Efficient Gardner leaving her mark
WINONA, Minn. — When Sarah Gardner's collegiate volleyball career comes to a close — whether it happened Tuesday night or includes a deep run into the national tournament — she'll be remembered as one of the best players to ever suit up at St. Mary's University.
The former Mayo Spartan standout recently moved into third place in school history with 1,400 career kills, while also becoming just the sixth Cardinal ever to eclipse 400 kills in a single season.
If the Cardinals receive an at-large berth to the national tournament Sunday evening, she'll have an opportunity to move into second place on the all-time kills list (1,481). There's also an outside chance she could jump to second in the single-season kills chart (516) as well.
While Gardner, a 5-foot-10 right-side hitter, has been an impact player for the Cardinals since her first day in the program, it hasn't always been smooth sailing. SMU coach Mike Lester has seen remarkable development over the years from Gardner, who has become his "most dynamic offense player."
In 2007 Gardner posted 285 kills as a freshman, which was good for second on the team. However, she also had 101 hitting errors. Her kills jumped to 319 as a sophomore, but her errors also rose to 137. The .171 hitting percentage in 2008 was cause for concern, Lester said.
Starting last fall, Gardner began taking a more aggressive approach at the net. She's been rewarded with an Honorable Mention All-American campaign that included 386 blocks and a .272 hitting percentage in 2009, and 410 kills with a .283 hitting percentage prior to Tuesday night's 3-1 loss to St. Benedict.
"It's been really fun to watch (her improve)," Lester said. "She came in out of high school as a very, very solid player, but one who was prone to making more errors than a coach would like. She might have been a little bit tentative because of that. Coming into her junior year, she kind of put things together … by limiting those errors and being more aggressive."
Gardner admits to starting her Division III career with a passive mentality, but deflects credit for her development to others.
"I owe a lot to my teammates and my coach to help me grow as a player and a person," said Gardner, who is majoring in environmental biology.
The senior standout has saved her best for last. She enters the postseason having recorded at least 10 kills in eight straight matches, leading the Cardinals to a 21-9 regular season record. She was named the MIAC Hitter of the Week Oct. 25, and finished second in the league in kills.
"The thing that Sarah has brought, the thing that she has done, is lead by her example," Nester said. "People look to her now for her work ethic. I can't say that people would have done that as a freshman."
Gardner is a big reason why the Cardinals are in still in the mix for an at-large berth, despite Tuesday's loss in the first round of the MIAC tournament. She had 19 kills in the match, but her future is now in the hands of the selection committee for the second straight year.
SMU was swept in the first round of the 2009 conference tournament, yet still received an at-large berth. Lester said his team will continue to practice, noting "the girls deserve to get in."
While Tuesday could have been Gardner's final time in a Cardinals uniform, she wasn't sweating the details beforehand. Her trademark energy is apparent each time she steps on the court, but she has remained very relaxed outside the lines.
"You're probably gonna laugh, but I really don't think that far into it," Gardner said of her team's postseason chances. "Basically, this is my quote — I just show up and play. A lot of times I don't even know what's going on. Sometimes I don't even know who we're playing. You've just gotta go in and play your game."