CERES — After his Central Valley High team put a 35-7 beating on Los Banos, coach Jason McCloskey turned his game-ball presentation to Ja'Quan Gardner into a brief emotional ceremony.
When the ball was handed over, the Central Valley High senior didn't so much as look at it before flipping it blindly over his right shoulder and into the arms of a waiting offensive linemen.
Right where it belonged.
"That's it," Gardner said. "It belongs to them and they can keep it."
Most of the talk and speculation about whether Gardner could set a Stanislaus District career rushing record seemed to overlook what really drives the talented running back.
Yes, he was pleased that his 181 rushing yards gave him the mark a three-year total of 5,291 to surpass the 5,140 posted by Central Catholic's Louis Bland from 2004-07.
But the people around him seemed even more amazed at the numbers, as a parade of students, parents, teammates and other well-wishers lined up to pat the blond-mohawked player on the shoulders.
On the other hand, Gardner's personal satisfaction wasn't anything close to the overwhelming joy he was feeling from being on a team that had just posted the most important win and arguably the program's best performance since CV first fielded a team in 2006.
"Nah, it didn't matter I wasn't thinking about any record, I was thinking about getting the win," Gardner said. "We needed it and that was the only thing important about this game. We came out in the second half and played the best football I've seen all year. We really wanted it and we showed it."
The outcome put the Hawks and Tigers in the same boat. Both are 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the Western Athletic Conference, meaning that their playoff lives will hinge on the outcome of regular season-ending rivalry games. Central Valley meets Ceres while Los Banos tackles Pacheco.
"We go into next week against Pacheco 5-4, so we still have a chance," said Los Banos coach Dustin Caropreso. "As a football player and a team, all you want to do is control your own destiny and we do. We knew we had to win one of our last two, but we were trying to get it out of the way today before going into our rivalry game."
The Tigers seemed to be ready to take that step early, marching 59 yards in 10 plays after the opening kickoff, with Adam Herrera scoring from the 10 for a 7-0 lead.
It was obvious that the Tigers were going to do what they could to keep Gardner under control. Needing 31 yards to set the career record, Gardner carried eight times for 36 yards in the first half.
The Hawks tied the game when quarterback Kendel Johnson tucked the ball on a read-option and sprinted 76 yards for a score with 10:06 left in the half, but the teams still were knotted 7-7 at intermission.
The second half was all Gardner and all Hawks. He carried 10 times for 145 yards and scores of 20, 25 and 70 yards, while Central Valley outgained Los Banos 264-37 in the final 24 minutes.
Was it the finest 24 minutes in the history of the program?
"It puts us in position to get that sixth win, and if we can do that the wheels are in motion for this program," McCloskey said. "Ja'Quan is here for this year, but we have people behind him and the line is young and there are good things to come."
But don't forget this season. The Hawks are one win away from the first postseason playoff berth in school history, and they'll be favored against Ceres.
And in about a month, maybe then it will be time for Gardner, his teammates and coaches to start thinking about what they've had the pleasure to witness.
McCloskey already knows.
"Ja'Quan put us on the map," he said. "People know that we're Central Valley from Ceres and not Central Valley from Shasta. He's gone through a transformation with a different coach and new linemen and he's stuck it out. ... The kid is dynamite."