Learning to trust the process, Harley Gardner is shooting her way to the top of the NCAA rifle ranks.
Through the first two matches of 2017, Gardner’s team-leading smallbore and strong air rifle scores have propelled Ole Miss rifle to victories over North Carolina State and Army West Point and to a No. 9 national ranking.
However, Gardner, who started shooting when she was 10, didn’t always know the sport would carry her through college.
Growing up, the junior from Bellville, Texas, did it all. Playing softball and volleyball and running track and shooting rifle, it wasn’t until high school that she turned all of her attention to one.
“I finally chose to stop playing all the other sports and focus on rifle during my sophomore year,” she said. “I decided that that was it. Rifle is the thing that I love and what I wanted to go to college and do.”
Her decision proved to be the right one. Leaving high school with individual first-place finishes in three separate disciplines at the NRA Sectional Championships in 2014, she led her team to the state 4-H title in 2013 and a runner-up finish the next year.
As one of the nation’s top sharpshooters, Gardner finished high school as a highly touted recruit with the option to attend nearly any program in the country, but Ole Miss grabbed her heart right away.
Just a few weeks before her commitment, she visited Oxford for Ole Miss’ invitational and was met with an overwhelming sense of family. Jessica Haig, now a senior on the team, looked at Gardner and told her she would see her next year. Right then, Gardner said she knew it was the place she needed to be.
“That was the moment. That was it. I was coming to Ole Miss,” she said. “I think that, anywhere else, you’re on a team, but when I stepped foot in Oxford, having that family-away-from-home feeling was a big deal for me.”
Upon her arrival on campus in 2015, it was clear right away that collegiate competition is a different beast. In high school, Gardner practiced two to four times a week, fitting in her shots wherever she could, whether that was in the morning before school or after her day was completed. Graduating with honors and as a member of the student council, it was academics that came first and her sport that followed suit.
“There’s a big difference,” she said. “In college, we’re practicing every single day, five to six times a week. The practices intensify, the volume you’re shooting is greater and the amount of time you spend shooting increases significantly.”
Not only did the level of intensity increase, but so did the level of coaching. In high school, her father, Brian, was the coach of her state championship 4-H club, but he had no prior knowledge of the sport on a collegiate level.
“Don’t get me wrong — he’s great,” she laughed. “But at some point, you reach a point where any club coach can’t really help you very much.”
One of the big contributors to Gardner’s success is current head coach Marsha Beasley. Beasley, who led a West Virginia team to a national championship eight times in her 16 years in Morgantown, also had 27 athletes earn NRA All-America honors during her tenure. After taking a decadelong hiatus, Beasley took the position with Ole Miss in 2016.
“Just seeing her get back into it is incredible and inspiring,” Gardner said. “We can take a month break from shooting, and it’s hard to get back in a rhythm. She took off 10 or 11 years and hasn’t missed a beat.”
Gardner said rifle is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. One of Beasley’s biggest efforts with the Ole Miss program is her emphasis on the importance of mental toughness, an area in which Gardner has struggled in the past.
“My freshman year, I shot some decent scores, but I was wishing that I could have come in and have it be an overnight transition,” she said of her early disgruntlement. “The coaches believed in me. I just didn’t see it. This year, especially, I’m coming in with more confidence in myself and in the process, which stems from the amount of trust (coach Beasley) has continued to put in me.”
Outside of the coaching staff, Gardner’s biggest mentor is former teammate Allie Weisz. Weisz, who graduated last spring, earned second team All-American honors and placed 11th at the NCAA championships. However, her biggest influence on the Ole Miss squad was her guidance.
“Allie has been there for me since day one,” Gardner said. “She really took me under her wing and is a great leader on and off the range. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
Seeing what a mentor Weisz was to her, Gardner wants to do the same for others in 2017. On a roster where there’s an equal amount of freshmen as their are upperclassmen, she is focused on being a leader of her own.
“Of course, I want to post career highs and do my best,” she said with a smirk. “But mainly, I want to be a leader, leading those freshmen by example and doing what I can to show them how to be better.”
By being a vocal presence, Gardner hopes to help her teammates take the season one match at a time and focus in on the common goal of competing in the NCAA competition as a team at the end of the year.
“That has been a goal of mine since high school. I’ve wanted to compete at NCAAs,” Gardner said. “The difference, though, is that, in high school, I wanted to compete individually. Of course I still do, but since I’ve been in Oxford, I think going as a team would be even more incredible.”
Gardner’s next match will see Akron travel to Oxford on Sunday, and it will be the next step in solidifying Ole Miss rifle’s ranking.