T-Birds’ Tommy Gardner ‘having fun’ in push for national soccer title

He didn’t know it then — likely because he was still 20 years away from being born — but Thomas Gardner was destined to be a UBC Thunderbird.

That was when Mike Mosher and Ken Moysiuk were part of a Thunderbirds team that was terrorizing university soccer. UBC had won three consecutive national titles, culminating in 1986-87, with an 11-0-2 team that scored 33 goals while conceding just three, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Fast-forward to an alumni event a few years ago, when Mosher — now the Thunderbirds’ head coach — and Moysiuk met again.

“I think Thomas was in his Grade 12 year, and I knew of him … he was a top prospect for the Whitecaps,” said Mosher. “We were at some alumni event and Ken said to me, ‘Hey, you probably don’t know this, but my nephew is … Thomas Gardner.’

“He wasn’t really on the radar because he was very much in the Whitecaps’ plans at the time. But Ken said he was a good student, and academics were very important to the family, and insinuated there may come a time (he would want to come to UBC) … and it came two years after that initial conversation.”

And that prophecy has had a prosperous outcome.

Gardner, now 20, was named the Canada West’s men’s soccer Player of the Year and Rookie of Year last Thursday after helping the T-Birds to a 13-1-2 record, becoming the first player in conference history to win both awards in the same season.

The 5-9, 147-pound midfielder scored six times in 12 regular-season games for UBC, with three of those being game winners.

Gardner and the Birds kick off the USports nationals at UBC this Thursday when they take on the Carleton Ravens (6:30 p.m., Thunderbird Stadium). Eight teams from across the country will battle for the Sam Davidson Memorial Trophy.

Gardner had been a rising star in the Whitecaps academy, starting with the organization in 2007 before ultimately playing three seasons with their USL side. But when the Major League Soccer team folded its development side and made USL team Fresno FC its affiliate, the North Vancouver native balked at the move and stayed home.

“Honestly, I’m just enjoying it. It’s super fun up here. I feel like I fit right in, and it’s been fun right from the very start,” Gardner said of his first season with the Thunderbirds, whose roster is dotted with players he’d suited up with before with the Whitecaps, PDL side TSS Rovers, and youth soccer.

“I’m not saying it wasn’t fun (before), but I am enjoying myself more now then I was. The Whitecaps was a great program, and I enjoyed my time there, but I think at that point in my life, I kind of fell out of love of soccer a bit.

“And then I started to really enjoy playing soccer again, and everything about it. The training, the playing, everything. I’m not too sure what happened to make me feel like that, but it’s all gone now and I love it.

“I also thought it was a good time to get an education. I was going to have to get one at some point in my life. So I thought it was a good time to go to UBC.”

The Birds’ season had an inauspicious beginning. A pre-season road trip south of the border in August saw them lost 1-0 to Seattle University, then drop a 4-2 decision to the University of Portland. They returned home and beat the University of Washington 3-2, but then fell 3-1 to Simon Fraser on the eve of their season-opener.

But UBC regrouped, and went undefeated over their next 15 games, only losing their regular-season finale — 1-0 to Thompso-Rivers University — a game they sat nearly half of their starting lineup. In the Canada West playoffs, the Birds outscored their opposition 12-0 to win their second-straight conference title, and 29th overall.

“We know we’re a really good team,” said Gardner. “Even from the start of the season, when we had the three losses … We said ‘we need to start to have winning mentality. We know we’re a good team; this shouldn’t be happening.’ And then it just all came together.”

Having an experienced and explosive roster helps. Caleb Clarke, another former Whitecap, tied for the team lead in points (10) with six goals and four assists. Forward Kristian Yli-Hietanen paced the team with 10 goals, nine of which came in his final six games of the season (he sat the finale).

Not only did the team scored a conference-high 43 goals, UBC conceded just 10 — second-fewest in Canada West behind Alberta (6).

“We have a good mix of youth and veterans,” said Mosher. “We’ve got a little bit of an older squad than we’ve had in the past few years by adding in some older guys coming back into school like Caleb Clarke, Mitch Piraux, in their first year of university soccer.

“I’ve said it many many times that this is the deepest team I’ve had. We have really good players. We’re only allowed to roster 18 on the day, and I think there are players who would start on a lot of teams that can’t even get into our 18. That’s the kind of depth we’ve got.”

Gardner isn’t as old as Clarke (25) or Piraux (23), but certainly feels like a enough of a veteran that being named rookie of the year didn’t sit right with him.

“It shouldn’t happen,” he laughed.

“Tommy’s a top player,” added Mosher. “Certainly from an experience standpoint, the places he’s played, the environments he’s been in, makes him pretty seasoned for USports soccer.

“He’s a special player. He does a lot of things well, on top of being a skilful player, and attacking player. He’s got grit, he defends … which as a coach, you appreciate a lot.”

He also has a lethal right foot, with five of his six goals coming off of free kicks, usually in spectacular fashion.

“He does a lot of things well. And sometimes a lot of them go unnoticed or unappreciated. But the (free kicks) look good on the highlight reels. It’s a nice little added bonus,” said Mosher. “It keeps teams honest (defensively) when you have someone who can strike a ball like he can.”

The first chance he’ll get to show off his boot will come Thursday against the Ravens, who feature another former Whitecap — Dario Conte — who was named the OAU Eastern MVP with three goals and five assists. Gardner has been keeping in touch with his former teammate, but hasn’t exchanged any trash talk heading into Thursday’s game. The Ravens went 14-1-1 in OAU play, their 0.44 GAA the lowest in the Ontario conference.

“I think we have a pretty tough route,” said Gardner. “But I think our team’s solid. I think we could go all the way this year; I don’t think it matters who we play. If we play like I know we can, I think we can win.”

jadams@postmedia.com

UBC STARS OF THE WEEK — SOCCER EDITION

Victory Shumbusho

Forward

After missing part of the season because of injury, the 2017 Canada West Rookie of the Year showed he is back better than ever with a three-goal weekend, helping power the Thunderbirds to a record 19th Canada West title and being named Canada West player of the week in the process.

The second-year forward scored twice in Friday’s 7-0 rout of the Fraser Valley Cascades to punch UBC’s ticket into Sunday’s gold-medal match. Shumbusho needed all of three minutes to score what would stand up as the game winner against the Spartans on Sunday.

Zach Verhoven

Forward

The third-year forward from Surrey nearly single-handedly punched UBC’s ticket to the Canada West gold-medal match scoring twice within a nine-minute span in the first half of Friday’s semifinal against the Cascades.

Verhoven also assisted on Shumbusho’s first goal Friday. Verhoven put up seven points in 13 regular-season games and finished atop the Canada West playoff scoring race with five points.

Connor Guilherme

Defender

A stalwart defender but also a header specialist, the third-year back scored UBC’s second goal in Sunday’s 2-0 Canada West final win over the Trinity Western Spartans, heading the ball past a clogged up goalmouth in the 30th minute.

Guilherme scored twice in the regular season but typically saves his best for the post-season. The Unionville, Ont., native scored twice in three Canada West playoff games in 2017.

CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email vantips@postmedia.com

***

Note from WSOE.Org : This content has been auto-generated from a syndicated feed.