All in the family
Oct. 13, 2005
Tennis has Venus and Serena Williams. In professional football, it's Peyton and Eli Manning. Big Ten volleyball has seen its share of sibling rivalry, too. Jamie, Laurie, Korie and Christie Gardner have long been synonymous with conference volleyball - and success - since 1997.
Christie Gardner, a Northwestern senior, is the fourth and youngest of the family, and is hoping to leave her mark on Northwestern volleyball and the Gardner family dynasty with the Wildcats' third NCAA Tournament in four years - a feat she has had her sights set on for as long as she can remember.
After their parents, Jim and Deborah Gardner, married and moved to the little Milwaukee suburb of West Bend, Wis., Deborah started coaching volleyball just to get out of the house. After Jamie was born, Deborah started bringing her to the gym. "Parents of my team babysat, and then when they were old enough to, they started banging around a volleyball," she said.
Each girl started playing club volleyball in fifth grade. They also played for their mother in high school, but Deborah was careful not to push it. She made sure they never felt any pressure to be volleyball stars. Even though they all finished high school at three-sport standouts, the Gardners individually decided to take their volleyball skills to the next level, too.
"We were surprised all four went the volleyball route," Deborah said. "I think they were all natural enough athletes that whatever they would have picked up, I think they probably would have excelled at it."
The oldest, Jamie, 26, was a four-year letterwinner at Wisconsin from 1997-2000. An artsy, silent leader, according to Christie, Jamie was a defensive specialist on the Badgers' 2000 NCAA runner-up team. Laurie, 25, was the only setter out of the group, a position Deb said played perfectly to her even-keeled personality - and it kept Laurie and Jamie from competing against each other. Laurie played three years at Indiana University before transferring to the University of Arizona where she became the starting setter for the Wildcats. Korie, 23, joined Jamie at Wisconsin in 2000 and shared in the Badgers' national title attempt.
She was the daughter of a volleyball coach, a club player since age 12 and the baby sister of three Big Ten volleyball players, but Christie - a three-time high school All-American - said she was never forced into volleyball by anyone but herself. All of that other stuff was just motivation.
"They set that bar for me, that you should never expect anything less than your best because they always gave 100 percent in every thing they did, so they expected the same thing from me," Gardner said. "The spotlight's always been on me (laughter). Being the baby, I've always looked up to them, and they've always taken care of me. They support me so much that I couldn't ask for more."
In high school, Gardner set a new record for kills with 88 in the 2001 Wisconsin state tournament. She led her club team, the Milwaukee Sting, to the under-17 Junior Olympics national championship as the squad's Most Valuable Player in 2001. Her accomplishments warranted plenty of big-time recruiters' interest, but Gardner had Northwestern at the top of her list because of its academic reputation and the opportunity to play with a rising team. The standard set by the elder Gardner sister caught plenty of Division I coaches' attention, but Christie Gardner made a lasting impression on Northwestern Coach Keylor Chan on her own.
"Everyone knew the Gardner sisters already, so she had a pedigree of Big Ten-level volleyball in her family," Chan said. "We recruited Christie quite a bit, but we got tape of a high school match through another player we were recruiting, and we were like, `Who's that kid on the other side? She's amazing!' When we realized it was Christie, we had seen what we needed. We're going to offer this kid; we wanted this kid in our program."
Gardner brought an intense competitiveness to the Wildcats, and during her freshman season, her refuse to give up mentality helped propel Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament appearance in almost a decade. The team only got better in 2003, finishing at 18-15 - its best record since 1988 - and paving the way for its second-straight postseason appearance.
Twice during her freshman year, Gardner faced her closest sister Korie, with whom she played on the same team for two years in high school. The sibling rivalry series ended even at 1-1, and both sisters were glad they only met twice.
"You want to win so bad just for personal pride, but then there's always that hope that your sister does well," said Korie Gardner, who now coaches a high school junior varsity team of her own. "My parents made it clear that people are going to have their strengths and people are going to have their weaknesses, but within our family, you need to be happy for your sisters' strengths and support them in their weaknesses."
Christie Gardner followed in Jamie and Korie's footsteps, switching from outside hitter to a defensive position in college. After two seasons at outside hitter for Northwestern, Gardner moved to the Wildcats' back line at the libero spot.
As libero, she is restricted from going to the net, which means Gardner won't be making headlines with hitting, spiking and blocking. Named for an Italian word meaning free, the libero is the defensive specialist and the offensive spark plug. Despite its absence from the spotlight, the libero is often crucial to a team's success. One of her primary responsibilities - receiving the serve - is also one of the most pressure-packed parts of volleyball. It requires intense concentration and mental toughness.
Chan said he knew that in order for the program to push its level of play to the next step, the team's younger outside hitters needed experience on the front court. Gardner was a natural fit to move into the libero spot because she has sharp ball control and potent defense. Moving Gardner to libero gave the team a chance to compete with alternative strengths at different positions.
"She wants to be a 6-2 hitter but is stuck in a 5-9 person's body," Chan said. "But she knows what she's capable of doing, and she's able to control games when she's really playing well."
Gardner, the quintessential team player, has taken her new role in stride. Even though blocking out the outside hitter mentality was not easy, Gardner said the transition to libero has revealed its perks.
"I love defense, so it kind of seemed like a natural transition because the libero is in the game all the time," she said. "I love that; defense has always been one of my strong points. I did miss hitting for a while, but defense is also very fun if you make it fun."
In her first year as libero, Gardner led team in digs 24 out of 30 matches and retuned Northwestern's single-season record for most digs with 460. Her 4.34 digs-per-game ranked fifth in the Big Ten.
At the start of this season, Gardner led a strong Northwestern defense en route to the an early 6-1 record - the Wildcats' best start since 1997. During the Wildcats' Chicagoland Classic win, Gardner helped the Wildcats hold DePaul to just a .098 hitting percentage. The Northwestern defense also held Loyola-Chicago to an attack percentage of only .100.
With that performance, Gardner earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors - the first for any Northwestern volleyball player. She currently ranks seventh in the league in digs this season, and is on track to play in every game of her four-year career.
Surprised by that last achievement, Gardner laughs and takes it in with the same quick wit and humor that her family and coach say can keep everyone positive and entertained in any situation.
"I'm excited that I've had the opportunity to play in every single match," Gardner said. "I mean, I guess it means that I haven't been that bad."
As the team heads into the second half of conference play, Chan is hoping Gardner's lasting impression on his program will be much more than that streak.
"Hopefully the standard of what a libero should be at Northwestern," he said. "There's a lot of volleyball left to play, and hopefully her legacy is to put her team three out of the four years in the NCAA tournament. Christie is probably one of the most dynamic liberos in the nation. We will need her to be on her game day in and day out."