HER OWN PATH

HER OWN PATH

Maryland volleyball's Jada Gardner is making a name for herself among a superstar family

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Published on November 19, 2017

When Jada Gardner was two years old, her uncle, Shane Battier, helped the Duke basketball team beat Maryland, 98-96, at Cole Field House by blocking Juan Dixon’s last-second layup attempt.

Battier’s rejection capped a 20-point performance that pushed the Blue Devils to victory after they trailed by 10 in the final minute of regulation. As Battier left the floor, Terps fans showered him and his teammates with boos, unhappy with the latest turn of a storied rivalry.

ABOVE: Maryland volleyball middle blocker Jada Gardner has started in place of Katie Myers this season.

About 14 years after Battier contributed to that victory, Gardner committed to the Maryland volleyball team as the No. 68-ranked recruit of the class of 2017. She chose the Terps over Duke and Minnesota, where her mother Stephanie Gardner competed in track and field.

This year, Gardner has helped the Terps to their best start to a season since 2005 as a reliable middle blocker, joining the lineup after Katie Myers tore her meniscus. She’s third on the team in blocks per set.

In her first-ever start against Oklahoma on Sept. 15, Gardner’s five kills and four blocks helped Maryland to a sweep. Against Wisconsin on Nov. 4, she posted a career-high seven blocks.

In the process, she’s established her own identity in a family of standout athletes.

“She’s not one to go around saying, ‘Oh, I’m Shane’s niece,’” Gardner’s mother, Stephanie, said. “She wants to forge her own path as far as that goes, she doesn’t want to ride on his coattails. She wants to have her success be what she does, not because she’s somebody’s niece.”

‘It felt different’

ABOVE: Jada Gardner (right) poses with her uncle, Shane Battier (center) and her cousin, Zeke, at the 2014 NBA finals. (Courtesy of Stephanie Gardner)

Coach Steve Aird pulled Gardner aside for one-on-one instruction during a summer 2014 volleyball camp session at the Xfinity Center Pavilion. His individual attention helped forge a connection with the 6-foot-1 middle blocker.

Though Gardner is a guarded person, she was comfortable with Aird the first time they met. Gardner and Aird bantered right away – when Gardner was sarcastic, Aird was sarcastic back. By the end of the July visit, Aird offered Gardner a place on the roster.

Gardner’s parents were on board. Even Battier, after discussion, understood the choice.

But Gardner needed time.

“Everyone was telling me to come here,” Gardner said. “I wanted to be the one to make the decision.”

Maryland was one of nine options for Gardner, including Battier’s Duke and her mother’s Minnesota. At first, she was swayed by the winning histories of other programs. Her parents told her she should help build that kind of success in College Park.

“We all know this is the place she needs to be,” Stephanie Gardner told Aird after the coach visited Texas to see her play. “Just try to be patient with us. I’ll get her there.”

Jada Gardner returned to Maryland in November 2014 to watch Maryland fall in straight sets to Penn State. She then took visits to Duke and North Carolina, where her mind kept going back to Maryland’s campus and the surrounding area.

Ultimately, it was Aird’s vision for the Terps and Gardner’s relationship with the coach that led her to commit in December 2014. Gardner was one of six signings in the Terps’ first-ever PrepVolleyball top-10 recruiting class.

“He kind of has the same personality, I would say, as me,” Gardner said. “With other coaches, I’d try to say stuff I would say to [Aird] and it wasn’t the same. With him, it just felt different.”

Making her mark

ABOVE: Jada Gardner digs a kill attempt for Byron P. Steele II High School, where she earned three First Team All-District selections. (Courtesy of Stephanie Gardner)

Gardner didn’t always appear destined for a college volleyball career. When she first tried the sport in elementary school, attending a YMCA open gym session in Las Vegas, she didn’t understand its appeal.

A volleyball instructor told Gardner to stand in a specific area on the court. She remained rooted to that spot, even when the ball arced into the air and landed right next to her.

Once Gardner realized she could reach out her arms, she began making contact, but the ball often ricocheted to unintended areas of the gym. Her mother knew there wouldn’t be a second session.

“Well, that’s that,” Gardner’s mother said. “I didn’t hear anything else about it.”

So Gardner went back to what she was used to, competing exclusively in track and field and basketball for the next couple of years. After her family moved to Texas, she attempted volleyball again in seventh grade. She tried out for her school team without any previous competitive experience, and was cut in the final round of the tryouts.

“We all know this is the place she needs to be.”

—Gardner's mother to Steve Aird

Gardner visited another YMCA to learn the fundamentals of the sport. While Gardner didn’t make an immediate impression on her mother, she showed promise to the instructor teaching the six-week program. Her leaping ability, stemming from experience as a high jumper in track, transitioned well to the court. She had athleticism from playing basketball, too.

“You know,” the instructor said to Stephanie Gardner, “she’s going to be pretty good at this.”

“I’m looking at him like, ‘Seriously? I think you’re smoking crack or something,’” Gardner’s mother recalled.

Soon, she saw the same potential in her daughter.

