Four Nipomo High School seniors made the next stop on their respective academic and athletic careers official Wednesday at a signing party in the Nipomo gym.
Nathan Gardner signed with UC Santa Barbara, where he will run the 400 hurdles and be a decathlete for the men's track team. Lucca Hart went with Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, to play basketball. Austria Holland will wrestle for the Alamosa, Colorado-based Adams State University women's team. Kayden Sanders will play basketball for the University of Redlands women's squad.
Nipomo athletic director Russ Edwards called Gardner "The top hurdler in the area," Wednesday. Gardner's next team will be NCAA Division 1 UCSB.
"I'll be doing the decathlon there, but I do want to make sure I'll be doing the 400 hurdles on top of that," said Gardner.
Gardner said he wasn't thinking in terms of becoming a decathlete until a UC Santa Barbara coach broached the idea to him. "It seemed real interesting to me, and one of my coaches here, coach Bob Cape, was a decathlete his last year in college," said Gardner.
Besides UCSB, Gardner said he also spoke with Willamette and UC San Diego but the attractiveness of the UC Santa Barbara campus, its proximity to Nipomo and competing with teammates in the well-established UCSB track program combined to sell Gardner on the Gauchos.
"The campus is beautiful, and I'll be able to surround myself with great athletes, great people that will give me an opportunity to grow," said Gardner.
He acknowledged that being a decathlete will be an adjustment for him. "I've done the hurdles, done the sprints," when it comes to decathlon events, said Gardner. "I did cross country my first two years of high school, so I have some distance background (the 1,500 is the last of the 10 events in the two-day decathlon). But I haven't done the pole vault, the throws."
Gardner said UC Santa Barbara has not given him a scholarship package yet but that a UCSB coach told him, "That might come with my performance at the next conference meet," UCSB competes in.
Gardner will be the 2023 valedictorian for Central Coast New Tech High School, which is adjacent to Nipomo High School. He will major in chemical engineering at UC Santa Barbara.
Hart was the 2023 All-Area Boys Basketball Team Offensive Player of the Year. He took to the inclusivity he sensed when he visited Willamette. Besides, "The gym there is open 24 hours," Hart, who played guard at Nipomo, said.
"It felt very welcoming there," said Hart. "I liked the coaching staff, the players."
Hart said he talked to several schools, including La Verne, some in New York and some in the Bay Area. But Willamette was his first choice. Among other selling points for him, "I think I'll be able to see some playing time," Hart said.
Willamette is an NCAA Division 3 school. Division 3 schools cannot give athletic scholarships but can give need-based and academic scholarships to student athletes. "I think what I got will cover a lot of the costs, probably like 70 percent," said Hart.
The Bearcats will try to rebound after going 5-19, including 1-15 in conference play, last season.
Hart said his major is undeclared.
Holland qualified for the CIF State Wrestling Championships her sophomore, junior and senior years at Nipomo, at 106 pounds each time. "I placed fourth my sophomore year, eighth my junior year and sixth this year," she said.
She said she will compete at 109 pounds at Adams State. "They told me I'll be their starter at 109 pounds," Holland said.
Holland said she talked to some schools from other states but, "I love the state of Colorado, and Adams State and Colorado Mesa were the only two schools in Colorado I talked to," said Holland.
"I just got better vibes from Adams State than I did from Colorado Mesa," Holland said.
She said Division 2 Adams State "gave me a very good financial package. It met my needs financially." Holland will major in business management with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.
Adams State competed in 18 events last season. The Grizzlies went 10-2 in 12 duals, with no team score at five others. The Grizzlies finished in eighth place with 66 points at the Midwest Classic.
Sanders was a four-year varsity guard who helped the Titans win the Central Section Division 2 championship as a sophomore in the COVID-19-truncated 2020-21 season.
"I would say that with the coaching staff, and getting to scrimmage with the players, Redlands felt like a very good fit for me," said Sanders.
"The campus is beautiful, and it's not too far from home. With the academic financial package, it's affordable."
The Bulldogs had a successful 2022-23, going 19-8, including 12-4 in conference play. Redlands lost to Hardin-Simmons in the first round of the NCAA Division 3 Tournament.
Sanders is undecided on a major.
Kenny Cress is a sports reporter for the Santa Maria Times, covering local sports in northern Santa Barbara County. You can send information or story ideas to him by emailing it to KCress@SantaMariaTimes.com.