Niles RB Gardner named Trumbull County Player of the Year | News, Sports, Jobs

Niles RB Gardner named Trumbull County Player of the Year | News, Sports, Jobs

Staff photo / Joel Whetzel. Niles senior Antuan Gardner shows off his new hardware during award banquet Monday.

HOWLAND — Since his arrival to the Niles football program, Antuan Gardner has been a goal-oriented player.

From striving to play varsity minutes as a ninth grader to wanting to return the Red Dragons to the playoffs, Niles’ star tailback has had plenty of items on his checklist.

He can cross one more thing off that list, as the senior was named the Trumbull County Coaches Association 2023 Player of the Year on Monday night at the TCCA’s annual banquet. He became the fifth Red Dragon to win the award.

“It means a lot to me and my family, of course,” Gardner said after receiving the award. “I always made a plan for myself to go out with a bang in my last year. I wanted to put Niles back in that winning mentality and make our city proud.”

The Red Dragons certainly did that.

Niles finished the season 7-5 and made it to the second round of the postseason after dispatching Ashtabula Edgewood in the opening round 65-28.

And all season long, Gardner played a key role. The star tailback galloped for 2,479 yards and 31 touchdowns in 297 carries — an average of 8.3 yards per carry across a heavy workload. He also caught 10 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns on the year. His yardage total ranked second in all of Ohio.

The stats weren’t built on a handful of standout games, either — although there were more than a few of those. Gardner hit the century mark in each of Niles’ contests this season, win or lose.

His apex, however, came when the lights were at their brightest. As Niles made its return to the postseason, Gardner ran for a school-record 471 yards and six touchdowns during the Red Dragons’ victory over Edgewood. He needed just 29 carries to do so.

For his career, Gardner finishes with a program-high 4,746 yards to go with 61 career touchdowns.

And while the numbers alone grab your attention, McKinley coach Jim Parry says it was Gardner’s determination and loyalty that set him apart.

“He’s very determined, he’s very goal oriented,” Parry said. “We’ve been talking about goals with him since he was a freshman. … I’m just super proud of him, because — and I don’t know if this was a specific goal of his — but to be the best certainly was, and I think him being honored for that tonight is so awesome.”

Parry added, “One of the things in today’s high school world is the opportunity to maybe go somewhere else, and I think there was a lot of that. There were people pushing Antuan that way, but (Antuan) was the first to tell you he wanted to win at Niles, and he wanted to win with his buddies. That’s the type of commitment you certainly love about high school football.”

It’s a mark Parry says Gardner has left on the Niles program as the Red Dragons move forward. “We’re not going to be able to replace him or the production,” Parry acknowledged. “But his leadership and what he’s shown to the rest of his teammates I think is going to be lasting. I couldn’t be happier that this is how it ended (for him).”

As for Gardner, the soon-to-be graduate plans to play football at the collegiate level and is still mulling his options.

“(I’m looking for) a place that feels like home, and a group of guys that are good and want to win. Just a great environment,” Gardner said.

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