High School Football

Ex-Central Valley High star Gardner lifts team to win, leads new league in rushing

San Diego Fleet running back Ja’Quan Gardner (32) celebrates after his rushing touchdown with San Diego Fleet running back Terrell Watson (39) and San Diego Fleet tight end Marcus Baugh (85) in the second half of an AAF football game between the Atlanta Legends and the San Diego Fleet, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Peter Joneleit via AP Photo)
San Diego Fleet running back Ja’Quan Gardner (32) celebrates after his rushing touchdown with San Diego Fleet running back Terrell Watson (39) and San Diego Fleet tight end Marcus Baugh (85) in the second half of an AAF football game between the Atlanta Legends and the San Diego Fleet, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Peter Joneleit via AP Photo) AP

Ja’Quan Gardner is feeling right at home in a new football league.

The former Central Valley star running back — The Bee’s Player of the Year in 2014 — scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead the San Diego Fleet to a 24-12 victory over the Atlanta Legends in the second week of the Alliance of American Football league.

His first score was the first in franchise history.

“I think I celebrated too much,” he said with a smile from the podium during a postgame interview. “It was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience for me.”

It was the return of football to San Diego, and an announced crowd of 20,000 withstood the rain, and provided some fun energy, at SDCCU Stadium in Mission Valley. The Chargers left the city in 2017 and now reside in Los Angeles, playing their games in nearby Carson.

Gardner rushed for 104 on 15 carries — averaging 6.9 yards a carry — and broke open a close game in the fourth with an 8-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left and a 7-yard TD run five minutes later to lift the Fleet to 1-1.

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San Diego Fleet running back Ja’Quan Gardner (32) dives into the end zone for a touchdown in the second half of an AAF football game between the Atlanta Legends and the San Diego Fleet, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019, at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif. (Peter Joneleit via AP Photo) Peter B Joneleit AP

“He is a really quick, shifty runner,” Atlanta head coach Kevin Coyle told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

With the Fleet down 12-9 in the fourth, coach Mike Martz decided to go for it on fourth-and-one from the 8.

He had his quarterback, Philip Nelson, fake a run to the fullback up the middle, and pitch it outside to the left to Gardner, who did the rest, powering his way into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

“That was a great call by coach Martz,” Gardner said. “It was a play we practiced all week and a play we wanted to use in short down and distance.”

Gardner’s second touchdown — and game-clincher in front of a national TV audience watching on the NFL Network — came on a draw play on third down.

He bolted up the middle and crashed into the end zone, much to the delight of the fans thirsting for professional football.

“It was a great fan base today,” said Gardner, who through two weeks is tied for the league lead in rushing yards at 159. “We knew they were excited to have football back here. I definitely felt the energy from the crowd.”

Editor Brian Clark has worked at The Modesto Bee since 1990. He’s worked in various departments, including sports, news and on the digital side for a decade before being promoted to editor in 2018. He’s a native of Berkeley and a graduate of San Diego State University. Prior to The Bee, Brian worked at the Turlock Journal and Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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