For the last 11 seasons, a senior has worn the No. 44 jersey for the Shawnee football team.

It's a special honor to carry forward the memory and commemorate the spirit and enthusiasm of Nick Garner, a Medford Youth Athletic Association football player in the 1990s who died at the age of 9 of a heart condition.

Jake Parola knew the significance of the special number. He was a MYAA football star, playing as a seventh- and eighth-grader for coach Rob Garner, Nick's father.

Parola knew the legacy of some of the athletes who had worn the No. 44, guys such as Zach Hudson and Kyle Wigley and Mike Ansberry and Anthony DiOrio.

"I was helping to give out the Garner Award at the MYAA banquet [Tuesday night]," Parola said. "I was telling those kids that I was so honored to be named a captain this season but that didn't mean nearly as much to me as to be given the No. 44 jersey.

"To me, it was a much bigger honor."

Parola is The Inquirer's South Jersey offensive player of the year after scoring 32 touchdowns and leading Shawnee to the South Jersey Group 4 championship.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Parola was at his best in the biggest game of the season, carrying the football 37 times for 159 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-7 victory over Timber Creek in the sectional title game.

On a cold night on Rowan University's turf field, Parola carried the football 19 times in the third quarter and 27 times in the second half in a performance that was reminiscient of DiOrio's work against Timber Creek in the 2013 title game.

But DiOrio was 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, a bruising back who barreled through tacklers. The smaller, quicker Parola carried an even heavier load and had enough left in his tank to race through the Timber Creek secondary on a 23-yard run for the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"He's fast as [anything]," Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson said after the title game.

Parola showed flashes of his potential as a sophomore and junior but was hampered by injuries and limited in his opportunities by his place on the depth chart.

Shawnee coach Tim Gushue knew Parola was capable of a special senior season.

"We sat him down in the spring," Gushue said. "He has shown flashes of some special things last year, but he had been hurt a little bit.

"We told him, 'Listen, you want to be the feature back, you want to be the next Anthony DiOrio, a lot will depend on how much work you do in the offseason.' "

Parola said he doesn't remember missing a single workout from the spring through the start of the season.

"Maybe one, but I don't remember ever missing," Parola said. "I knew I had to prepare myself."

Parola put together one of the best seasons by a Shawnee player in the illustrious history of the program. He rushed for 1,439 yards and 27 touchdowns and also caught a pair of scoring passes.

He scored three touchdowns in the opener against Williamstown and five touchdowns the next week against Cherry Hill West. He scored five more against Cherry Hill East and four more against both Eastern and, in the first round of the South Jersey Group 4 tournament, Mainland.

On defense, Parola led the team with eight interceptions from his safety position and generated 342 yards on returns.

"He was doing everything," Gushue said. "He would bring a punt back for a touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, then he would break off a 60-yard run for a touchdown.

"His durability was incredible. He really was our only guy who went both ways. I would ask him if he needed a break and he would be, 'Coach, I'm fine. Coach, I want to play.' "

Parola said the season "seems like a dream" because the senior class was able to make good on a promise the athletes made to themselves as freshmen.

"We said we were the class that was going to win a championship and we were able to get two of them," Parola said of the Renegades' 31 seniors, many of whom were regulars on back-to-back sectional championship teams.

Parola said he would have been determined to make the most of his senior season no matter his jersey number. But putting on the No. 44 was extra motivation.

"I played for Coach Garner and I knew how much it meant to him," Parola said. "I was going to do everything I could to do my best and honor that number."

Gushue believes that Parola played so well that future Shawnee players who wear the No. 44 will look to the athlete who donned the jersey in 2014 as one who set the standard.

"He will go down as one of the greats of all time in Shawnee football," Gushue said. "[Assistant coach] Gene Shulman always says the players are the magic. That's Jake. Jake is the magic."

panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

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