Coach Gardner was hired by Laramie County Community College in the Fall of 2001 to start setting up the women’s soccer program to play in the spring of 2002. The first step was scraping together any kind of team at all.
“With such a short time to recruit and our program being new, it was difficult to find players.” Gardner said. “By the time the season started in August of 2002, we only had five girls, most of them from Cheyenne.”
Instead of dropping the program, he had his girls join the boy’s team and played as a co-ed club team with Coach Desandes as an assistant coach.
In 2003, Desandes became the head coach for the LCCC men’s team while Gardner began coaching the women’s team.
“We now had an established program and were playing in the NJCAA division instead of as a club team,” Gardner said. “I now had an entire year to find players.”
Gardner recruited players mostly from Wyoming and Colorado at the time and within two years they had qualified for their first national tournament. Now, as he wraps up a 16-year career, he’s gone from an intramural team to one of the more successful careers in the NJCAA, with 10 national titles and a chance to add another this year, as his team is ranked third in the country.
What’s even more amazing is this year almost didn’t happen: Gardner was fired from his job last spring before a swarm of supporters convinced LCCC to bring him back for one more year season. “Getting fired was definitely not what I expected and at first quite a shock, but what came out of it was very good.” Gardner said. “I was humbled by the amount of support I had from past players, parents, students and the general community and thankful that I was able to continue as the coach at LCCC.”
Now Gardner’s last season will be one of his best. The team is 14-0-1 and finished the regular season ranked third in the country.
“The kids have really embraced it that it’s their last year with me,” he said. “It’s a motivating factor I think. It’s right up there with all the other teams we’ve had. It’s hard for me to rank them, but it’s right up there with the best of them.”
Gardner said the team’s experience helped him overcome any lingering chaos from the off-season firing and reinstatement. “It helped that we had a great group of sophomores coming back that were leaders in the classroom as well as being good soccer players.” Gardner said.
Gardner will miss the day-to-day with the players. He continued to say that the relationships he built are lifelong.
“I’ve been able to travel and see some of them,” Gardner said. “I’ll miss going to the weddings. I won’t miss going to the funerals. Most of all, I think I’ll miss not being able to have the day to day contact with them. You build those relationships, and then all of a sudden you’re no longer there, so I think that will be pretty hard.”
Even so, Gardner believes he will have a good life beyond coaching. He plans to fish, play golf and take up competitive pickleball.
“I think it will be good,” Gardner said. “I have two grand-babies on the way in May and April. My daughter and son are having grand-kids so that’ll keep us busy.”
Gardner even plans to travel when he retires.
“I’m going to travel. My first trip will be Japan, Gardner said. “I have six kids that have played at LCCC from Japan, so I want to see them. Then I’ve had eight kids who have been here from Australia, so I’ll make a trip there. Then I’ve got Brazil, Colombia, Scotland, England and Spain. A lot of places that I’ll be going to see those players.”
Gardner will continue to stay involved with LCCC through the foundation and help raise money for the college. He’ll also attend games. He hopes that whoever comes in won’t feel pressured to match his success. The direction of the program has always been a big thing for Gardner as he gets ready to leave LCCC.
“The direction the program is going right now, even after I leave, is further ahead than it’s ever been.” Gardner says.
But what’s more important is how your kids go through, how they mature and how you affect their lives, their character, their integrity and their truthfulness. If you can get that, then you’ve had a successful season.”
Gardner and the team played their last couple games in the Region IX tournament. The team won the Region IX Quarterfinal against Otero college with a 2-0 win.
The team’s next game will be in the Region IX Semifinal against Sheridan College on Nov. 2 in Denver, CO at 11:30 a.m.