Early in the season, Handley boys' basketball coach Jason Toton had a conversation with Demitri Gardner.
The junior forward had brought up a recent game in which Culpeper County's DeJour McCray had scored 38 points in a victory against Sherando.
McCray, who will play college football, had Division I basketball offers.
“I think all of the area kids put that McCray kid up on a different level than what they were. After that game where he put up whatever on Sherando, the next day at school Demitri said, 'Coach did you see that he did that? Man, that guy is good.'
“I was like, 'He doesn't have anything on you. If you want to Demitri, you can be better than him.' He kind of started believing that and that's where he started to get confidence.”
And boy did Gardner play with confidence.
The forward led the Judges in nearly every statistical category and won the area's scoring title — by more than eight points. His remarkable season makes him The Winchester Star's Player of the Year.
“This year I just wanted to make a statement because I knew a lot of people thought our season was going to go worse than it did,” said Gardner, who led the Judges to a second-place tie in the Class 4 Northwestern District's regular season and a 12-12 mark overall.
The reason why people doubted the Judges, who had not lost a district game in three seasons, was that Handley had lost so many key players to graduation. Gardner was the lone returning starter and he was primarily a role player on a squad led by four seniors.
There was no doubt that the Judges were going to need more from Gardner this fall.
“As a sophomore, he kind of did that role of contributing 8 to 10 points a game because some other guys were doing the exact same thing if not more,” Toton said. “He and I had a conversation before the season started, that a lot of our success was going to kind of go through him. I thought he did a good job of handling that and being a leader. He led us in just about every statistical category there was.”
Gardner said his transformation into a bigger role actually started last summer as he played in a classification above his age group for the AAU Virginia Blaze.
“The summer was a big thing for me,” the 6-foot-5 forward said. “I had a real breakout year in the summer which led to having a great season junior year. … We played against a lot of good players. I just wanted to get my name out there as much as possible. I tried to step it up and do things. I had a lot of big games in the summer which definitely led to my success my junior year.”
Toton said from the start Gardner, who averaged 9.3 points and 6.0 rebounds as a sophomore, was going to be the key for the Judges offensively. How the player affectionately known as “Meech” would handle that was sort of an unknown on a squad that featured just one senior.
“I knew he had the ability to do it,” Toton said. “I just didn't know maturity-wise with putting all of that on him as a junior. With a senior, it's easier. As a junior, it's harder. I think he got more confidence in himself and started figuring things out and what he could do and be successful at.”
Gardner was sure he good succeed.
“It grew quite a bit,” he said of his confidence. “Once I figured out what I can do and all of that stuff, it all just came together.”
Gardner got off to a hot start, but he said it was a game against Huguenot, which would advance to the Region 4B semifinals this season, that made a difference for him. The Judges dropped that game 65-61 on the second day of the Handley Showcase Tournament, but it was obvious that Gardner was the best player on the floor at Maddex-Omps Gymnasium.
“We played Huguenot and they were like the second best team in the state or something like that, Gardner said. “We only lost by four points and I had a big night and had 30 points.”
It was one of several 30-point nights that Gardner would have during the season.
What makes him such a good player? Toton can list off many things.
“He's driven,” the Judges coach started. “He's put in a lot of work to make his game where it is at. It's his body — he's big, he's strong. He can score outside. He can shoot it and put the ball on the floor. He can take it to the basket. And offensive rebounding-wise, he's a matchup problem for some teams. If they want to put a guard on him that's smaller, then he he can go to the basket, rebound and go back up. If they want to put a big on him, he can pull them away from the basket, get around them and go as well.
“He's got a lot of nice attributes. Some kids have only one or two. He has the ability to do everything.”
Gardner said he picked up a basketball for the first time at age 3 and it's been his sport since. He figured out around third grade, when he began playing travel basketball, that he might be pretty good at the sport.
It was also when he was younger that he picked up his nickname, which he said was a derivative of Demitri. “When I was very young, my aunt just called me 'Meech' and it stuck from there,” he said. “I like it. It's different. Nobody really has it.”
And not many people have the skill set that Gardner possesses. And with so many inexperienced players, Toton had to put it to good use.
Gardner would lead the Judges in scoring (22.5), rebounding (8.3), steals (1.6), field goal percentage (50.3), free throw percentage (75 percent) and made 3-pointers (28). He was also second on the squad in assists (1.6) and 3-point percentage (32.6).
Gardner said he was not motivated by the numbers. “I just try to help my team out as much as possible,” he said. “Yeah, stats and stuff is great, but I'm the kind of guy who wants to get the team more involved.”
And maybe that's why things worked out for the Judges, who had to rely on him so much.
“Some of the guys on the team knew that if we were going to have some success a lot of it was going to go through Meech,” Toton said. “As a team, they all liked each other. In a sense, nobody got jealous and didn't give him the ball or other things you might find on certain teams. I give his teammates a lot of credit for providing that role. They knew with the game on the line who the ball was going to go to.”
And Gardner relished the role of being the guy that teammates looked to to make a big play.
“I've been in the situation many times before and I've gotten used to it over time,” he said. “When I get the ball, I'm just calm. I'm really more calm than I used to be.”
“He's a gamer,” Toton said. “When the game is on the line, he wants the ball in his hands.”
And Gardner, by necessity had the ball a lot, but he didn't abuse the privilege.
“To be honest, I don't think he was as selfish as he could have been,” Toton said. “He was asked to do a lot of things. There were times we were having trouble getting the ball up the floor and he was the point guard. He had to bring the ball up the court and we had to get the ball back to somebody else to get into our set play or offense for him to come off the screen or whatever else to get the ball back.
“I think for 32 minutes of the game, he played for 30 minutes. He was asked to do a lot and physically he had to be in good shape. I think at times if he didn't maybe have to do so much, he probably could have averaged more.”
Gardner said the toughest part of the season were the losses for a program that hasn't suffered many in recent years.
“I was proud of the way how we stuck through it together when everybody thought that we were worse than we were,” he said.
And it was after a tough overtime loss to district champion Millbrook that Gardner went out and showed just what he was capable of, ironically against McCray and Culpeper County. Gardner put up 28 points at halftime and left with 35 after playing sparingly in the third quarter as the Judges throttled the Blue Devils 80-35.
“We had lost to Millbrook the game before that and Millbrook is a rivalry game,” Gardner said. “I just wanted to come out and prove a point.”
“He could have easily that night gone for 50,” Toton said. “I think when he started doing that against some pretty good teams in competition, a light kind of went off in his head.”
Gardner hopes that talent leads to the next level.
“I just want to go as far as I can with the game of basketball,” he said. “It's always been a dream growing up.”
Even right now with no summer basketball because of the COVID-19 pandemic to hone his game, Gardner says he's working on a couple of facets.
“I want to work on my explosiveness and being able to create space off the jumpshot,” he said. “That's what I have been working on a lot this offseason.”
Gardner can't wait for his senior season to roll around. “I cannot wait for next year,” he said. “That's a big thing on my mind right now.”
Toton thinks it could be a big year for the Judges and Gardner.
“We're returning nine guys,” Toton said. “Hopefully, they all work on their games and maybe he doesn't have as much of a load next year.”