Ask Olivia Gardner which was her favorite among the six varsity seasons she spent with the Winona Cotter girls soccer team, and it’s a quick answer.

It’s the one that just ended.

Gardner’s senior season contained pretty much everything she’d hoped for. Deciding on the pinnacle of all of that is also an easy one for the Post Bulletin's Girls Soccer Player of the Year. It was her team reaching the state tournament -- finally.

“For me, getting to state was the biggest thing,” said Gardner, who was a part of Ramblers teams that incrementally got closer every season, including winning the section title a year ago, only to be denied a state-tournament trip by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every year, we seemed to get a little bit further. From losing in the section final (as a sophomore), to winning the section final but not getting to state last year, to this year and making it. This group of seniors, I don’t think any of us believed we’d end without making it this year.”

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The Ramblers ultimately finished third in the Class A tournament, losing to eventual state champion Minnehaha Academy in the semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium, and then tying Holy Family Catholic in the third-place match.

To be able to go out this way, extending her season to Nov. 5 and doing it with a pack of eight fellow seniors who she’d been playing soccer with since their early grade-school days, was the ultimate reward for Gardner's hard work.

“State lived up to everything I’d hoped for,” Gardner said. “It was really fun. The whole experience of going there with my team was great. And playing Minnehaha at ‘The Bank,’ it was so much fun. They were a great team.”

Named Ms. Soccer

Gardner was the best player on the field that day, and every day throughout this season. The award she won to cap the year designated her as such, with the explosive sprinter and goal scorer named Class A’s Ms. Soccer in Minnesota.

Gardner had been recognized as great before, named All-State as a freshman, sophomore, junior and then again this season. But to be named Class A’s best player in 2021, that was another level.

Though Gardner didn’t see the award coming, she likely should have. She was at the state tournament banquet in St. Paul when it was announced.

“When my name was announced, my jaw dropped,” Gardner said. “Everyone had to go there with a prepared speech (in case they won). Mine was folded up in the bottom of a bag (as an afterthought). The other candidates, they were all great players.”

Winona Cotter’s Olivia Gardner (24) and Dover-Eyota’s Ella Leaf (4) battle for the ball during a Section 1A girls soccer championship match Oct. 19 at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott
Winona Cotter’s Olivia Gardner (24) and Dover-Eyota’s Ella Leaf (4) battle for the ball during a Section 1A girls soccer championship match Oct. 19 at Rochester Community and Technical College in Rochester. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott

Gardner sure had the credentials to get the nod. The senior finished the season with 44 goals and 16 assists. That included one out-of-this-world game against a tough Kasson-Mantorville team in which she had five goals.

“I remember after that game, the K-M coach said to me, ‘We just couldn’t figure out a way to stop her,’” longtime Cotter coach Marie Barrientos said. “I think this year, Olivia just had more tools in her tool box. She just found so many creative ways to use her skills. That made her really dangerous. It’s just so hard to mark her out of a game.”

Barrientos recognized Gardner as a player with limitless potential early on. An all-around athletic star (soccer, basketball, track and field), Gardner has always jumped out most on the soccer pitch, which is also her happiest place.

Barrientos coached Gardner on a youth traveling team before landing her on the Cotter varsity as a seventh-grader, when she became an immediate starter.

“I knew that we had something special coming in Olivia,” Barrientos said. “She always made scoring look easy. But I also knew that I had to keep challenging her.”

Gardner challenged herself plenty, too, and sometimes to the extreme.

Getting it done

An achiever on the field and off, Gardner has a hard time settling for anything less than excellence. That was especially true in her younger years.

“It’s not been an easy road for her,” Barrientos said. “There had been tears by her when things were not working. When she fell short, it became a personal thing. But to then watch her (get beyond that), and watch her develop and become a student of the game, it’s been cool to watch.”

There has been little falling short the last few years. Gardner set the Cotter school record for goals in a career as a sophomore, when she already had 72. Since then, she’s doubled that total, including notching a hard-to-fathom 44 this season.

Barrientos insists that total could have been even higher. Gardner also dished out 16 assists this season.

“She could have had more, but he was also always looking to set up other kids,” Barrientos said.

Winona Cotter’s Olivia Gardner (24) takes a shot on goal during a Section 1A girls soccer championship match Oct. 19 against Dover-Eyota on at Rochester Community and Technical College. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott
Winona Cotter’s Olivia Gardner (24) takes a shot on goal during a Section 1A girls soccer championship match Oct. 19 against Dover-Eyota on at Rochester Community and Technical College. Post Bulletin file photo / Traci Westcott

Once the basketball and track seasons are done this school year, Gardner will whittle her sports endeavors down to one, soccer.

The honor student is taking her talents next year to NCAA Division II University of Mary, in Bismarck, N.D.

As difficult as it will be to leave her lifelong friends and teammates, she can’t wait to become a part of that program.

“I’m leaving a school and a team that has been like family to me for so long,” Gardner said. “I am so close to this group of girls. But at the University of Mary, the team there also had the feeling of a family. I got a great impression there. I am going to college to be a part of a family again.”