(Photo: Hannah Franklin/WCSN)
Macey Gardner knew the ball was coming her way.
Everybody on her team knew it was going her way.
Heck, everybody in Wells Fargo Arena knew the next set was headed her way.
So as she’d successfully done 1,871 times in a Sun Devil jersey, Gardner eyed the opposing block. She took two steps to get her momentum going, one step to open up to the ball, and brought her left foot around to generate her forward momentum into a vertical trajectory and set her sights on the incoming set.
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Ask anybody how they would describe Macey Gardner when they first saw her play volleyball, and they all use the same words: powerful, strong and she could flat out hit the ball.
“From the first time she walked in the gym, she just absolutely loved it,” Troy Gardner, Macey’s father, said. “We knew from really almost the first practice that was probably the sport she was going to jump into.”
Macey Gardner was introduced to the game of volleyball at a young age when her parents, Troy and Holli, coached at the local YMCA in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When Gardner was 12, they took her to a tryout at the club team in the area, the Colorado Juniors.
Gardner made her age group’s team, but in her first start, her first ever kill wasn’t exactly like the thousands more she would rack up over the years.
“I was freaking out,” Gardner said. “So I got the set, and I went to go swing, but I missed with my right hand. So I thought, ‘Hey, the ball is still in the air,’ and swung with my left. It went off the block, and I got the point.”
She would continue to excel and develop, and by the time her family moved back to Gilbert, Arizona, Gardner was already catching the eyes of everybody any time she walked into a gym.
“She could always, always hit the crap out of the ball,” James Felton, Gardner’s coach at Club Red from her freshman to junior years, said. “We were always worried that she was going to hurt somebody at practice… She actually probably hits the ball harder than anybody that I’ve coached. I’ve coached a lot of really good kids through the years… She’s by far the one who hit the ball the hardest.”
Felton, who was an outside hitter at UC Irvine, added that despite getting to coach Macey at a young age, fundamental development wasn’t exactly his role regarding her. Instead, it was about teaching Gardner nuances and showing her different ways to look at the game from the position.
With Felton guiding her along, Gardner’s team would take bronze at the USA Volleyball Junior Olympics open division where she would be twice named to the All-Tournament Team. She would finish her senior year as an ESPN Second Team All-American, First Team Under Armour All-American, and also win the Under Armour Hardest Hitter Award.
Her setter through much of that club success is a familiar face, current ASU senior setter Bianca Arellano. She played with Macey on Club Red throughout high school.
“You could just tell: This girl is a stud,” Arellano said. “She’s going to learn so much. She’s going to be great.”
Participating in travel tournaments and national qualifiers, Gardner began to gain the attention of several prominent volleyball coaches across the country, including prominent programs like UCLA, Washington and UC Irvine.
“In our home, there’s no false praise,” Troy Gardner said. “We are always pretty real with our strengths and our weaknesses, but I would say with Macey, there was just a series of progressions that Holli and I would just look at each other and say she’s got a God-given gift. She loves the game, and she’s gifted.”
With the recruiting efforts of schools heating up around Macey, most figured she would bolt to one of the out-of-state, established programs that were recruiting her.
But for Gardner, and to the surprise of those around her, she saw an opportunity at Arizona State under head coach Jason Watson.
Watson took over the program in 2008 after a short but successful three-year stint at BYU, but his first two seasons in Tempe were anything but smooth. The Sun Devils went a combined 26-35 and finished in the bottom third of the Pac-12.
Despite all that, Gardner made an early commitment after her sophomore year, a decision that her parents admittedly tried to talk her out of or at least get her to reconsider. However, it was clear she wasn’t budging on the move, and nearly every bit of her choice, according to her, was based on Watson.
“I knew he (Watson) was a person that was going to make this program great,” Gardner said. “He obviously had the experience. He was a player, and just his morals were so refreshing in the sports world that it was so nice to say, ‘Hey, this guy is in my hometown. He’s in this place that has this ability to be great and be better. It’s not this traditional program. They haven’t been in this Elite Eight, the Final Fours. They have the opportunity to grow.’”
Although it took some time, Troy and Holli Gardner eventually came around to see why their daughter was so gung-ho about staying home and becoming a Sun Devil.
“What fueled Macey was loyalty and trust,” Troy Gardner said. “She wanted to know her coach not only had character, but believed in her, and if you believe in her, that’s the fuel to her fire, and Jason Watson has always been that.”
Getting a player of Macey Gardner’s stature came not only as an exciting moment for Watson and his staff, but also a relief. The Sun Devils would finish the 2011 season, its last without Macey, with a 9-22 record and a 10th-place finish in conference.
“What it (her commitment) ended up doing was it helped validate that there was something out here, that there was potential here,” Watson said. “If somebody of Macey’s caliber was going to commit to Arizona State and do so so early, that maybe it’s worth another look.”
With Gardner on board, setter Allison Palmer and middle blockers Whitney Follette and Mercedes Binns arrived on campus in 2012 and were what Watson now considers the catalysts in turning around the state of the program.
