Ishida was initially stopped on the run, but second effort propelled him into the end zone, pulling Tabor to within a point.

Gardner sent the kick team on the field for the tie, but Bethel called timeout giving Gardner time to rethink his decision.

When the team broke huddle, the Bluejay offense was on the field.

“We had our kick team out there, but when they called timeout we changed our minds,” Gardner said.

With the game on the line, Ishida rolled to his right and found tight end John Garcia alone in the end zone for the 2-point conversion and an emotional 43-42 win.

“I think this was both physically and emotionally draining for everyone involved,” Gardner said. “This was a game that was better suited to be on ‘ESPN Classics’ because it was a classic.”

Gardner said his decision to go for two points was based on what he felt about his own team rather than Bethel’s.

“I felt like our kids were worn down enough and the momentum was swinging back and forth. We either needed to win it or go the other way,” he added. “When you’re a football coach, you have to make some decisions like this. Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.

“When they don’t, I’m sure people say, ‘Why did you do that?’ but it worked and we have the conference championship.”

Ishida, who was named KCAC offensive player of the week, ran for three touchdowns and 56 yards and connected on 14 of 34 passes for 190 yards and three more scores.

“Ricky did a great job on the 2-point play,” Gardner said. “I can’t say enough about the kid, but every week he just shows up and plays.”

Telemaque led the team in rushing with 94 yards on 29 carries.

Gardner said he was happy for the whole team, but especially for fifth-year senior C.J. Hill.

“It has to be the greatest thing in the world for C.J.,” he said. “But a lot of the credit for what we’ve done this season has to go to my predecessor, Tim McCarty.

“Without Coach McCarty hiring me, helping me and giving me a chance, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” he added. “I love Tim like a brother and he forever should be remembered as the guy that got this thing going.

“I’m just the one that stepped in and kept it going.”

Jake Schenk lead the defense with 13 tackles while Justin Mathias and Tyler McKim both added 12.

Bethel rolled up 442 yards of offense while Tabor had 331.

Penalties hurt both teams. Bethel had eight infractions for 71 yards and Tabor 15 penalties for 101 yards.

With the KCAC title wrapped up, Gardner said his main objective is to keep things in perspective.

“We’re 8-0 (overall), but what’s nice about this whole situation is that I’ve had a lot of alumni and people who used to be associated with this program contact me through e-mail and phone messages-it’s really almost overwhelming,” he said.

“Anytime you play small college athletics, you’re definitely a part of a fraternity.

“I can’t relate to the big time because I’ve never been there, but I’ve always tried to make the big time where I was,” he added. “But first and foremost we have to give credit to our Lord and Savior, so that’s where we put the emphasis.”

With two weeks left in the regular season, Gardner said his coaches will make sure the players remember they still have some football to play.

“We have to keep preparing the way we have been because the season isn’t over yet,” he said. “Our guys have to stay focused because we have a good Bethany team coming in this week.

“I don’ t think we’ll rest any players this week because our guys want to go through the conference undefeated,” he said. “We’ll see how banged up we are and make some game-day decisions.

“But this one sure feels good right now.”

Coming-Tabor will host the Swedes this Saturday for the last home game of the season. Kickoff is set 1:30 p.m.

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