What happened last year was fulfilling for Olivia Gardner.

But only to a point.

Gardner and her Winona Cotter girls soccer team accomplished something that had forever eluded them. Among southeastern Minnesota’s best teams for years, the Ramblers finally won the Section One, Class A championship.

In a normal year, that would have meant that a trip to the coveted state tournament was next. But not last year. The COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on all state tournaments last fall.

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So, beating Dover-Eyota 3-0 in the section title game and finishing their season a perfect 14-0-0 felt good to the Ramblers. But great? Nope, not quite.

“It was kind of a bitter-sweet ending,” said Gardner, a forward who has been named All-State for three consecutive years. “It was great to end with a win, but we’ve always wanted to go to state. That’s always been a big goal of ours.”

It still is. Cotter, behind Gardner and a pack of fellow talented seniors, has made state its quest again. Cotter will be favored to make it happen, and this time it is expected that the state tournament will actually be played, though nothing is guaranteed with COVID 19 still lurking.

High hopes

Gardner knows she’s on a special team and one that might be even more special this season.

“I’m super excited about this season,” said Gardner, who had 28 goals and 11 assists last year. “From what I’ve seen this summer, everyone on our team has improved so much. You can tell that we have a really good squad coming back.”

There’s no doubt who the leader is. It’s Gardner, the team’s undisputed top player — at least until fellow All-State player and senior midfielder Sera Speltz is deemed healthy enough to return after having torn her ACL in last season’s section title game. Speltz's return is likely to happen a few weeks into the season.

Until then, Cotter has a great person to lean on in three-sport star Gardner, who is also a standout basketball player and sprinter in track and field. She’s someone who Cotter coach Marie Barrientos has regarded as special for a long time.

“I could tell from very early on that she had special things in her,” Barrientos. “She wants the ball at her feet and always has. Plus, she is one of those kids who always has the biggest smile on her face. That’s not changed.”

Few things make Gardner smile more than being on a soccer field. As good as she is in basketball and track and field, there is no contest when it comes to picking her favorite sport.

“Soccer is my favorite by far,” she said. “Most of my high school graduating class, we’ve been playing soccer together since the sixth grade. That’s what has me so excited about this year, And I love that soccer is such a team sport.”

So many skills

It’s a team sport where Gardner has also been able to separate herself some by putting up big numbers. She has a favorite thing to do on a soccer field, and that is to score goals. Nobody at Cotter has done it quite like her. Taking advantage of her elite speed (she just missed qualifying for the state track and field meet in the 100-meter dash this year), big leg and lethal shot, she’s scored a school-record 100 goals in her career.

Gardner, a self-professed competition junky, gets a thrill every time one of her shots finds the net.

“I get really excited when I score,” Gardner said. “I get excited when my teammates score, too.”

Expect a bunch more goals from her this fall. Gardner spent her summer working on her shots and moves, continually showing up at Winona soccer fields with her sophomore sister Abbey Gardner, a defensive player for Cotter.

They had battles, both of them blessed with speed and skill and desire.

They also had a blast.

“Abbey is fast and she does all the same sports as me,” Gardner said. “We keep it fun. She’s as much of a competitive person as I am. But we enjoy having fun together and pushing each other.”

Gardner won’t be done with soccer once this season ends. She’s committed to play soccer at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., a Division II school that plays in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.