Aiden Gardiner

Aiden Gardiner had 8 goals through 14 games for Steinert High School boys’ soccer, tops on the team. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

People in the Mercer County soccer community — particularly the Steinert bubble — want to know. What happened? Where did his parents go wrong?

Those who are invested in Steinert soccer’s rich tradition know all about Shawn Gardiner, and how he was a two-time All-America sweeper who was named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. He was also a key member of the Spartans last championship team in 1988, and is a member of the Steinert and Mercer County Soccer halls of fame.

When talking Gardiner, you’re talking defense.

Until now.

As the Spartans carried an 8-4-2 record into their Oct. 21 Mercer County Tournament opener against Allentown, sitting atop their list of scorers was senior Aiden Gardiner with a team-high eight goals.

How could this be? Has the defensive gene of one of Steinert’s all-time greatest defenders skipped a generation?

“I knew of Shawn,” Spartan coach Anthony Tessein said. “When Aiden was coming up that was kind of the joke. What happened to the Gardiner defender?”

To get the answer, it’s best to go to the source.

“I’ve always been a forward,” Aiden said. “I always said I have no problem scoring goals. My dad was a defender, I tried it and I was like, ‘No this isn’t for me. It’s a lot more fun scoring goals.’ And he’s happy with how it’s going.”

Indeed he is.

“From the time he was little he had a knack for scoring, plus he didn’t like playing defense, so he primarily played up top,” said Shawn who, ironically, played striker as a freshman. “It’s worked out pretty well for him and it’s fun to see him scoring some goals.”

And besides, as a young offensive player, who better to go against in backyard training than a human wall. That was Aiden’s routine when he was starting out.

“It definitely helped me,” he said. “No one knows it better than him, at least of the people I know. For him to show me the idea of what defenders don’t like to face and ways to beat them just helps me out.”

“We don’t do it anymore,” he added with a mischievous smile. “It wouldn’t go well nowadays.”

Gardiner has been honing his craft ever since he was in a crib. He knows that by seeing photos of himself holding a soccer ball as a baby.

“That’s how it started,” he said. “I had no choice, it was always gonna be soccer. I’m glad though.”

Aiden began playing soccer for GAK at a young age and has been there for 10 years with Shawn as his coach. He enjoys the atmosphere and points out that the majority of his travel team is also the Steinert varsity, which helps immensely with the chemistry.

One of his long-time running mates has been senior Liam MacDonald, who had six goals and three assists entering the MCT.

“I think off the field those two are very tight,” Tessein said. “Liam has been on the team for three years, he’s been a good leader to everybody. He knows what’s supposed to happen. I’m assuming Liam has been an influence in Aiden’s life to keep him positive and ongoing with this experience.”

And while MacDonald is a veteran on varsity, Gardiner had to wait his turn. He had the misfortune of coming up behind forwards such as Dylan Kotch and Dante Falvo, who combined for 51 goals during Aiden’s sophomore and junior seasons.

Gardiner was called up to practice with varsity as a freshman and sophomore, and last year saw time in several games.

“He’s always been in the mix, it isn’t his fault he didn’t play,” Tessein said. “We had a kid (Kotch) who scored 20 goals two straight years and right behind him was Dante. We haven’t had scorers like that in a while. So he was just really unlucky to come in one class behind them.

“But I’ve known since the beginning he could score and was composed on the ball. And I’m just really happy that now that he’s been given the chance, he’s producing.”

Gardiner not only scores, but shows a penchant for scoring at the right time. He had both goals -- including the game-winner in overtime -- in a 2-1 win over Robbinsville; and had the first goal in what would end up a 3-0 win over Hamilton.

“I always knew I had it in me, I just had to put it out on the field,” Gardiner said. “My teammates are why I have that many goals. (Matt) Vernon and (Anthony) Durling got assists on a bunch of my goals. I have a great supporting cast around me.”

Equally important, is that Gardiner knows how to use that cast.

Asked about what makes him an effective scorer, Aiden said “I think it’s more that I’m a right-place-in-the-right-time kind of person. I can see the play going on, I know where I should be, I know where the best place is for me to have the best chance to score. If I can get the ball out of my feet and shoot I feel confident in myself I can score.”

Tessein gave nearly the same assessment.

“Isn’t that what good scorers do?” he said. “They figure out the game and where they should be. He’s excellent when he gets the ball to his feet in a scoring position. I don’t know that he was always able to get himself in a position but he’s playing with a lot of confidence now. He knows he belongs and he has a role with us and he plays that role very well.”

He plays it under the watchful eye of his dad, who tries to make as many games as possible. That’s not easy, since Shawn is a Mercer County referee (who obviously cannot do Steinert games). Because of his position, dad has to be quiet if he thinks a bad call goes against his son.

“He keeps his mouth shut,” Gardiner said with a laugh. “He doesn’t want to be reffing with the guy the next day.”

Aiden also officiates at the junior level, and Tessein notes that he does some chirping at officials on occasion.

But for the most part, he focuses on helping the Spartans in a quest to do what Aiden’s father did back in 1988. Tessein noted that Shawn’s presence is always a reminder that it has been a long time between state titles for a school that owns nine.

“Every time I go watch a home game I get some flashbacks of my time on the pitch and remember our storybook ending with a state championship,” Shawn said. “It would be a great ending to see Aiden and his teammates leave their legacy with some hardware as well. Either way we’ve enjoyed the journey. It’s great watching him play for Steinert and it gives me so much joy watching him and other kids from my GAK team play.”

And having someone on the team who bleeds Spartan green is always great for a program. Tessein knows all about being a legacy, since his uncle, Paul Tessein, won four state crowns with the Spartans.

“It’s important for our guys to realize who came before them and that they’re part of something much bigger than themselves,” the coach said. “There’s this history that not everybody gets to be part of. They’re lucky enough to be part of that and it’s really cool when you’ve got a guy whose dad is part of that history.”

That guy is more than just a soccer player, as Aiden has forged a 3.8 grade point average and is currently deciding on colleges. He is unsure if he will play, as that depends on if he is recruited.

“If not, I’ve got the whole rest of my life to look forward to,” Gardiner said.

And whatever happens, he has this season to look back on.

“I’ll never forget this experience,” Gardiner said. “These are some of the best times of my life I won’t ever forget. Years and years back; I heard about how my dad won a state championship here and I’m like “I can’t wait til I’m here.’ Now that I’m here, I’m having such a great time.”

And it hasn’t mattered one bit that he’s doing it at the opposite end of the field from where dad made his mark.

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