The crack of the bat and the pop of the ball pounding the catcher’s mitt are sounds that have become all too familiar to Steve Gardner, UVSC’s baseball coach of the past 18 years.
After a coaching run with the Wolverines that lasted nearly two decades, Gardner decided to pursue other endeavors and announced his retirement before the 2008 season.
From his days as a player at Spanish Fork High School, where he was named All-State, to his batting title in the Houston Astros Minor League system, Gardner knew he wanted to be a coach. Having primarily taught himself how to swing a bat and pick up a groundball, he felt he had something to offer his players.
After four years in the Minor Leagues, the family-oriented Gardner decided it wasn’t the life for him and cashed in his glove for the lineup card to become head coach at a junior high school. Steadily moving up the coaching ladder, he made stops at Bonneville High School and Snow College before finding his home in 1991 as the coach at what was then Utah Valley Community College.
The veteran baseball coach has had his share of success at Utah Valley. Taking over the team while it was competing at the junior college level, Gardner saw them advance to the Division I program and coached them to an impressive May 2005 win over 16th-ranked Arizona State out of the Pac Ten.
"It was a one game shot, and we played really well," Gardner said. "You almost have to be perfect when you play those games, and that’s what we were."
Gardner also led the Wolverines to their first win over BYU, and his team recently knocked off the ninth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys and the defending national champion Oregon State Beavers. All wins Gardner hadn’t even imagined when he took the reins in the early 90s.
After successfully leading his team at the junior college level for a number of years, amassing three SWAC Southern Division titles and two Region 18 championships, UVSC made the jump to Division I in 2004. In the school’s inaugural season, Gardner led his team to an impressive 19-17 record with a win over Oregon State, as well as splitting a six-game series with the University of Utah.
Gardner’s most prolific season came in 1998 when his squad sprinted to a 42-15 record at the junior college level. The landmark season saw the Wolverines collect the most wins in team history. They also dominated conference play with a 26-4 record.
Being a small school still trying to establish a baseball reputation, the Wolverine don’t always land the big recruit, but Gardner prefers to get the guys with a good work ethic who believe in the program.
"We call it the Wolverine way," Gardner says. "Believe in the Wolverine way and what we’re trying to do."
As Gardner’s final season has come to an end, he jokingly admits that with his team’s recent wins over Oklahoma State and BYU, maybe he’s doing something right and should stick around. While Gardner prepares for the life retirement has to offer, as he looks back on his successful career, he gives credit to his players and assistant coaches.
"To be successful, not only do you have to have good players, but good assistant coaches," Gardner said. "And that’s what I’ve had."
Taking over the program for Gardner will be his assistant of the last five years: Eric Madsen. Madsen was named as Gardner’s successor last December and will take over on July 1, the same day UVSC officially becomes UVU.
"I think coach Madsen is going to do a great job," Gardner said. "Eric’s a great guy and he has a lot of insight as to what to do."
When the season begins again next spring and the players and coaches feel the absence of Gardner in the dugout, coach Madsen concedes that, while the former skipper’s baseball knowledge and drive to win will be missed, it will be his personality they miss most.
"Coach is such a personable guy. He gets along with everybody," Madsen said. "When you think of Utah Valley baseball for the last 18 years, his name represents the program. All of our guys are too young to remember Utah Valley any other way."