Gardiner Blossoms at Oklahoma
|Couple Hundred Here, Couple Hundred There
On Sept. 3, Gardiner surpassed 1,000 kills in a four-year career, spanning two universities. The former Mississippi State Bulldog reached the mark against her former team.
|The Gardiner File|
|High School:||Colleyville Heritage|
|Previous School:||Mississippi State|
Gardiner celebrates a point at McCasland Field House in 2015.
Watching the University of Oklahoma volleyball team, it is difficult to imagine Kimmy Gardiner having played for any other team than the Crimson & Cream. As her third and final season as a Sooner has passed the midway point on the schedule, it’s as equally difficult to imagine what this team would be without her, but simple to appreciate the path she took to land in Norman.
As an outside hitter at Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference, Gardiner was an AVCA All-Region First Team and All-America Honorable Mention. She racked up 399 kills and 247 digs as a Bulldog in 2013, but left Starkville looking for a different challenge.
“There were a lot of small reasons,” began Gardiner. “It was a tough decision. A lot of my teammates were going different directions and I kind of wanted to look at my options, get closer to home and check out the Big 12. I knew a lot of girls in this conference, which made it fun.”
Among those she knew in the conference was Oklahoma middle blocker Micaela Spann. Gardiner, from Grapevine, Texas, and Spann, from Carrollton, had played club volleyball together for the Dallas Skyline Juniors; reaching a sixth place finish at the Junior Nationals in 2013.
“We were really close,” recalled Gardiner. “We were the two. She was like my food partner. We ate everything together. She, right off the bat, brought me in. I came in to her team. I was the newbie and she brought me in right away and we just hit it off and later kept in touch.”
“It was really fun,” added Spann. “It kind of makes me laugh now. The very first camp that she came to at our club, before she was on our team, the first thing that I said to her was, ‘I like you’.”
Following the fall 2013 semester, Gardiner received a full release from Mississippi State and would be eligible to play right away upon transferring out of the SEC. Her opportunity for a new challenge came when she reentered the volleyball recruiting world and was connected with OU.
“I didn’t really have a chance to see Oklahoma before I came,” she said. “I didn’t meet the coaches in person and just showed up on the first day and was like, ‘hi!’. We communicated on the phone, through e-mail and my club coach. Once I realized I wanted to transfer, it was like recruiting all over again.”
Gardiner plays the back row against No. 4 Texas on national television earlier this season.
Trying to get acclimated to a new team, Gardiner had the good fortune of having someone to go through the growing pains with and not be the only new kid on the block. Middle blocker Marion Hazelwood had completed her high school degree, was an early enrollee at Oklahoma and designated to be Gardiner’s roommate for the spring 2014 semester.
“We came in together so we pretty much only hung out together when we first got here because the rest of the team knew each other; was comfortable with each other,” stated Hazelwood. “The team has a group text and we don’t just send updates about practice and weights. We talk about other stuff in there, but me and Kimmy were always afraid to say anything when we first got here. We didn’t know the team yet and didn’t want to make a bad impression so we stayed quiet.
“I think if I hadn’t had someone to do that with I would have been lonely. We were roommates and hadn’t lived in Norman yet so we were exploring and doing all of the ‘firsts’ together that everyone else had already done. We were best friends from the get-go, which made it worth it. I don’t think we would have gotten that close if I hadn’t come in early and she didn’t transfer when she did.”
Immediately, Gardiner had the opportunity to compete for a spot in the Oklahoma starting lineup as the Sooners needed to replace graduating outside hitter Keila Rodriguez. Spring practices and a handful of exhibition matches finally gave head coach Santiago Restrepo and his staff a chance to see Gardiner’s game in person.
In her first opportunity in front of the home crowd at McCasland Field House, Gardiner tied for the team lead with 17 kills on a .324 hitting percentage as the Sooners defeated in-state rival Tulsa in five during a spring-season match.
“I don’t think she missed a beat,” said Restrepo of Gardiner’s transition to OU. “She already had some friends here on the team. It was a pretty easy adjustment. She was definitely a great pickup. She’s a player that is extremely consistent in all assets.”
Her consistency shown through immediately in her first fall season on the floor with the Sooners and has carried over into her senior year. She posted nearly identical seasons in 2014 and 2015 by averaging 2.48 kills per set on a .238 hitting percentage in each, but lifted her average defensively from 1.56 digs per set to 2.48 and was fourth in the Big 12 with 10 double-doubles.
“One hundred percent she is consistent,” confirmed Spann. “You can always depend on her; whether it’s backcourt defense or frontcourt or anything of the sort. She’s always in the game. She’s always focused. I never have to question if she misses a pass or a dig that she’s going to be there on the next play. She’s zoned in.”
Gardiner and the Sooners celebrate a point against UTEP at the OU Invitational.
Now in her final season, Gardiner has stepped up in a big way for Oklahoma. Named one of the team’s four captains along with Spann, Hazelwood and fifth-year senior Madison Ward, she came out of the gates strong to earn Most Outstanding Player awards at both the Oklahoma Invitational and UALR Tournament in the first two weekends of the season.
She was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week back in week one and had run together a streak of 75 matches started at OU, each one in her career, until a recent broken right pinky. Though the timetable for her return from the injury is still questionable, it is undeniable how strong of a season Gardiner has put together. Averaging 2.88 kills and a team-high 3.41 digs per set, she has proven to be one of the best all-around players in the Big 12 this season.
“It’s cool to see what we’re capable of,” Gardiner said of her senior season. “I think we’ve learned so much in these past few years. Every year there has been a different difficulty. My first year was getting used to the team as a sophomore. The next year it was finding your spot and this year it’s leading the team.”
Although she has temporarily had to take a step back from her roles on the court, Gardiner still fulfills two major roles at the gym every day; as teammate and comedian.
“She has been a great teammate,” Restrepo said of the former. “That’s first and foremost. She is super competitive, but is also super nice and works extremely hard with a good head on her shoulders.”
“Funny. That’s probably the loudest quality of her personality,” Hazelwood said of the latter. “It comes across really quickly when getting to know her. She’s goofy so we meshed. She likes the puns and is really punny. Yesterday she sent me one. It was, ‘are you today’s date? Because you’re a 10 out of 10’. She sends that kind of stuff all the time. She always keeps me laughing so that was my first impression of her. She was not really shy. Just wanted to be herself; goofy and weird like I am.”
Competitive on the court and funny off of it, Gardiner has enjoyed both sides of it as a Sooner and proven to be a welcomed and valued addition to the Oklahoma volleyball family.
Earlier this season, she achieved a career milestone that went initially unnoticed. In the midst of leading Oklahoma to a 4-0 weekend and being named the Most Outstanding Player in Little Rock, Gardiner had tallied her 1,000th career kill. That kill came on the 601st of her OU career and her third of the afternoon against none other than the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
“When I found that out…unreal,” Gardiner recalled of reaching the milestone. “One of our media guys, he told me and was like, ‘weirdest thing, you got your 1,000th kill vs. Mississippi State’. It’s just so cool how things come around. First kill with Mississippi State and 1,000th kill against Mississippi State. I loved it.”
Things do continue to come around for Gardiner. Her friendships, faith and competitive drive have all played a part in bringing her to Oklahoma, allowing her to blossom as a friend, person and competitor, and ultimately bringing her full circle.