CERES — If you talk with Central Valley High School's Ja'Quan Gardner very long, one thing is quickly apparent: He's shy.
That's a pretty odd character trait when you consider that for the past three seasons, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound running back has been the focal point of opposing defenses.
Gardner will receive even more attention Friday night when, barring a disturbance in the earth's magnetic field, he'll break the Stanislaus District's all-time rushing record of 5,140 yards, set by Central Catholic's Louis Bland (2004-2007).
Because of Gardner's humble nature, it's difficult to get him to talk about himself, let alone breaking a high-profile record.
"It's a pretty good accomplishment," says Gardner, who has rushed for 1,563 yards this season and 5,110 in three years. "It probably won't be there very long, but just to be able to say that I had it is a pretty cool thing."
Gardner doesn't think he'll hold the record for long because Ripon Christian's Andrew Brown is hot on his tail. Brown is 308 yards away from breaking Bland's record, and should get there before the end of the regular season.
The big question is: Will Gardner put the record out of Brown's reach?
Gardner and the Hawks need to win their two remaining games Friday against Los Banos and Nov. 8 against rival Ceres to assure themselves of a postseason berth. According to CalPreps.com, Central Valley is a slight underdog against the Tigers. One additional game in the playoffs though it would be against a highly seeded opponent would give Gardner the chance to pad his total.
Ripon Christian already has locked up a postseason spot, so Brown could get as many as three extra games added to his season. However, should RC beat Le Grand in the season finale and take the Southern League's No. 1 playoff seed, they'd receive a first-round bye, giving Brown one less chance to reel in Gardner.
"At the beginning of season, I wasn't even in the race," says Brown, who has rushed for 1,705 yards this season and set a new district TD record (109) with seven last week (five rushing) against Waterford. "It's just cool to be involved in it."
Bland, who played for Modesto's parochial power, made four deep runs into the playoffs and played 47 career games. Brown has already enjoyed two playoff pushes and has 32 games under his belt. Gardner has never made a postseason appearances and has played in just 28 games.
Broken down game-by-game, Gardner is averaging 183 yards per Friday night, Brown averages 151, while Bland averaged 109.
Those playoff scenarios will play out in the coming weeks. For now, Gardner is only 31 yards away from becoming the district's all-time leading rusher.
Even so, he'd rather talk about the team's playoff chances. That's a subject about which he truly gets animated.
"That's way more important," Gardner says of clinching the school's first playoff berth. "That's a big deal. That's something we all can enjoy."
If Gardner is a bit reluctant to talk about himself, and the record, his offensive linemen aren't.
"Every play is like, 'Wow, how does he do that stuff,' " says senior right tackle Matt Smith. "It's just cool that I was a part of this. It means we're doing our job; executing."
And make no mistake, Gardner makes doing their jobs easier.
"You don't have to hold your blocks for very long," confesses senior right guard Terrell Sadler.
Central Valley coach Jason McCloskey points out that Gardner, after being held to 75 yards on 15 carries against Pacheco the one time this season he failed to rush for 100 yards in a game he's been tearing up the Western Athletic Conference.
"He had 220 against Patterson, 256 against Livingston and 330 against Central Catholic," says McCloskey. "Our lineman have finally picked up our system. When you're opening up holes this wide (he indicates by opening up his arms), you're doing something right."
Even if Gardner does lose the record, the notoriety will help Central Valley's football program.
"This is a big deal for us because it puts our program on the map," McCloskey says of a school that's only been playing football since 2006. "He's a special kid."