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Extra Effort Is Just the Norm for Gardner : Water polo: San Clemente goalkeeper continues to extend his game to the next level.


SAN CLEMENTE — And we thought Gabriel Gardner was already doing plenty for San Clemente High.

Already an All-Southern Section goalkeeper for the water polo team and an All-Southern Section outside hitter for the volleyball team, Gardner is planning on adding another sport.

The Triton basketball team needs a center? Gardner will give it a shot.

So, there he is working on his moves to the hoop and trying to regain his shooting touch between sessions in the pool.

Then there's that looming decision. In the next month, Gardner will decide whether he will attend UCLA, USC, Pepperdine or Stanford on a volleyball scholarship. Last week he visited USC and Stanford, this week it's UCLA.

Hey, wait a minute, isn't this still water polo season?

It is and San Clemente Coach Steve Yancey says Gardner has never played better, despite the extra demands on his time. San Clemente (12-1) is ranked No. 1 in Orange County and the Southern Section Division I, and Gardner is a big part of the reason.

"We are very, very fortunate to have a kid like this come through our program," Yancey said. "He makes the difference in a lot of games. Gabe tends to be the neutralizer."

The same 6-foot-9 wiry, athletic frame that draws the volleyball recruiters, serves Gardner in the pool. A three-year starter, he is easily the most physically imposing goalkeeper in the section, and Yancey says he reads offenses well, which helps him anticipate where the shots will come from.

Gardner has given up only 56 goals this season, an average of four per game. The average drops to about three if you discount the 21 goals scored in two games by powerful Corona del Mar.

"Our defense is a ton better when Gabe is playing well," Yancey said. "When we make a mistake and I'm ranting and raving on the bench because of it, they usually turn out to be nothing because Gabe is taking away the opportunity. Our kids can cheat to the offensive end because he is so good."

Before the season, Yancey was concerned that the recruiting process might hamper Gardner's senior water polo season. The competition is heating up. All the schools except Stanford are offering a full scholarship; Stanford's offer is a full scholarship the first year and 70% the next three. UCLA and Pepperdine coaches have said he could try to play water polo and volleyball if he chose to.

Gardner is planning to sign a letter of intent during the early signing period in November, meaning he has had to miss some practices to take recruiting visits. That wasn't a problem--Yancey is flexible--but would Gardner's mind be elsewhere even when he was in the pool?

Early in the season, he answered the question to Yancey's satisfaction.

"Before the season, I said I would be happy if Gabe just played to the level he was at last year," Yancey said. "Then playing Riverside Poly in the second round of the South Coast tournament he immediately jumped ahead.

"Now I just hope all the pressure that's going to be on the kid--which I have the utmost empathy for; he's going to make the most important decision of his life in the next month--can come without a lot of tugging and pulling on him."

Gardner, who seems to be taking the situation in stride, said he never had any doubt that water polo would remain a priority.

"I think it worked out better because we anticipated it," Gardner said. "Yancey was worried for a time that I wasn't going to be interested in water polo, but I'm not going to sit back and say, 'I did pretty good last year; I'll just sit back and do average again this year.'

"I don't think I'll ever do that."

It's just not the way he was brought up. His father, Frank, who is a computer science and world history teacher at San Clemente, made sure of that.

Frank Gardner was a three-time All-American swimmer at UC Irvine, helping the Anteaters to a NCAA Division II team title in 1971. His swimming coach, Ted Newland, still the water polo coach at Irvine, is legendary for grueling training techniques, and some of that philosophy apparently rubbed off.

Gabriel Gardner says his first memories of swimming aren't pleasant. He and his older brother Phinney were about 7 and 8.

"We were crying and saying, 'Dad, please take us out. We don't want to do this anymore,' " Gardner said. "But he kept pushing us and told us that we wouldn't get any better if we kept getting in and out."

Eventually, the brothers became two of the best age-group swimmers around. They also excelled at youth football, basketball and baseball.

"I think swimming was a building block for us," Gabriel Gardner said. "To this day (dad) reminds us of how hard we worked and how much pain we went through and how it paid off for us."

For Phinney, who was a water polo and basketball standout at San Clemente, it helped earned him a 70% water polo scholarship to California, where he is a redshirt this season. Two younger brothers, Zachary and Nicholas, in eighth and seventh grades, are waiting in the wings.

Gabriel is hoping his extra effort will help the Triton water polo team win the section title. The last time San Clemente won, he was a freshman and got into the game with nine seconds left.

This time, you can be sure he'll be doing more.

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