On paper, it was supposed to be a mismatch.
The outcome wasn't settled until midway through the fourth quarter.
The reigning Division-IV state champion Central Catholic varsity football team outlasted host Central Valley 43-34 in a back-and-forth Western Athletic Conference battle Friday night at Bulldog Stadium.
"If this game was on TV, it would be replayed on ESPN Classic," Hawks head coach Jason McCloskey said.
Central Valley dropped to 4-4 on the year and 1-3 in the WAC.
The Raiders improved to 7-1 and 4-0.
Central Catholic won its previous three games versus the Hawks by a combined score of 100-33.
"Everybody thought they were going to walk all over us," McCloskey said. "Even though we lost, this could propel us to the next level. We're not afraid of anybody."
Central Valley star running back Ja'Quan Gardner impressed everyone in attendance with his spectacular performance. The 5-foot-7 senior ran for 330 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
Gardner is closing in on the Stanislaus District's all-time rushing record of 5,140 yards which was set by Central Catholic's Louis Bland (2004-07). Ja'Quan's totaled 5,110 yards in 28 games.
"I'm proud of how we played," said Gardner, who needs 31 yards to eclipse Bland's career mark. "We played our hearts out. We had a lot of fun and competed. A win would have been nice."
Central Valley quarterback Kendel Johnson ran for 102 yards and one touchdown on 14 attempts. He completed 3 of 5 passes for 57 yards with one TD and one pick. He also lost one fumble.
Hawk sophomore all-purpose player Moses Ghiorso had a 25-yard TD reception.
Central Catholic running back Matt Ringer gained 210 yards and scored two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Raider quarterback Donovin Townsend completed 2 of 6 passes for 37 yards and one TD and rushed for 36 yards and two scores on 10 carries.
Gardner's 80-yard TD run cut the deficit to 35-34 with 42 seconds left in the third quarter. Stopped in the backfield, Ja'Quan shrugged off would-be tacklers, changed directions and sped away. Jonah Friedrich blocked Alvaro Rodriguez's potential game-tying point-after kick.
"It just happened," Gardner said. "You never stop moving your feet."
Added McCloskey: "He's just so explosive and very powerful."
Townsend's 15-yard TD pass to a wide-open Matthew Teixeira and subsequent 2-point conversion run gave the Raiders a 43-34 lead at the 5:55 mark of the final period.
Central Catholic thwarted Central Valley's comeback attempt with an interception. Johnson, who scrambled to his left to avoid a sack before heaving a hail-mary pass, was picked off by Jared Rice at the Raiders' 21-yard line.
Central Catholic picked up three first downs and ran the final 4 minutes, 46 seconds off the clock.
"That's what first-place teams do," Gardner said. "They know how to win. That's what we're trying to build up to."
Coach McCloskey didn't focus on the what-ifs following the entertaining game.
The Hawks scratched and fought tooth and nail in defeat.
Central Valley racked up 469 yards of total offense but committed two turnovers.
"That was a great game to be a part of," said McCloskey, whose team led 28-21 early in the third quarter. "We're starting to peak at the right time. We can't win league. But we can make the playoffs."
Central Valley needs to win its final two regular-season games to clinch a playoff spot.
"It's been eating me up inside," Gardner said. "We want it really bad. That's what we're working for."
Added McCloskey: "We haven't had a signature win yet."
The Hawks will battle the Tigers of Los Banos this Friday at Bulldog Stadium. Kickoff slated for 7 p.m.
Central Valley's final WAC opponent is Ceres High. The Hawks have won the last six meetings.
"The kids are motivated," McCloskey said. "It's going to take a team effort."