North Vancouver’s Thomas Gardner is so new at this university soccer thing that he didn’t even know that the Canada West league handed out Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year awards.
After all, the 20-year-old is just a couple of months into his first term playing and studying at the University of British Columbia. That, however, didn’t stop him from winning both of those awards. Yes, both.
“Honestly I didn’t even know about the awards or anything, so when I saw I won it I was just pretty surprised,” said Gardner, describing the moment a teammate informed him he’d won both the Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year awards. “I think a couple of the other guys (on the T-Birds) could have been in my position too for player of the year or rookie, but I don’t know who’s in charge of choosing that. … As cliché as it sounds, it’s still a team thing even though it’s an individual award.”
Gardner had good reason to be surprised – the feat had never been accomplished before. The attacking midfielder is the first men’s soccer player in Canada West history to earn both the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year Awards in the same season.
“I am thrilled for Tommy to be recognized for these prestigious, major conference awards,” stated UBC head coach Mike Mosher in a release. “He is a very talented individual who has really embraced coming into the university level of play. He is hard working and humble and has fit in well with our group.”
Gardner stepped right into a starting role with the Thunderbirds and scored six times in 12 regular games, including three game-winning goals. One of the skills that earned Gardner the historic double awards was his ability to score on free kicks, something he did at an impressive rate this season. Five of his six goals this season came on free kicks. His secret for striking great free kicks involves perfecting the technique as well as learning how to read the goalkeeper.
“I practice it a lot. … I can’t really explain it. I just hit the ball,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just reading the keeper, trying to see what he’s anticipating. If he’s cheating a bit, you’ve got to put it on the (other) side.”
During one particularly prolific stretch, Gardner scored free kick goals in four straight home games. He couldn’t miss.
“When I was hitting a bunch in a row, I kind of felt like it was already going to go in before I even took it,” he said. “The big thing is just confidence. If you’re not confident that you’re going to score, it’s probably not going to go in. But if you’re confident in yourself, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Garnder’s confidence comes from a lifetime of playing, starting with the Lynn Valley Soccer Association. He started participating in the Whitecaps youth program when he was nine years old and stayed in the system, eventually suiting up for the Whitecaps FC2 team for three seasons in the pro United Soccer League. He’s also suited up for Canadian youth national teams in international competitions.
UBC landed Gardner as one of their prize recruits before this season, drawing him in with their educational opportunities as well as the important fact that as the host of this year’s U Sports national championships, UBC would get an automatic bid.
It turns out the Thunderbirds didn’t need any favours to get into nationals – on Sunday UBC claimed the Canada West title with a 2-0 win over the Trinity Western Spartans.
“It was not a pretty game, but we got the win,” said Gardner. “It was more of a grind than most of the other games, we didn’t really get to play our style. But in the end we still got the win.”
Next up is nationals, running Nov. 8-11 and UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. It’s an eight-team bracket, three wins to take it all.
UBC will take on the Carleton Ravens Thursday at 6:30 p.m. to finish off the quarterfinals on Day 1. The semifinals are scheduled for Friday evening with the championship final running Sunday at 2 p.m.
Gardner is hoping his dream first season at UBC will end with a national title.
“Honestly I think we have a good chance,” he said. “We have a really tough route to get there, the teams we play. But I think we can do it. We have a solid squad here. … We’ve meshed pretty well together and everyone knows their roles – no one is trying to do more than what they can. It’s a good group of guys.”