Climbing High: Patrick Gardner’s Rise from JUCO to Division I

In the spring of 2019, Patrick Gardner took part in a workout at Iona College hoping to impress head coach Tim Cluess and attract interest at the Division I level for the first time. 

“Coach Cluess said that I wasn’t ready to play Division I,” Gardner said. 

It wasn’t the first time Gardner had heard these words, but he was determined to make it the last. 

“It was a real slap in the face because I had these expectations and I wasn’t even close,” he said. “It made me think ‘Okay, I’ve got to work much harder.’”

Now at the end of 2022, in his final year of collegiate eligibility, Gardner’s hard work has officially paid off. He has completed the ascension from the junior college level (JUCO) to Division I, where he leads the Marist Red Foxes in scoring and rebounding. 

Gardner’s path has been littered with obstacles, beginning in ninth grade when he came off the bench in junior varsity. Two years later, he was the best player on the varsity team as a junior. By the time of his graduation from Calhoun High School, Gardner collected a laundry list of accolades including Conference Player of the Year and an All-State honorable mention. Despite his standout play in high school, Gardner did not receive the interest he should have from the next level. 

“I had a vision for myself, but not a lot of other people did,” Gardner said. “It was definitely tough when you work really hard, but then people say you can’t play at a certain level.”

Gardner’s competitive spirit did not allow him to give up, however. He continued his career with the Nassau Community College Lions, an NJCAA Division III school on Long Island, New York. 

Gardner made an immediate impact as a freshman as he averaged 13 points per game and started in 31 of 33 games played. He knocked down 39.1 percent of his three-point attempts, of which he had 2.6 per game while also ranking 21st in NJCAA Division III in blocks. Gardner’s efforts were a key component of a wildly successful season for Nassau; the Lions won their district and advanced to the national championship, where they fell to an undefeated Brookdale. 

Once again, his standout play went overlooked. 

Gardner returned to Nassau for his sophomore season seeking to avenge the previous season’s championship defeat. He quickly solidified himself as a premier two-way threat for the Lions, compiling 41 points and nine blocks across the first two games of the season. 

Then, in the third game of the season, Gardner twisted his body coming down from a rebound, but his feet remained planted. He heard something in his knee, but adrenaline prevailed and Gardner finished the game. The next morning, Gardner felt every minute he played the day prior shooting through his knee at once. He had suffered a partial tear of the meniscus, and season-ending surgery was recommended. 

“I tried doing physical therapy, but there was no way it was going to heal,” Gardner said. “It wasn’t a full tear, but it was just enough where you need surgery to clean everything up.”

Gardner’s rehabilitation involved more than regaining strength in his knee. He discovered a lot about himself and the game throughout his return from injury.

“It took a lot of mental toughness to get through the year,” Gardner said. “But it made me realize how much I love the game, and it made me learn a lot. You see a lot from the sidelines.”

The Lions played well in Gardner’s absence – they finished 24-9 in 2018-19, eventually falling to rival Suffolk in the district championship. But sustained success was far from a guarantee, as they would be returning just a single player for Gardner’s impending comeback season. Even Gardner himself was doing workouts and exploring options outside of Nassau, though he did remain for his final year. 

“I was kind of disappointed at first that I had to go back to Nassau,” Gardner said. “I wanted to move on and have that NCAA experience, but I still really liked my coach there and was excited to get back to work for one more year.”

As he’d done before, Gardner responded to the adversity by evolving into the best version of himself. He averaged 18.3 points per game across 32 appearances, the most on a team that finished 25-8 and once again played in the district championship against Hostos. No amount of mental strengthening would have prepared Gardner for the heartbreak he and the Lions would experience in this game. 

An 18-point Hostos lead with 5:30 remaining until halftime was trimmed to just four when the buzzer sounded. During a back-and-forth second half, a free throw by Gardner with six minutes to play gave Nassau a lead, their first since 16 minutes were remaining in the first half. Hostos retook the lead, but Nassau remained well within striking distance. With 12 seconds remaining, a Hostos missed free throw gave possession to the Lions. With one last chance to tie or take the lead, Gardner had the ball in his hands for an isolation play. When a double team came, he passed to teammate Javen Soto, who was fouled on a shot attempt in the final seconds. His first attempt was good. His second was not. 81-80, Hostos.

Less than two weeks after Nassau’s painstaking defeat in the district championship, the basketball world, and society as a whole, experienced a paradigm shift. On March 1, Nassau suffered their defeat to Hostos. By March 13, the NBA season was suspended, the NCAA tournament was canceled, and the United States had declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gardner’s recruitment from Nassau aligned with the height of the pandemic, which meant fewer scouts would be active, there would be limited showcases and workouts to participate in, and most school visits were off-limits. COVID-19 limited avenues to attract new eyes, but Gardner had already impressed one coach enough before the pandemic. 

Eric Eaton was introduced as the head coach of St. Michael’s College Purple Knights, a Division II school in Vermont, on August 1, 2019. Earlier in that year, he was serving as an assistant coach at Iona under coach Cluess. While Cluess did not believe Gardner was a fit at Iona in 2019, Eaton remembered the name. Eaton and St. Michael’s were one of the options Gardner explored after his injury before he decided to return to Nassau for his third season. 

