All-District Football Player of the Year: Ja’Quan Gardner, Central Valley

jcortez@modbee.comJanuary 18, 2014 

It came down to this: Against Central Catholic, which would go on to capture a second straight Division 4 state title, and Manteca High, a team that would reach the Division 3 Northern California final, Central Valley running back Ja’Quan Gardner rushed for a combined 708 yards and seven touchdowns.

Central Catholic and Manteca … not quite Little Sisters of the Poor.

All told, Gardner rushed for 2,467 yards – the second highest single-season total in Stanislaus District history – and 27 touchdowns, while setting a new career rushing mark (6,014) in the process.

For his performance this season, Gardner is The Bee’s 2013 Football Player of the Year.

In a 43-34 loss to the perennially powerful Raiders, Gardner rushed for 330 yards and three scores. Then, on Nov. 15 in the Hawks’ first playoff game in school history, Gardner went wild for 378 yards and four scores as he nearly led CV to an upset of Manteca, which held on for a 69-55 victory.

It’s a game that will be talked and written about for years.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Gardner said of the game’s place in Stanislaus District lore. “It’s still sitting on me that we had a chance to win that game. It’s crazy to think that one play (a Manteca defensive scoop-and-score late in the game) can literally change the outcome of a game like that.

“Maybe in a few years I’ll start to appreciate what a crazy game that was.”

At one point this season, Gardner was the Stanislaus District’s career and single-season rushing leader until Ripon Christian’s Andrew Brown (2,781) edged him out later in the year for the single-season mark. Gardner’s 397-yard performance as sophomore against Pacheco High is believed to be the district’s single-game record.

But don’t get the wrong impression. Stats are secondary to Gardner.

“Before the year, I made everybody write out three team goals and three personal goals,” said Central Valley coach Jason McCloskey. His responses to all of them were ‘to win.’

The Hawks went 6-5 and earned the first playoff berth in school history.

“After he broke the career rushing record, I presented him with the game ball,” McCloskey said. “He just took the ball and tossed it to the offensive line and said, ‘They can have it. They deserve it.’ 

ON THE FIELD: Gardner, a 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds, isn’t garnering the kind of attention from colleges that he would if he were three inches taller and 25 pounds heavier. Right now, Southern Oregon, Humboldt State and the University of Mary in Bismark, N.D. are showing the most interest.

But Gardner doesn’t mind. He just wants to continue playing football and make an impact on a program.

“Nah,” he replied when asked if his size puts him at a disadvantage. “My greatest strength is probably my quickness. I’m quick hitting the hole. Quick and small is a good combination.”

OFF THE FIELD: Gardner enjoys running track for Central Valley. He runs the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter relay. True to form, this unassuming athlete prefers running the 4x100.

“It’s you and three other guys,” said Gardner for his preference of the relay. “It becomes a family thing because you bond with them throughout the season.”

Wherever he ends up attending college, Gardner would like to pursue a career in athletic training or something else in the field of sports.

QUOTEABLE: McCloskey, in his second year as the Hawks’ head coach, waited until this season to implement sweeping changes to the offense. Two weeks into the season, his players were unhappy with the changes and called a team meeting to let the coach know. A potential mutiny was brewing.

“All of a sudden, from the back of the room, Ja’Quan says, ‘Coach’s offense works. You guys don’t see what I see from the backfield. It works.’ Ja’Quan backed me and it was a turning point.”

Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at jcortez@modbee.com or (209) 578-2380. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeePreps.

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