MARIETTA — Austin Gardner has spent his entire life in Northwest Ohio.
Gardner played high school basketball at Toledo St. John’s Jesuit, then played college ball and got his master’s degree at the University of Findlay before becoming an assistant coach for NCAA Division I program Bowling Green. Gardner spent his last two years with the Falcons as the director of player personnel before spending a year as Findlay High School’s junior varsity coach.
Now, the 28-year-old is making the move across the state to Southeast Ohio. On June 2, Gardner was named the head coach of the Marietta High boys basketball program.
“He’s coached and played in incredibly successful programs at a high level for several years and brings that maturity to our court,” said Cody Venderlic, the MHS athletic director. “He’s seen what it takes to become successful, and it’s that energy that’s infectious.”
Gardner first learned about the open MHS position from West Liberty men’s basketball coach Ben Howlett. Howlett, the Tigers’ all-time scoring leader in boys hoops, recruited Gardner out of high school. Although Gardner opted to go to Findlay, he and Howlett stayed in touch.
“He said, ‘I didn’t get you out of high school, but I got you this time,’” Gardner laughed.
Howlett was a part of Marietta’s interview team along with Venderlic, Marietta College men’s basketball coach Jon VanderWal, MHS principal Chad Rinard, MHS track coach Mollie Schramm, MHS football coach Jason Schob and former MHS basketball coaches Ron Warner and JD Secrest.
“I went down and interviewed,” Gardner recalled. “This was a big decision for my family and myself. Family is the most important thing. In two-and-a-half weeks I’ve made a bunch of new family members down here. They’ve made it feel like home.”
Howlett believes Gardner will make his presence felt not just on the basketball court in the Marietta community as well.
“Community is one of the areas where he’ll flourish,” Howlett said. “He’s played at the collegiate level, he’s coached at the Division I level and he can bring those community-building habits to our hometown and build that high school level into a winning program.”
Gardner coached the Tigers to an overtime win over Williamstown Thursday at the Yellowjackets’ Summer League and was impressed with what the kids showed him.
“We have a chance to be really good once we put all the pieces together,” he said. “I’ve told people I would not have taken this job if I didn’t see growth and opportunity. The guys have done a really good job so far this summer.”
Gardner said 37 kids showed up to the first practice. He’s hoping to start working with kids at the younger levels.
“The youth are the future of the program,” he said. “We’re having a kids camp July 11th through the 13th at the high school for grades third through eighth. It’ll go from 8:30 to 11:30 in the morning. It’s a great way for kids to meet some of these high school players. They look up to them. We have a lot of really good kids and I want them to be role models. I don’t think they realize the impact they can have on a young kid’s life. People try to walk like you, play like you, shoot like you. It’ll be exciting to have a camp. It’s something the players wanted to do. I had great youth programs growing up, so I understand the value of it.”
Key returnees for the Tigers next season are expected to be AJ Graham, Isaac Koast, Jaydon Evans, Elyjah Lieras-Kelley, Alex Kendall and Aidan Harris.
“People talk about playing fast,” Gardner said. “We want to be kind of an uptempo style. There’s a lot of skilled players, and when that’s the case you want more possessions to show that skill. We’ve been running some motion offense this summer, trying to get those guys in the right positions. It’s kind of an evaluation period right now. We’ll play a lot of man-to-man defense, get up and pressure the ball and try to force teams into doing things they don’t want to do on offense. The kids have been very open to all of it and the change and the culture shock. Give them a lot of credit.”
Gardner is also big on the mental aspect of the game.
“Body language is a big thing we preach,” he said. “How do you react when things aren’t going your way?”
Gardner was on the Bowling Green staff when the Falcons posted back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time since 1949. As the JV coach at Findlay High, he led the Trojans to a 21-1 record. Success has followed him at every stop, and he’s hoping to be at Marietta for the long haul and have an impact on student-athletes even after their playing days are over.
“The ball will stop bouncing someday,” Gardner said. “This isn’t just a couple-year commitment to them — it’s a long-term thing. I want players to be able to talk to me. There’s a lot of life lessons you can learn through sports.”