“One of my first phone calls, knowing that I had scholarships and was trying to build the talent level of my team, was to him,” Eaton said. “And at the time, the decision he wanted to make was to go back.”

When Gardner became available again after his third season, St. Michael’s was not as much of an immediate player as they had been the offseason prior. Gardner nearly landed with another school, but the transfer did not work out. This opened the door for Gardner and Eaton to have conversations again. 

“I reached out to Coach E and he was shocked that I reached out to him,” Gardner said. “And the rest was history from there.”

Gardner transferred to St. Michael’s for the 2020-21 season. The season was delayed to January due to the lasting effects of the pandemic. On December 15, 2020, the Northeast-10 Conference announced its decision to cancel the regular season and postseason for winter sports. Programs were permitted to participate in independent contests that adhered to NCAA regulations, but St. Michael’s elected not to do so. 

Just as Gardner neared the opportunity to prove himself against tougher competition, his season was taken away. By now, he knew this obstacle was merely another lesson to be learned. It was during this time that Gardner harnessed his physical tools and committed to the gym. 

“I think the year actually did help me,” he said.  “It was definitely a productive year, practicing every day and getting stronger.”

The canceled season allowed Gardner to take Eaton up on advice he gave him just days into his time with the Purple Knights. 

“After a couple of days of getting to really see him play and work out as a package, I said to him ‘You can get paid to play basketball,’” Eaton said. “‘If that’s what you want, your body is your vehicle.’”

Gardner’s commitment to physical improvement unlocked another level to his game, which he was finally able to showcase at St. Michael’s for the 2021-22 season. Across 23 games played, Gardner led the team with 20.2 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game, and 2.3 blocks per game. His performance earned him a first-team All-Conference selection, and second-team selections to both the All-Region and All-District teams. 

Then, Division I came calling. Marist head coach John Dunne was formerly an assistant at Adelphi University, a fellow member of the Northeast-10 along with St. Michael’s. Dunne still follows the conference and has connections across different teams. 

“I followed that league and I had seen Pat play through the course of the winter,” Dunne said. “When we saw that he went into the portal, I knew right away he’s somebody that I would be interested in wanting to acquire for our program.”

There is something of a stigma surrounding players from lower levels translating to Division I. Gardner’s recruitment almost surely suffered from this in addition to the other obstacles he faced along the way. Dunne acknowledged this idea does exist, though it was not a factor with Gardner.

“I think sometimes you might have those kinds of questions, but with him, I didn’t feel that way,” Dunne said. “I mean, he’s 6’11”, he can shoot threes, can handle and pass pretty well, and scores inside a little bit.”

“For me, it was just going to be a matter of ‘Can he handle the physicality of Division I?’, and he’s done that up to this point. I’ve been nothing but pleased with him.”

Dunne was right to not be concerned with the translation of Gardner’s play. He is once again leading his team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 17.6 and 7.9 per game respectively. Gardner’s frontcourt running mate and fellow incoming transfer Stephane Ingo has enjoyed sharing the locker room and floor with him this season.

“He’s a really genuine guy and that translates on the court because he’s very team-oriented,” Ingo said. “He can put up the big numbers, but I’m sure if he was to put up two points and get the win, he’d be all for that as well.” 

Gardner’s character carried him through the hardest points of his journey. Now at Division I in his final year of eligibility, he is taking the role of a leader. 

“We’ve been fortunate to have some mature guys enter the program and he’s one of them,” Dunne said. “He’s had great growth. Not only is he scoring, but he’s been a good leader by example.”

Getting here took no shortage of persistence and self-belief from Gardner. But the hardships he encountered along the way allowed him to arrive in Poughkeepsie as the best version of himself. They will also allow him to continue proving people wrong.

“I don’t know why I’ve been overlooked. I ask myself that too, but all it takes is one coach to believe in you,” Gardner said. “It’s probably going to continue for the rest of my life, so it’s good that I understood that early.”

First, it was coach Wynder at Nassau, then coach Eaton at St. Michael’s, and now coach Dunne at Marist. Whoever is next, it is safe to assume they will walk away with similar impressions to others who have coached Gardner.

“Stats don’t define what Pat meant to our program,” Eaton said. “He’s just a great person. He’s always in a great mood and always has something kind to say. Having his personality and what he brought to the table with that is something that I definitely miss.” 

Coach Dunne, who has only been working with Gardner for one semester, echoed this sentiment. 

“Based on the little time that I know him, he’s extremely coachable and has a great work ethic,” he said. 

While Gardner likely has not yet faced his final obstacle, he is well-equipped to overcome whatever or whoever tries to get in his way. Armed with the lessons learned during his journey, there is no reason to believe Gardner’s ascension is over.

Edited by Luke Sassa and Ricardo Martinez

Photo from Marist Athletics

Author: Daniel Capuano

Marist Sports Communication 2023

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