In the end, she accepted the challenge of playing for a team she would have to fight to get playing time on.
Gardner knew early on in practices that she would be able to compete with the other players on the team. All she had to do was convince Coach Anson Dorrance to give her a shot.
“There are some kids you have really large expectations for, because you’ve seen them play a lot,” he said. “With Hanna there was no expectation. Because she walked on for us, whatever she gave us in practice was going to be totally satisfying to me.”
It came as no surprise to anyone when she did not travel with the Tar Heels to their first away match of the 2012 season against Portland. During that game, Megan Brigman, a senior defender, suffered a season-ending injury. In UNC’s next game against Florida, Gardner was given her opportunity.
“There were many nerves, but it was more that I knew I had to fill a key role,” she said. “It wasn’t really whether I could or couldn’t do it, I have to do it.”
But what made her season so remarkable was not just that she had gone from a walk-on to starter almost instantly — it was what happened during the final game of that season.
It was the opening minute of the second half of the national championship game against Penn State. Gardner’s only notable contribution to the match thus far had been the yellow card she received. The Tar Heels had a corner kick opportunity, and as senior defender Paige Nielsen remembers it: “To see Hanna, a little freshie, rise on top of everyone by at least 10 inches, and score this incredible goal, was amazing.”
Gardner’s header was only her second goal of the season, and the go-ahead goal in what to this point is the team’s most recent national championship.
More than a tweak
The summer after her sophomore season, Gardner tweaked her knee in a training session and it began to swell. She played through the injury, but was told when she returned to UNC that she needed to have surgery. She tried to continue the fight during her junior season, but was unable to and had to take a medical redshirt.
This was not the first time she dealt with a knee injury. In December of her junior year at East Chapel Hill High School, she had surgery to repair a hole in the cartilage in the back of her knee.
“It was perfect for three years. I didn’t feel a thing,” she said.
This second surgery was going to keep Gardner off the field for nine to 12 months. Not being able to play or practice the game she loved was not only difficult for her, it was challenging for her friends and family as well.
“It was hard for us as parents because we could feel her disappointment,” said Linda Gardner, Hanna’s mother.
During that time, Hanna was doing anything she could to keep herself occupied. She watched as much professional soccer as she could, she went to Michaels and bought art supplies to work on her drawing skills and she even made her way to the campus pool on crutches to swim laps.
“Part of that was me just trying to stay sane and not go crazy and give up completely,” she said.
Without the game she loved, Hanna said she was almost at a loss.
“I’ve always had such a passion for soccer. It’s always been my thing,” she said. “When it was taken away for that long period of time, I wasn’t the most fun person to be around.”
Nielsen remembers Hanna keeping to herself a lot during that time.
“She took the time to herself, and grew as a person,” Nielsen said.
While no player ever wants to get injured, Hanna was able to use that time to gain a different perspective on soccer and the role she could play for her teammates.
“It taught me there are many different roles, and they can be just as important as a starter’s leadership role can be,” she said.
Hanna only began training at the beginning of the preseason of her redshirt junior campaign. That meant she had a lot of catching up to do and almost no time to accomplish it.
“(There were) all of these steppingstones I was just trying to hurdle over,” she said. “I didn’t really have time to ease back into things.”
The defender admits the goals she had set for herself before the season were pretty unrealistic. It was not as easy as she thought to get back to the level she had been at previously.
“It’s difficult to get that confidence when you’re around such talented people,” she said.
In her first game back against Nebraska on Sept. 11, she played 23 minutes, and since that time her minutes have been slowly increasing.
“It’s all just a process,” she said. “And I’ve kind of come to accept that a little more.”
It’s not just Gardner who is glad to be back playing soccer. Her teammates and coaches enjoy having her back on the field as well.
“She’s a lot of fun, always has a smile on her face,” Dorrance said. “She has an infectious kind of cockiness that is more amusing than it is offensive.”
Dorrance hopes Gardner will continue to regain her “wonderfully reckless” playing style she had before her injury as the Tar Heels try to navigate their way through the NCAA Tournament, which for them begins at 6:30 p.m. tonight against Liberty at Fetzer Field.
But no matter how this season ends for her team, Gardner will have one more season to prove she can get back to 100-percent health after a second knee injury.
“I’m feeling myself getting it back,” she said. “And every practice is another step forward, another leap.”
Whether or not that next leap will lead to a professional soccer career is unknown at this point. Gardner is just going to have to wait and see how everything goes. She said she would love to play soccer professionally somewhere to, in her words, “at least delay the real world from coming on.”
A life after soccer is something Gardner hasn’t quite figured out yet. But if the former walk-on’s journey from a reserve to a national champion is any indication, her confidence should carry her through.