In 2015, Chesney Gardner began her high school athletic career as a freshman hoping to make a name for herself.
As she collected her second consecutive Owen High School Athlete of the Year award on May 21, the senior is leaving as one the most accomplished student-athletes in its 64-year history.
"I came into high school wanting to step out of the shadows of all of my family members who played basketball and other sports here," Gardner said moments after athletic director Anthony Lee presented her with the award. "I did that because I beat (uncle Jesse Gardner's) 1,708 points. But I really surprised myself because I never really expected to accomplish as much as I did."
Gardner's impact on Owen athletics was immediate and vast. She started for the varsity volleyball team in the fall of her freshman year before playing in 29 games for a Warlassies basketball team that finished the season 19-10. Gardner led the team with 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in 2015. The following spring she shattered the school record in the discus (67-feet-3-inches) with a 105-foot-3-inch throw.
She wrapped up her freshman campaign as the school's Female Athlete of the Year.
There was no sophomore slump for Gardner, who added a fourth sport to her resume in the spring of 2017. On the heels of a volleyball season in which she recorded 171 kills and another strong basketball season, she returned to the discus and shot put circle where she consistently broke her own school record in both events. When she wasn't competing in track and field, Gardner played shortstop for the Warlassies softball team.
In her sole season on the softball diamond, she batted .293, drove in 10 RBI, collected a pair of triples and a home run.
Her 2016-17 performance earned her a second straight Female Athlete of the Year Award.
Fueled by her ultra-competitive personality, Gardner averaged 17 points per game for the Warlassies basketball team as a junior, helping guide the program to its first 20-win season in over a decade. That season she joined two of her uncles and her aunt in the 1,000-point club at Owen. Last May, as she picked up her first Athlete of the Year Award for the school, her name was etched into the SunTrust trophy, which is permanently displayed in a case in the cafeteria at Owen.
Gardner saved her best efforts for her senior season.
She posted a career-high 231 kills for the volleyball team last fall, leading the Warlassies to their first winning season (13-10) in years, and a trip to the postseason. The performance earned her a first team All-WNC nod and Western Highlands Conference Player of the Year honors.
Playing for her third basketball coach in four seasons, Gardner was moved from the front court to the back court to open the 2018-19 campaign.
She responded to the position change by leading WNC in scoring, with 26.4 points per game and rebounding (10.1 per game). She finished her career with 1,946 points, among the top scorers in the history of a school that counts Brad Daugherty and Brad Johnson among its alumni. Gardner also collected 1,004 rebounds over the course of her career.
The first team All-WNC basketball player wasn't finished adding to her resume.
She returned to the Warlassies track and field team for her senior season with her sights set on a state championship in the discus throw. She fell short on her quest to bring back a ring, but she finished second in the state with a throw of 140-feet, and fifth in the shot put (35-feet-8.75-inches). She made it back to the Swannanoa Valley in time to be crowned prom queen the same evening.
Before heading to Greensboro to compete in the state championship, Gardner was awarded the Pat Best Memorial Trophy, which is presented to the Male and Female Athlete of the Year in NCHSAA competition. On May 19, she was awarded the Dr. Lary & Jan Schulhof Division I Female Athlete award at the 58th WNC Sports Awards Banquet - presented by Ingles.
Gardner, who committed to University of South Carolina-Aiken after her junior year, will graduate from Owen on Saturday, June 15. She leaves as one of the most accomplished athletes in the school's history.
Her strong senior showing made selecting this year's athlete of the year for Owen an easy decision, according to athletic director Anthony Lee.
"The way this process works is that we have a coaches meeting here every year and coaches nominate athletes for the award based on their accomplishments. Coaches vote on it and we make that decision," he said before announcing this year's winner. "It wouldn't be very smart to give this award to anyone else since this individual is the state's female athlete of the year."
The multi-sport star will be missed at Owen, Lee continued.
"Not only is she a great athlete, she's a tremendous person," he said.
Gardner's athletic career places her in the pantheon of all-time Owen athletes, according to Lee.
"She's got to be in the top 5," he responded after the ceremony when asked where Gardner ranks among the school's greats. "Everything she does she's pretty good at and if she's not good at it she works her tail off to try to beat you at it. She has great athletic genes, obviously, but she's always been wiling to go out there and put in the time and work."
That work ethic has been the driving force behind her remarkable athletic career so far, according to Lee, who compared her approach to competition to that of Johnson, who graduated from the school in 1987 before going on to win a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003.
"When football was over, Brad Johnson was in the gym shooting the basketball," Lee said. "It takes a special individual to always be willing to do a little bit more and that's exactly how Chesney approaches athletics."
The reality of her Owen career coming to an end was beginning to set in, Gardner said after receiving the award.
"This school has always supported me," she said. "I couldn't have done any of the stuff I've done without everyone here behind me. I wouldn't have wanted to go to any other high school."
Gardner wasn't the only Owen athlete to be recognized during the ceremony. Senior Wyatt Lehman, who played 49 games over three seasons for the Warhorse basketball team and four seasons on the tennis team, was named the Male Athlete of the Year for the school. Lehman advanced to the second round of the state championship doubles tournament with his teammate Hunter Haynes on May 4.
Junior Camryn Bolick led the Warlassies soccer team, which went undefeated in the WHC before advancing to the third round of the state playoffs, with 25 goals this season. In the fall she posted an 8-7 record for the school's tennis team.
Her efforts earned her the Female Athlete of the Year award.
The ceremony brought to a close another strong athletic season at Owen, according to Lee.
"We have 17 varsity sports, and this year Owen High School finished in first place in the conference six times in a varsity sport," he said. "We finished second four times, third twice, fourth twice and fifth three times. Not one Owen team finished last."
Five Owen coaches earned WHC Coach of the Year Honors in 2018-19.