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Shelby Mack / The Californian

Ridgeview quarterback Kamari Cotton-moya runs with the ball during the game at Liberty on Friday night.

Kamari Cotton-Moya never realized how much he wanted to play offense until it was taken away from him.

After starring as a running back and quarterback on Ridgeview's junior varsity team in 2009, Cotton-Moya was moved to varsity as a sophomore in 2010 -- and promptly told that he'd likely play all defense because the Wolf Pack had so many returning offensive starters.

"My freshman year I played nothing but touching the ball; I didn't really play much on defense," Cotton-Moya said. "I moved up sophomore year, and the coaches said, 'You're not going to touch the ball as much. We're using you on defense.' I was like, 'What?' I wanted to get the ball in my hands."

What happened next is what brings us to today: Cotton-Moya as The Californian's Football Player of the Year.

"Coach (Dennis) Manning always says he puts the best players on the field," Cotton-Moya said. "So I had to make him put me on the field."

Cotton-Moya impressed coaches enough in practice to earn 42 carries and make 11 catches on offense that sophomore season, most in the second half of the year.

The next year, Ridgeview used him mostly as a slash player -- a little running back, a little receiver -- until starting quarterback Tyler Ferguson got hurt midway through the season. There wasn't an obvious backup to replace Ferguson on an undefeated team, so Manning scanned the roster and quickly settled on Cotton-Moya.

"It wasn't a tough choice," Manning said. "He's such a great athlete. You've got to do things differently, because he wasn't a pure passer, so we had to be a run-first, play-action team. But it worked, obviously."

Cotton-Moya finished the year with 898 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, and he threw just enough -- 464 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions -- to keep defenses honest. But the Wolf Pack's run ended in the Division III section championship with a loss to Kingsburg.

This season, Cotton-Moya simply wasn't going to be stopped. Ridgeview lost twice early against a difficult schedule, but Cotton-Moya never had an unproductive game. He ran for at least 100 yards in every game except a blowout of Foothill in which he played sparingly after halftime.

Many times, Cotton-Moya, who is 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, seemed unstoppable in the running game. If a defender didn't get juked by his jitterbug feet, he probably got ran over instead.

"I like to kind of embarrass people by busting through them," he said. "But being safe is juking them. Either way is fine with me. I just like running."

Cotton-Moya's final numbers were staggering: 2,258 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, with an average of 10.9 yards a carry. In addition, he improved his passing, completing 50 percent of his throws for 1,341 yards and improving his touchdown-interception ratio to 13:8.

"He's just the best athlete that I've coached, no question about it," said Manning, who has already seen three Ridgeview players go to Division I colleges in three years. "He's the greatest competitor I've ever coached. His desire to win is second to none."

And then there was that, too. Cotton-Moya led the Wolf Pack back to the Division III championship with a stunning 30-28 comeback victory over Independence. Cotton-Moya fumbled late with Ridgeview trailing 28-27, and even though video replays showed his knee was down before the ball came out, he was sure his mistake had cost his team another chance at a championship.

Instead, Ridgeview blocked an Independence punt with 19 seconds left, and Cotton-Moya had one more chance. He completed a pass inside the 10-yard line, and Ridgeview won the game with a late field goal and a Cotton-Moya interception on Independence's final Hail Mary.

"He was crushed," Manning said. "He felt like he let his team down, no matter what the replays showed. But his ability to come back and throw a nice pass and get us in position to win, that's a testament to his will power."

With Ridgeview back in the title game, Cotton-Moya left no doubt. He ran for 274 yards, threw for 123 and accounted for four touchdowns in a 55-14 rout of Dinuba for the first section title in school history.

"It means everything," he said. "It means so much because football is the like the worldwide sport right now. Everybody cares about football. It means a lot to people for us to be the first Valley champions at Ridgeview. It was just a blessing. It was a dream."

Now Cotton-Moya will look to college football -- he said he is leaning towards Fresno State, though he has other scholarship offers and has not committed yet.

Recruiting websites list him as an athlete, and there is a possibility that college coaches will move him back to defense.

Just don't tell that to this playmaker, who wants to be a running back.

"Ever since I started playing with the ball in my hands, it got more fun and more serious," Cotton-Moya said. "I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"