MARIETTA — Austin Gardner has lived in Northwest Ohio his entire life.
Gardner played high school basketball at Toledo St. John’s Jesuit, then played college ball and earned his master’s degree from the University of Findlay before becoming an assistant coach for the NCAA Division I program at Bowling Green. Gardner spent his final two years with the Falcons as the director of player personnel before spending a year as a junior varsity coach at Findlay High School.
Now the 28-year-old is moving across the state to Southeast Ohio. On June 2, Gardner was named the head coach of the Marietta High Boys basketball program.
“He has been training and playing at a high level in incredibly successful programs for several years and brings that maturity to our pitch.” said Cody Venderlic, the MHS athletic director. “He saw what it takes to be successful and it’s that energy that is contagious.”
Gardner first learned of the open MHS position from West Liberty basketball coach Ben Howlett. Howlett, the Tigers’ all-time all-time all-time boys basketball goal, recruited Gardner from high school. Although Gardner decided to go to Findlay, he and Howlett stayed in touch.
“He said, ‘I didn’t get you out of high school, but this time I got you'” Gardner laughed.
Howlett was a part of along with Venderlic, Marietta College men’s basketball coach Jon VanderWal, MHS principal Chad Rinard, MHS track and field coach Mollie Schramm, MHS football coach Jason Schob, and former MHS basketball coaches Ron Warner and JD Secrest Marietta’s interview team.
“I went downstairs and interviewed” Gardner remembered. “It was a big decision for my family and me. Family is the most important. In two and a half weeks I got a bunch of new family members down here. They made it feel like home.”
Howlett believes Gardner won’t just make his mark on the basketball court in Marietta’s community.
“Community is one of the areas where it will thrive.” said Howlett. “He’s played at the college level, he’s coached at the Division I level, and he can bring those community-building habits to our hometown and make this high school level a successful program.”
Gardner coached the Tigers to an overtime win against Williamstown in the Yellowjackets’ Summer League on Thursday and was impressed with what the kids showed him.
“We have a chance to be really good if we put all the pieces together,” he said. “I’ve told people that if I hadn’t seen growth and opportunities, I wouldn’t have taken this job. The guys have done a really good job so far this summer.”
Gardner said 37 kids showed up for the first practice. He hopes to work with children at the younger levels.
“Youth is the future of the program” he said. “We’re hosting a high school children’s camp for grades 3 through 8 on July 11-13. It’s from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning. It’s a great way for kids to meet some of these high school players. You look up to them. We have a lot of really good kids and I want them to be role models. I don’t think they are aware of the impact they can have on a young child’s life. People try to walk like you, play like you, shoot like you. It will be exciting to have a camp. It’s something the players wanted to do. I had great youth programs growing up, so I understand the value of that.”
Key returnees for the Tigers next season are expected to be AJ Graham, Isaac Koast, Jaydon Evans, Elyjah Lieras-Kelley, Alex Kendall and Aidan Harris.
“People talk about playing fast” said Gardner. “We want to be a kind of uptempo style. There are many experienced players out there and when that’s the case you want more possession to show that ability. We ran a couple of motion offensives this summer trying to get these guys in the right positions. It’s kind of an evaluation period right now. We’re going to play a lot of man-to-man defense, stand up and press the ball and try to force teams to do things they don’t want to do on offense. The kids were very open to all of this and the changes and the culture shock. Give them lots of credit.”
Gardner also puts a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect of the game.
“Body language is a big thing we preach,” he said. “How do you react when things don’t go well?”
Gardner was on Bowling Green’s staff when the Falcons won 20 straight seasons for the first time since 1949. As JV coach at Findlay High, he led the Trojans to a 21-1 record. Success has followed him at every stop, and he hopes to stay with Marietta for the long haul and make an impact on student-athletes even after their active days are over.
“Eventually the ball will stop bouncing” said Gardner. “This isn’t just a commitment for a few years – it’s a long-term thing. I want the players to be able to talk to me. There are many life lessons to be learned through sport.”
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