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 all-state keeper for the Hawks, who also plays for the Charlotte Soccer Academy (CSA) team. Gardner’s goalkeeping talents have also earned him a college soccer scholarship to the University of Denver.Gardner, 18, thrives on the stress associated with the position. “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 last three years, making big plays all along, and is having his best year to date this season. He has allowed 11 goals in 16 games (0.69 goals per game) and has eight shutouts (50 percent of the regular season games), helping his team to an 8-3-5 regular season mark (through Oct. 15). 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, who has nearly 920 wins and 15 state championships in his 29-year tenure at the school. “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 makes contributions on a regular basis to the offense; he takes long free kicks, 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’s kicking ability has also given him other opportunities. When he was a sophomore playing in the NCISAA 3A state semifinal soccer game against Wesleyan Christian Academy, Gardner launched drop kicks 70-plus yards as Latin football coach Larry McNulty was watching.McNulty sought out Horton to ask his permission to pursue Gardner as a kicker for the Latin football team.Gardner earned the starting kicker spot last year, 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 also started this season at kicker, making one of two field goal attempts, a 30-yard field goal against Charlotte Christian, while booting about 30 extra points and getting touchbacks on all but two of his kickoffs. He has missed three games because of soccer commitments.Gardner, who is also an A-B student at Latin, 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.”Gardner is looking to be at his best when both Latin teams need him as the boys’ soccer team looks to make a run to the NCISAA 3A playoffs, and the Hawks football team (6-1 through Providence Day game) has two big games left hosting Davidson Day and rival Charlotte Country Day. Gardner says his focus to be his best as both goalkeeper and kicker is similar.“You’ve got to have a short memory,” said Gardner, noting it’s particularly important in the goal. “You can’t let one mistake affect the rest of the game.”The Latin lifer, who has been a Hawk for the last 14 years (since pre-K), hopes his final run is his best. “I think both teams are peaking at the right time,” Gardner said. “We’re hoping for rings. I know it may take some luck. Hopefully, we can make the most of our opportunities.”• Story went to print before Charlotte Latin-Cannon football game (Oct. 18) and Charlotte Latin first-round playoff soccer game.
Friday, Oct. 25, 2013
Charlotte Latin’s Gardner kicking the competition
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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