In Gardner’s freshman season, she absolutely lit it up. In that 2012 campaign, Gardner broke ASU’s freshman kills record with 577, became just the third freshman to lead the Pac-12 in kills, and was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference First Team. On top of that, the team would go 20-14 and make its first NCAA Tournament bid under Watson.
ASU would return to the tournament in 2013 and 2014, advancing to the second round last season. Along the way, Gardner has been a model of progressions and consistency racking up kill after kill. Even while developing other portions of her skill set as well, often times, she was the Sun Devils’ only option offensively.
“Not everybody who is known for hitting the ball hard wants to do anything else but hit the ball hard,” Watson said. “She’s embraced opportunities to do that and has done so just to benefit the program and her team more so for any personal success, and that’s what makes her incredibly special.”
Even more than progressively becoming a better passer, blocker and server, her place as the face of the team and program was a title that Gardner was at first reluctant to hold.
“She wanted to let her play to do her talking for her,” Watson said. “The unfortunate part about that is that she’s Macey Gardner, and she doesn’t get to do that. Whether she wants to or not, her voice is significant and her voice is important, and her voice resonates with her teammates.”
Gardner would be the first to tell you that being a vocal leader isn’t one of her natural personality traits. Quiet of a human as they come, Gardner’s development process in becoming more of a vocal and emotional leader was a struggle.
“I’m so passive,” Gardner said. “I’ll be frustrated but I won’t say anything, or I’ll be happy and I look like non-emotional… It’s definitely been hard for me. It’s definitely not something I’m comfortable with, but I see that as something that the Lord has put in my life and said, ‘Hey, you need to be better at this.’”
While Gardner was developing her abilities as a leader, ASU continued to build a foundation of success although the building process wasn’t always the smoothest of courses.
The 2013 season started well for ASU as the Sun Devils sprinted to a 14-1 start, including a sweep over then-No. 2 Texas that vaulted them to as high as No. 15 in the country. Life was good, and then it was anything but.
ASU would go on to drop eight of nine matches, and it would go winless in the month of October. That, as much as anything in Gardner’s time at ASU, provided a stepping stone to build upon as the Sun Devils sorted their way to becoming a consistently solid program.
The consistency improved in 2014 when ASU once again found itself in the AVCA Top-25 week after week, and while the Sun Devils had clearly become a more mature team, they still finished two games below .500 in Pac-12 play.
While ASU grew in maturity, so did Gardner, and it was again clear how uniquely important the relationship that originally convinced her to go to ASU was.
“Jason and I have the weirdest connection, the weirdest friendship,” Gardner said. “But I treasure it more than I think he knows. He’s super quiet, super awkward, but so am I, so it works out really well, and I just think he’s made this place great.”
If you ask Watson, he’ll be the first one to deflect any praise and credit and shine the light on his players, but even he cannot deny the impact that the coach-player relationship with Gardner has had on him as a coach. Seeing her growth as a person and player having to shoulder the weight of carrying the program is a topic that reveals the admiration Watson has of his outside hitter.
“It (Gardner’s success) comes at a huge cost emotionally,” Gardner said. “The burden on her to perform night in and night out, lead her team, it’s hard. It’s really hard. Everybody wants the fame and the glory and the 15 minutes. But the reality is, it’s hard, and she’s had to learn how to deal with that, and it wasn’t easy.”
Spend enough time around the two, and it isn’t too hard to spot the similarities. Off the cuff, it is easy to tell that both are thoughtful and methodical about their approach to volleyball. Their sentences are complex and well-put together, but given the opportunity, both will make a joke that may blow over before anybody even notices.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of static between us,” Watson said. “There’s not a lot of conversations that I have with that aren’t meaningful and important. I think her voice, while she may not say a lot, when she does choose to say some things, it’s pretty on point, and you’d be wise to listen to her. That’s where we’re at… We’re clearly not going to the movies, and we’re not talking music, and we’re not talking TV shows, those kinds of things.
“What we are talking about are some things that are, for me, deeply personal and have made me a much, much better coach, and her ability to communicate those things to me – and some of those things have been really difficult – have made me much, much better. And I’m pretty thankful for that because it’s an insight that not everybody is willing to share with you and that she would trust me enough to share with me is remarkable.”
That relationship has manifested into what ASU volleyball has become: a program on the rise in the Pac-12, a conference that owns 14 of the 34 national titles and is best characterized as a bloodbath. It is a development that has grown so much so that ASU was picked to finish 2nd in the Pac-12, its highest projection since 1994, and the Sun Devils have done well to fulfill those expectations.
“I think in the past, we have been learning how to lose well,” Gardner said after a win earlier in the season. “We’ve played so many good teams, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean we’re starting to compete. We were getting some good wins, we were playing some good matches, and some of them, we would lose. People would say, ‘Oh, it’s just Arizona State. They’re going to play well. They might lose,’ but now I think this year, it’s not the team how to play well. We’re learning how to win well.”
