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Ja'Quan Gardner receives USA Today trophy
Star CVHS running back feted beford crowd
JaQuan Gardner had a record-breaking career with Central Valleys varsity football program. - photo by DALE BUTLER/The Courier

Matthew Wade flew from Pennsylvania to California on Jan. 24 to recognize Ja'Quan Gardner.

Gardner, a star running back at Central Valley High School, was honored prior to the start of the Hawks' varsity boys basketball game against crosstown-rival Ceres High.

Wade presented the USA Today/Asics Ultimate Athlete of the Year trophy to Gardner in front of a large crowd. One of eight finalists for the national award, Ja'Quan finished in first place with 207,062 votes.

"It's amazing to see a school from the inside rally around one of their kids," said Wade, USA Today project manager. "Everything you hear about him on and off the field is truly amazing."

"I cannot think of a more deserving student-athlete for this very prestigious and impressive award," Central Valley Athletic Director Greg Magni said. "The entire community should be proud of Ja'Quan Gardner and take pride in the examples he has set as a role model to all of the young athletes in our community."

State Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and Senator Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) also spotlighted Gardner's accomplishments.

Gray and his wife Cadee attended the trophy-presentation ceremony, along with representatives Teresa Kinney (Denham) and Paloma Clark (Cannella), and Ceres School Board Member Mike Welsh.

"It's an honor to win the award," Gardner said. "It was a cool experience. I enjoyed every bit of it. I was nervous when they told me I had to give a speech. I didn't know what to do."

Ja'Quan shattered the Stanislaus District's career and single-season rushing yard records this past season.

He totaled 2,467 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013. Gardner ranks first on the District's career rushing yards list (6,014). Gardner tallied a program-best 67 TDs in 31 games.

Ja'Quan piled up 378 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries during 15th-seeded Central Valley's 69-55 loss to No. 2 Manteca in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III playoffs. He also tossed a 4-yard TD pass to Christian Romo.

The Buffaloes (13-2) captured section and Valley Oak League titles.

Gardner rushed for 330 yards and three TDs in a 43-34 loss to Central Catholic in Western Athletic Conference play.

The Raiders (15-1) won State, NorCal and Section championships.

Ja'Quan was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports medium schools' first-team offense on Jan. 27.

He was also named to the MxPreps 2013 All-Northern California and All-Sac-Joaquin Section first teams.

Gardner was voted Western Athletic Conference MVP as well.

"I couldn't have done it without my teammates and coaches," he said. "I want to thank everyone. It's not just for me. It's for the whole community. If someone comes along and breaks the records they deserve it because they worked hard for it. Records are meant to be broken."

Gardner won the USA Today/Asics Ultimate Athlete of the Year contest in December.

Ja'Quan received 42.4 percent of the final votes.

The other seven finalists had a combined 280,873 votes.

"It's a big deal for Ceres," Welsh said. "Look what he accomplished. I saw him up close and how awesome he is. He's a great kid with a bright future."

"It's important to honor kids that are doing the right things on and off the field," Wade said. "To see this much school spirit is amazing. The atmosphere is electric."

Gardner earned a full-ride scholarship to Division-II Humboldt State.

He signed a national letter of intent with the Lumberjacks on Feb. 5.

When asked what he planned to do with his national award, Ja'Quan said: "My mom (Stacey) has it."