The unlikely became reality Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
East Central University received a 37-yard field goal from Matt Berrey with one second remaining for a pulsating 36-33 victory over host Texas A&M-Commerce to clinch a share of the Lone Star Conference North Division championship.
The Tigers, 5-5 overall and 5-1 in the LSC North, extended their winning streak to four straight games and secured their first and only division crown after joining the league in 1997. ECU will be joining a new conference in 2011.
ECU, picked last by preseason prognosticators after finishing 0-11 in 2009, made a tremendous turnaround in 2010, which was culminated by Saturday’s win.
The Tigers nearly saw the wheels come off a mighty momentum surge as it led 17-7 at the half and had a 24-7 advantage early in the third quarter.
But the Lions, with some strange circumstances, eventually tied the game up at 33-all with 44 seconds left on 6-yard scoring pass from Adam Farkes to Jillian Hayes, followed by Ahmed Abo-Mahmo’s PAT.
A 28-yard kickoff return by Justin Todd to the ECU 48-yard line set the stage for the game-winning drive. Quarterback Tyler Vanderzee fired back-to-back 8-yard passes for Jason Stephenson, and after a timeout, connected with Zack Patteson for 15 yards down to the A&M-Commerce 21-yard line.
There the Tigers called a timeout with five seconds left to set up Berry’s heroic kick.
Vanderzee, the reigning LSC North Offensive Player of the Week, completed 28-of-45 passes for a school-record 435 yards and two touchdowns to key an ECU offense that piled up 530 total yards — almost 100 more than the Tigers had recorded in any game this season.
Chris Espinoza, who caught three TD passes in a win which jump-started the winning streak four weeks ago against Eastern New Mexico, caught both of Vanderzee’s scoring passes of 8 and 5 yards.
Espinoza finished the night with eight catches for 121 yards and Patteson latched on to seven aerials for 152.
Senior John Gaines also had a pair of scoring runs of 5 and 2 yards.
A&M-Commerce, which fell to 3-7 and 2-4, scored two second-half touchdowns off a 31-yard interception and return by Tevin Moore and an A.J. Billings fumble recovery in the Tiger end zone for a TD which led to a 26-all tie with 8:40 remaining.
Gaines’ 2-yard scoring run with 5:02 left led to a 33-26 ECU lead. The drive took eight plays with a distance of 60 yards.
For the Lions, Farkes connected on 17-of-34 passes for 208 yards and the one TD and Hayes hauled in six passes for 92 yards. Kenzee Jackson topped the A&M-Commerce receivers with seven catches for 53 yards.
The Lions’ Marcus Graham carried the ball 20 times for a game-leading 91 yards and a touchdown off a 3-yard run to lift the hosts to an early 7-0 cushion.
A&M-Commerce finished with 311 yards of total offense.
Defensively for the Tigers, linebacker Kerel James led the way with a team-leading eight tackles, including two for lost yardage and a quarterback sack. Five of his stops were solo efforts and he also blocked an extra point.
Markell Walker and Austin Daniels followed with seven tackles apiece as six of Walker’s were unassisted while five of Daniels’ stops were solo.
ECU defensive end Armonty Bryant registered a pair of tackles for lost yards, including one quarterback sack to go with a pass breakup and a blocked field goal attempt by the Lions late in the third quarter.
Earlier in the day, Northeastern State beat Eastern New Mexico 43-40 in overtime to also finish at 5-1 in the LSC North and force the North Division title tie. However, the Tigers beat NSU 48-21 last week.
ECU closes out the 2010 season next Saturday at West Texas A&M for a 1 p.m. kickoff in Canyon, Texas.