Cortez: Gardner certainly didn’t disappoint

jcortez@modbee.comNovember 20, 2013 

In all my years covering high school athletics, I’ve never seen a game like the one I saw last Friday night.

The Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 football opener between Central Valley and Manteca was the wildest, wackiest, weirdest football game I’ve ever seen.

And that was just the first quarter.

Heading into the second stanza, the score was tied 21-21 and two running backs already had gone over 100 yards. Sometimes, you see games with starts like these, but eventually things settle down and regain some sense or normality.

This one never did.

When it was all done, the numbers from Manteca’s 69-55 victory were mind-boggling: 18 touchdowns, 124 points, Central Valley running back Ja’Quan Gardner rushed for 378 yards, Manteca’s Alex Laurel totaled 258, Hawks QB Kendel Johnson ran for 221, Buffs RB Michael Gonzalez had 106 yards on six carries, and Manteca QB Joe Menzel was 8-of-14 for 200 yards and two TDs.

The scoring was nonstop. Your turn. My turn. Your turn. My turn. It was like two very polite boxers trading punches at the center of the ring.

Afterward, I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just seen. I wasn’t even sure what questions to ask head coaches Eric Reis of Manteca and Jason McCloskey of Central Valley. I asked Reis, “Was that good or bad, what just happened out on that field?”

Reis was smiling from ear to ear and didn’t care that his team had just given up more than 600 yards of total offense. There would be time to deal with fixes later. He was happy his second-seeded Buffaloes had survived to win their first playoff game since 2007 and advanced to play No. 10 Casa Roble (Orangevale).

“As long as we have one more point on the scoreboard than they do, I’ll take it,” Reis said that night.

On the other end of the field, the Hawks met for a final postgame huddle. Gardner, who crammed about 96 minutes worth of work into 48, loitered on the outskirts of the gathering. Kneeling on elbows and knees, with his forehead resting on the turf, you could see the tears rolling down his cheeks. He’d given everything he had that night. Somehow, he found something more to give and he donated that to the cause, as well.

Y’know, for 20 years I’ve maintained that former Merced High star Freddy Bland was the best high school running back I’ve ever covered. Freddy was about 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, and he reminded me of a young O.J. Simpson — he was fast, but there was power in his speed. He was incredible talent, and I’ll never forget what he did one night at Turlock’s Joe Debely Stadium — four consecutive touchdowns on four successive touches of the football on two runs from scrimmage and two special teams returns.

Alas, it may be time for Freddy to relinquish that title, which stands to reason since Gardner already eclipsed a member of the Bland family this season — former Central Catholic star Louis Bland, a cousin to Freddy — when he broke Louis’ all-time rushing mark for the Stanislaus District on Nov. 7.

And don’t misunderstand, I’m not taking anything away from Laurel. He’s a fine running back and probably will be the Valley Oak League’s MVP. But it was Gardner I came to see that night.

I’d heard about Gardner during his sophomore and junior campaigns, and I couldn’t wait to finally see him in action as a senior. But things happen during the course of a season. Newspaper assignments get shifted around and, for one reason or another, I never made it to any of Central Valley’s regular-season games.

I thought I’d blown any chance to ever see Gardner perform. But when the Hawks secured a playoff berth, there was no doubt which game I was going to cover. And it was worth the wait.

Maybe Gardner went home disappointed that night, but he certainly didn’t disappoint.

•  MMC TEAMS COMPETING OFF THE FIELD –The Johansen High School football program is organizing the inaugural MMC Football Feeds the Community food drive.

The Vikings are challenging all other Modesto Metro Conference football teams to collect as many canned food items as they can from Dec. 2-13. The bounty will be donated to the organization of the school’s choosing and the winning school will receive a perpetual trophy.

“The kids were looking for something to do to help the community and we brought up the idea of a canned food drive,” said Johansen coach Grant Genasci. “Coach Rod Smith then came up with the idea of challenging the other schools to get involved.

“We’d love to win it every year, but we really don’t care which school wins as long as we’re providing for Modesto.”

For more information, contact Genasci at 595-7699.

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