Photo credit Teddy Choi, University of Denver
In a sport where players utilize every inch of the field to work their way as unit with one common goal at stake; to put the soccer ball in the back of the net. Conversely, it takes an alternative mind to defend shots aimed at the 8-yard by 8-feet goal posts securing the net to the ground. Nick Gardner has that defensive mind.
The University of Denver Pioneers’ goalie feeds off of the adrenaline rushes he receives from shots aimed on frame requiring Gardner to take action. Gardner takes pride in the look of dismay from his opponents faces’ when he denies their attempts, “My favorite part of being a goalie and this still holds true today, is after making a big save just seeing the look of disappoint on the forwards face. As funny as that sounds, it’s just fun. Denying goals and having the chance to save games and keeping the soccer ball out of the soccer net; it’s probably my favorite part of it.”
It wasn’t always this way. The passion and devotion to the position was picked up over the years. As a Marvin, North Carolina native, Gardner grew up as a field player for a team that his father coached before transitioning between the posts.
“I actually despised the position when I was super young,” Gardner said recalling a turning point at six-years old where his team was winning a game with playoff implications 4-3 with 10 minutes remaining and Gardner was asked to move to goalie. “My dad was like, ‘Nick, you’ve got to go in goal, you’re the best one at it, even though you hate it.’ I went in and it was kind of a muddy field and I had to make two diving saves. I remember them being pretty epic, but they were probably pretty average saves coming from a six-year old kid. My perception of them was pretty epic. It was fun, I liked making those saves. From that day forward my opinion on that position changed and I liked it a little more.”
How Gardner found himself in the Mile-High city he attributes to being under recruited coming out of high school. Gardner was the third-string keeper on the Charlotte Soccer Academy team where his teammates now play for the University of North Carolina and South Carolina, respectively. Throughout the recruiting process it was Gardner’s dad that found DU and suggested he reach out as it met all his criteria as he pursues a Marketing degree with an Accounting minor.
Current head coach Jamie Franks was the assistant coach to Bobby Muuss at the time, but Franks traveled down to a showcase in Sarasota, Florida where he watched Gardner warmup and saw the potential he possessed.
“I came on a an unofficial visit here, I saw the gold tower and I was like, ‘Wow, this place is awesome,'” Gardner said. “I went on a tour through campus and probably the reason I chose Denver on that visit was because the coaching staff challenged me. They weren’t telling me things that they thought I wanted to hear, they were telling me things about how I could improve and not just sugarcoating everything. They were very real with me. They told me that I would have to work hard to play for this program.”
Gardner joined the program in 2014 where he started in five matches. With a frame of 6-foot-3 and 190-pounds, Gardner redshirted in 2015 before returning to lead the Pioneers from the backend of the 2016 season to the their record-breaking, historical season. Gardner started in 23 matches (only missing one with an injury) and boasted a .729 save percentage only allowing 13 goals and making 35 saves. Gardner kept 13 cleansheets and earned fifth in NCAA Rankings for goals against average with (0.542). The Redshirt junior was the 2016 Summit League Goalkeeper of the year as the Pioneers clinched their fourth-straight Summit League title and made a first-ever appearance in the College Cup in Houston where they fell 2-1 to Wake Forest in extra time.
Gardner has assumed an integral role in Denver’s lineup, exchanging communication between the backline, making dominant plays and focusing on his individual development to better and improve the success of the program.
“When Jamie took over there was a huge shift in culture just in the sense that he had such a high demand from everyone,” Gardner said. “Bringing the three things that you can always control; your positioning, your work-rate, and your mentality. Those are the three things that Jamie always harps on.”
With two more games remaining in the regular season before the Summit League tournament, the Pioneers are focused on incremental goals to return to the College Cup this year in Philadelphia and claim their first national championship.
“As a team, our closest goal is to win the conference regular season championship. With our game against Omaha we have a chance to clinch that, if we don’t then we have another chance at it in our game against Western Illinois,” Gardner said. “Our second goal is to win the conference tournament, with that we would get an [automatic] bid into the NCAA tournament. Our third goal and most important goal as a team, in terms of soccer, is to win the national championship. We were so close last year and we know what it takes this year. While we had a bit of a slow start to the regular season this year, I think that we are growing as a team and we are peaking at the right time. I think we have a shot to reach that goal.”