By winning well, she means beating those top-tier teams, and that’s exactly what ASU has done. Two months into the 2015 season, ASU has wins over four top-15 teams: then-No. 9 Colorado State, then-No. 6 Illinois, then-No. 14 Arizona and most recently against No. 8 Stanford.
Gardner’s 22 kills and 11 digs left Watson “in awe” of his outside hitter, and for good reason. The win was ASU’s first over Stanford since 2000.
“I don’t know if enough can be said, or written or thanked, but Macey Gardner is the real deal if you haven’t figured that out,” Watson said following the win. “Her performance was one of the best performances I think I’ve seen in a real long time.”
The good times kept rolling as ASU handled California in a quick sweep two days later.
Which brings us back to that kill.
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It’s not difficult to picture, and it came as no surprise. Gardner swung hard, the ball ripped past every player in a Cal jersey, and ASU was awarded the point – a point that would isolate Gardner at the top of ASU’s record books.
In that moment, Gardner surpassed Christine Garner’s 20-year-old reign, becoming ASU’s all-time kills leader, and the record only adds to the laundry list of milestones Gardner has set as a Sun Devil.
Following the conclusion of 2014, Gardner became the sixth All-American in ASU history. Earlier this season, she became the 10th Sun Devil to accumulate 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs in a career – a testament to her development as an all-around player.
Through it all, as expected, the shy superstar has maintained the same message of humility.
“I couldn’t have done it without the teammates, and no one can refute that,” Gardner said. “If there wasn’t a pass, if there wasn’t a set, if there wasn’t a dig, if there wasn’t a set, then I wouldn’t be getting the ball, so it’s all credit to my teammates who have worked so hard.”
That being said, being able to look at a record and see your name on it is an undeniably special moment.
“It was OK until the moment it happened, and then I look over at Whitney and she’s crying,” Gardner said.
And in that moment, even Watson couldn’t help but be amazed with his player.
“I feel that it’s been a privilege to watch it unfold,” he said. “It’s not often that you get to be a fan when you’re coaching. You’re coaching and you’re worried about matchups and you’re worried about play and you worry about this, but when she got that kill, I couldn’t help but just be a fan of Macey’s, not her coach. Just a fan, and I smiled probably for the first time this season on the bench.”
Just like that, the chase for the record is complete, but the season is far from being so. ASU has 16 more matches in conference play before the NCAA Tournament begins, and it’s clear that the Sun Devils want to make a run deep into the Tournament.
But whenever the season does come to a close, the changes on the horizon will come in spades. ASU will graduate five seniors including Gardner, but the impact she and her classmates have had on the program is something that will resonate for the foreseeable future.
“It would’ve been easier for her to go to a school with a longer track record, and she wanted to come in and make a difference and turn a team around,” Felton said of his former player. “And it’s coming to fruition. They were at the bottom of the Pac-12 teams when she got there, and now, they’re number six in the country,
“I think it’s one of those situations where she’s really put them on the map in the recent history. She’s making it a volleyball destination for sure.”
Most tangibly, Gardner’s influence can be seen on the bench at ASU’s matches now. Highly rated players are no longer thinking of ASU as an afterthought, and the depth of this team is a topic that continued to come up as the Sun Devils prepared this season. The 2015 recruiting class was a fruitful one for Watson, highlighted by freshman setter Kylie Pickrell who has made an immediate impact.
It’s also seen in the crowd at ASU’s matches. Against Arizona on September 24, over 5,000 Sun Devil fans filled Wells Fargo Arena, including a record-breaking 2,011 students. A crowd like that watching ASU volleyball is something not only unheard of, but almost unbelievable.
“To come down the ramp the other night and just see the whole place filled with gold, it’s like, wow. This place has changed,” Gardner said. “That’s just really cool.”
Less tangibly, the long-term effects of Gardner’s time in Tempe can only be speculated about, but it’d be safe to assume those effects will shine positively as Watson’s tenure continues. It’s also something that is still months away. Goals of a top-3 finish in the Pac-12 and a run toward the Sweet 16, Elite Eight or maybe even the Final Four is still very much in play for Gardner and the Sun Devils.
“Her legacy is going to resonate throughout this year and next year and the years to come,” Watson said. “I think it’s a remarkable story that speaks to her character and to her personality.”
When the season does come to a close, whenever that may be, Gardner says she plans to talk to agents and see what volleyball can bring her as a professional in Europe as early as January. That’s the plan, anyway.
With that in mind, Gardner isn’t oblivious of her spot in ASU history. Maybe, in years past, she would be too shy about being so centered and in the spotlight. But now, she is well-aware of who she is and what she represents, and she is as mindful as you’d imagine about the legacy she wants to leave when that time does come in a few months.
“Something my parents kind of instilled in me is when you start something, you got to leave it better than when you started it,” Gardner said. “I think just looking back, that’s (breaking the kills record) not really what my goal was. Definitely, looking back, I want to leave this place better than when I came in, and so if that means getting all these kills, cool. If that means I was a good teammate to my girls or if I just learn to be a great player and a good person while I was here, then I think it was all worth it, so not even looking at wins, losses, records, stats.