When Nick Gardner was just 7 years old, his father, Steve, first suggested that he play goalkeeper, assigning him to the position on his recreational soccer team because his son was one of the biggest and most athletic kids on the team.
Gardner has been playing the position ever since.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Charlotte Latin senior goalkeeper has transformed himself into one of the best in the state, as an all-state keeper for the Hawks who also plays for the Charlotte Soccer Academy team. Gardner’s goalkeeping talents have earned him a scholarship to the University of Denver.
He’s also the kicker for the Hawks football team (7-1), which hosts unbeaten Davidson Day on Friday. Davidson Day features All-America quarterback Will Grier, who has committed to Florida.
Back when Gardner was a sophomore, Latin football coach Larry McNulty saw Gardner launch a few drop-kicks more than 70 yards. McNulty quickly went to Latin soccer coach Lee Horton to ask about Gardner playing football, too.
Gardner earned the starting kicker spot last season as a junior, handling kickoffs, extra points and field goals.
“Nick is a very serious athlete with a great leg, and we’re glad to have him (on the football team)” said McNulty, who has 11 state championships at Latin. “He’s been a very valuable player and made a big difference for us.”
Gardner has only missed one extra point attempt this season. All but two of his kickoffs have been for touchbacks, which prevented returns.
Last week, in a 58-14 win over Concord’s Cannon School, Gardner nailed a 43-yard field goal that McNulty said cleared the goal posts by at least 10 yards. But Gardner has missed three football games due to soccer commitments.
Latin’s soccer team lost 2-0 to North Raleigh Christian in the second round of the NCISAA playoffs, so Gardner will finish out the season as a full-time football guy.
“He’s a great kid,” McNulty said. “I’m so excited to have him. I watched him play soccer and I’m like ‘Holy (Cow), ‘He kicks the ball three quarters of the length of the field.’ I felt like we had to have him kicking off for us. And he doesn’t know much technically about kicking, but he’s getting it done, and one of these days, in one of these big games, we may need him to kick a long field goal for us.”
Having to potentially make a play like that can bring a lot of stress onto a high school kicker, but Gardner, being a soccer goalie, deals with a similar pressure every match.
Gardner, 18, said he thrives on that.
“I actually love the pressure of being in the goal,” Gardner said. “I know if I play well, I can set the tone for the rest of the team to play well. I love make a game-saving or game-changing type save. I love the excitement and energy it creates for a team.”
Gardner has started in the Latin goal for the past three years, making big plays all along, and just completed his best year. He allowed 13 goals in 17 games and had eight shutouts (50 percent of the regular season games). He helped his team to an 8-4-5 overall record.
Gardner is quick to point to his defense – senior Mark Taylor, juniors Matthew Swimmer and Matthew O’Brien, and sophomore Duncan Keeley – as a big part of Latin’s success.
Gardner’s kicking game, including his “drop-kick” style of punting and his goal kicks, have helped a Hawk offense that has struggled to be consistent for most of the season.
Gardner regularly drop-kicks the ball about 70-80 yards, getting the ball to his opponents’ 18-yard line, which has created opportunities and corner kicks.
His goal kick goes 50-60 yards, well past half field, helping his Latin offense start counterattacks.
“His kicking game is the best I’ve ever seen in high school,” said Charlotte Latin soccer coach Lee Horton. “He keeps our opponents on their heels with his punts, goal kick, every time he touches the ball. He is so good that can take a lot of chances defensively that we might not without him. He really changes the game.”
Gardner has two assists and one goal this season.
Gardner’s first goal of his Latin career came at a critical time, as he converted a penalty kick with less than 10 seconds left to give his team a 2-1 victory at Charlotte Christian.
“That was definitely a big moment for me,” Gardner said. “I knew we had to have it and the best part was that it won the game for our team.”
Gardner, an A-B student, says his daily schedule is challenging with two sports and a full load of classes.
After classes, Gardner usually goes to football practice from 3:30 to 4 p.m. before running to soccer practice from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sometimes, he goes from those practices to workout with his CSA club team.
“My schedule gets a little frantic sometimes and it can be hard to juggle everything,” Gardner said. “But it’s definitely all worth it.”
This story originally appeared in South Charlotte News/newsofsouthcharlotte.com
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