Jada Gardner made her eighth grade roster the following year and quit basketball — much to the chagrin of her dad and uncle. She still did track and field throughout high school, but she wasn’t interested in pursuing a college career there.

When Gardner was 15, her mother watched as she scored five straight points – including two blocks and three kills – in an AAU tournament match to spark a come-from-behind victory.

“She took over, and that’s when I realized … she’s going to be good,” Stephanie Gardner said. “She’s able to take what the coaches say and translate it to the volleyball court.”

Duke dilemma

ABOVE: Despite limited experience in volleyball prior to high school, Jada Gardner’s athleticism helped her adapt to a middle blocker role. (Courtesy of Stephanie Gardner)

Edgar Gardner — Jada Gardner’s father — didn’t know what to do when he attended a Duke-North Carolina basketball game with his brother-in-law, Shane Battier, on the court.

When the Blue Devils scored, people around him jumped to their feet. A similar reaction followed Tar Heel buckets. Edgar Gardner, who grew up in North Carolina, didn’t want to cheer for Duke, but didn’t want to cheer against Battier, either.

“I just sat there because it was just hard to root for Duke,” Gardner said.

Battier, who won an NCAA championship in his senior year, feels some of the same inner torment with his niece on the court for Maryland, a fierce rival of his alma mater. Jada Gardner said Battier doesn’t plan to visit College Park, but might come to an away game.

Gardner’s mother said Battier knows he isn’t “the most liked person with Maryland fans.”

The Blue Devils held a 9-2 record against the Terps when Battier was at the school from 1997-2001.

Battier led Duke to an 84-82 victory against Maryland in the 2001 ACC tournament, notching 20 points. His team-high 25-point performance in the 2001 Final Four against Maryland erased an 11-point Duke halftime deficit and eliminated the Terps.

Still, Dixon put up 28 points against Battier’s squad earlier that season to lead the Terps to a 91-80 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium, marring Battier’s senior night.

ABOVE: Gardner wore the No. 31 for her club team, Alamo Volleyball Association, since it was her uncle Shane Battier’s number. (Courtesy of Stephanie Gardner)

“He don’t like Maryland for some reason,” Edgar Gardner said. “He just don’t like Maryland.”

“I learned some new four-letter words when I played at Cole Field House,” Battier said to The Washington Post in 2014. “And so if nothing else, it was an educational experience.”

Even so, Battier cheers for Jada Gardner and her teammates, rooting for them when he watches on the Big Ten Network. Gardner chose Battier’s No. 31 through much of her high school and club career. At Maryland, she chose number four since it’s her birthday and the sum of Battier’s individual digits.

Despite that homage to his playing days, he won’t admit to outright support for the Terps.

Edgar Gardner suspects Battier will come around eventually to attend a match in Xfinity Center, an arena he never played in as a Blue Devil.

Although Maryland wouldn’t have been his top choice, Stephanie Gardner said, Battier understood the reasons behind the decision and said the coach and future of the program are what you should base the choice on.

“When we were recruiting her, there was some pushback in jest from the family about Shane and his ties,” Aird said. “Last time I checked I don’t coach hoops and last time I checked we weren’t interested in his services. His niece was a whole different story.”

A special connection

ABOVE: Gardner spikes the ball during Maryland volleyball’s matchup against Rutgers on Oct. 6, 2017 at the Xfinity Center. (Matt Regan/The Diamondback)

When Jada Gardner first arrived in College Park, she was behind middle blockers Hailey Murray and Katie Myers on the depth chart. For the first time since she picked up the sport full-time in eighth grade, she wasn’t a go-to option.

Gardner played in three of the first nine matches for the Terps. Her mother said that stretch made her question whether she was good enough to compete with her new teammates.

So, Gardner called Battier for advice, knowing he’d experienced a similar drop in playing time with the Miami Heat from 2011 to 2014.

After averaging more than 30 minutes per game in his career, Battier averaged less than 25 minutes in each of his three seasons in South Beach.

Battier has helped Gardner adjust to the Division I level and grow into a starting role following Myers’ season-ending knee injury. He pushed her to improve her work ethic while she fought for increased playing time. He told her to seek out advice from the coaching staff so she could make necessary adjustments to her playing style.

One time, the pair talked for 45 minutes. At the end of the phone call, Battier said, “I just gave you stuff that I get paid for, and I gave it to you for free.”

Their connection has existed for Gardner’s whole life. When she was about a year old, Gardner watched Battier play at Duke. When she was three, she watched Battier get selected sixth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Gardner has forged a different path from Battier, but she’s displayed the same quiet competitiveness that made him so effective during his time at Duke and his 13-year NBA career.

After Battier’s game-winning block of Dixon at Cole Field House in 2001, Battier maintained a steady demeanor, shaking then-Terps coach Gary Williams’ hand on the sideline as his fellow Blue Devils jumped up and down on the court.

A similar scene followed Gardner’s three game-winning points this season. On each occasion, she barely reacted, instead walking toward the postgame handshake line as her teammates celebrated around her.

“She’s a really competitive kid and she’s really shy at first, but I don’t need her to be anything that she’s not,” Aird said. “I know how much the game matters to her.”

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