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FERGUSON • Jaylen Gardner simply smiled and kept his mouth shut.

The McCluer South-Berkeley junior quarterback heard all about the demise of his Bulldogs prior to this season.

"Everyone was saying we lost 18 seniors, lost most of our offense," Gardner recalled. "That we weren't going to be any good — or win the conference again. I just stayed quiet."

Until Saturday.

Gardner threw for two scores and ran for another to lead the supposedly rebuilding Bulldogs to a 44-20 win over Affton.

McCluer South-Berkeley (5-2) nailed down its third successive Suburban Conference Central American Division crown with its fourth successive win.

The usually laid-back and business-like Bulldogs celebrated by drenching coach Howard Brown with an ice-bucket shower in the closing minutes of the contest, which was delayed 1 hour and 28 minutes by lightning delay in the first quarter.

It was the first "I told you not to count us out" display of the season by the players.

"I think we knew we'd still be pretty good," said senior running back Nathan Smith, one of just four returning starters from last year's 10-1 team that rolled through the regular season. "Even if no one else did. We always believe in ourselves."

Brown knew that the Bulldogs would still remain competitive despite the loss of all-everything quarterback Tavian Willis, who tossed 22 touchdowns with just two interceptions last season. Offensive weapons Daishawn Cotton and Daevon Trust also graduated.

But McCluer South-Berkeley reloaded in quick fashion, which came as a delight to Brown.

"Last year, we knew going into every game that we felt like we should win," Brown said. "This year, there were so many questions. When you don't know the answers, and things work out, it's even more fun."

The maturation of Gardner has played a key role in the Bulldogs' continued success. He led his team on five touchdown drives after a scoreless opening quarter on Saturday.

Smith rushed for 116 yards on 12 carries in addition to his back-breaking 67-yard punt return that pushed the lead to 24-7 early in the third quarter.

Junior Kameron Cole added to the attack with a pair of rushing touchdowns.

The McCluer South-Berkeley defense dictated the tempo early. Senior lineman Erik Morten and Smith recovered fumbles in the second period that set the stage for a 12-0 lead. Gardner hit Torreon Smith on a 40-yard scoring strike two plays after Morten's recovery. Cole burst up the middle for a 20-yard score three plays after Nathan Smith pounced on a loose ball.

Gardner then pumped the lead to 18-0 with a 14-yard TD toss to freshman Kameron Gillespie. The strike capped off a three-score blitz in 3 minutes and 43 seconds.

Affton (4-3, 2-1) answered with an 11-yard scoring connection from quarterback Ricky Cohen to wide out Tommy Butler late in the half.

But McCluer South-Berkeley snatched the momentum back on Nathan Smith's scintillating punt return.

"The blocks were there, anyone could have done it," Nathan Smith said.

The Bulldogs, who won all four conference games, suffered early-season losses to MICDS and Orchard Farm before reeling off successive league wins against Jennings, Normandy and University City.

"That gave everyone confidence," Brown said. "If they didn't before, that was when they really started believing in themselves."

Affton came into the contest on a three-game winning streak, but it fell behind early and never fully recovered.

"We made a mistake or two and they jumped on us," Cougars coach Dan Oliver said. "That's a good team over there. They're starting to peak."

Oliver will get no argument from Gardner and Co.

"Our plan is to get better each game," Gardner said. "Right now, we're doing that."

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