HUNTINGTON -When Marshall University quarterback Rakeem Cato came to Huntington in fall 2011 he immediately spoke of what his goals were for his time with the Thundering Herd.
Cato said he wanted to make an immediate impact and he wanted to be remembered like Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich for taking the Herd program to great heights.
After a 2013 season when the junior led Marshall to its first 10-win season since 2002, Cato earned a distinction shared by those great Herd quarterbacks.
Marshall University quarterback Rakeem Cato is the recipient of the Hardman Award, given to West Virginia’s top amateur athlete of the year. Cato will be honored May 4 at the 68th Victory Awards Dinner in Charleston.
Cato is the recipient of the 2013 Hardman Award, given to the state of West Virginia's amateur athlete of the year. The award was voted on by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
It is named for the late Shorty Hardman, former Charleston Gazette sports editor.
Cato will be honored May 4 at the 68th Victory Awards Dinner in the Charleston Civic Center.
"It's a great feeling and I'm humbled and blessed," Cato said. "I treat this as my second hometown here in West Virginia and the community has been great to me. I just want to continue my success and continue trying to do a great job on and off the field."
With the award, Cato grows one step closer to the level that he wants to attain as a Marshall quarterback - being mentioned in the same sentence of Pennington and Leftwich as Herd greats.
Pennington won the Hardman Award in 1999 while Leftwich backed it up by winning the award in 2001 and 2002.
Cato became the first Marshall football player since Leftwich to win, drawing him closer to etching his name on that list.
If you ask Leftwich, he'll say Cato is already there.
"He belongs on the list, I'll tell you that," Leftwich said. "The way he's going, he's trying to take everybody off the list."
In 2013, Cato finished the year with 3,916 yards passing and 39 touchdowns while also rushing for 294 yards and another six scores.
However, the bigger story was his progression as a quarterback in making reads and seeing the defense.
Cato got the Herd in the correct run-pass options in offensive coordinator Bill Legg's scheme and the Marshall offense finished at 7,005 yards of total offense for the season - an average of 500.4 yards per game.
Leftwich said much of the quarterback's success is predicated on that pressure to be among the greats, which Cato put on himself early in his career.
"We want him to know we're watching and he knows we are watching," Leftwich said. "That's the great thing about him being able to go out there and accomplish and achieve things.
"History means everything and he understands that. It's an added pressure, but it's a pressure that he wants and I know he does because I did. I wanted that on my shoulders during the week."
While the season included marquee wins over Maryland in the Military Bowl and a 59-28 win over East Carolina in the regular-season finale to clinch the Conference USA East Division title, it was another game Cato said is his lasting memory of 2013.
He noted a 45-34 win over Tulsa on Nov. 14, 2013 - the 43rd anniversary of the Marshall plane crash, which killed all 75 members of the team's traveling party following a 17-14 loss at East Carolina in 1970. The game marked the first time the team played a road game on Nov. 14 since the crash and players elected to wear "75" decals on their helmets to honor the victims.
After building a big lead early, adversity struck and Marshall fell behind in the fourth quarter, but Cato led his team on a pair of late fourth-quarter scoring drives to clinch the win. He finished with a career-high 456 yards passing and five touchdowns.
"There were so many emotions going on the whole day with the plane crash ceremony going on in the morning," Cato said. "We had that '75' sticker on the side of our helmets and we had to overcome that adversity because there was no way we could lose on that day for those who went before us.
"That was the most memorable moment for me."
The 10-win season was the first since Leftwich led Marshall to an 11-2 record in 2002 and, with Cato returning, helped solidify Marshall as a potential Top 25 team in 2014.
Cato won the Hardman Award over many high-caliber athletes that the state of West Virginia was blessed to see in 2013.
West Virginia University baseball pitcher Harrison Musgrave finished second in the voting after a year when he was named as the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year.
Musgrave, a former Bridgeport High School standout, was 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA in 14 starts for the Mountaineers. That performance earned him the honor of being a Louisville Slugger Second Team All-American. He was also selected in the 33rd round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, but he opted to return to WVU for the 2014 season.
North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Switzer from Charleston finished third in the voting after tying the all-time record for punt return touchdowns in a season with five during his freshman year. He was voted as a first team All-American at punt returner by ESPN.com and Athlon while garnering second team honors from CBSSports.com.
Switzer, who became North Carolina's first true freshman to earn first team All-American honors, got the record-tying return in grand fashion. His 86-yard punt return put the exclamation point on a 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
West Liberty University senior guard Alex Falk from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, finished fourth in the voting after a season when he led the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Division II Final Four while scoring 21.2 points per game.
West Virginia University women's soccer forward Frances Silva from Overland Park, Kan., was fifth in the voting after leading the Mountaineers to a 16-4-3 record and a No. 12 final ranking in 2013.
Silva finished with 15 goals and 13 assists for West Virginia, which won the Big 12 regular-season title and the Big 12 tournament while advancing to its 14th consecutive NCAA appearance. Last week, she was selected 19th overall by FC Kansas City in the National Women's Soccer League Draft.
This year marks the 80th presentation of the Hardman Award, the oldest award presented by the WVSWA, dating back to its inception in 1934.