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Villanova’s Kenzie Gardler breaks family’s St. Joseph’s basketball tradition | Mike Jensen

The redshirt freshman's family goes back generations on Hawk Hill. But Kenzie had her own plans, and it's worked out for her.

Kenzie Gardler on choosing Villanova over St. Josesph's: "“I grew up watching the Villanova-St. Joe’s game. I was always rooting for St. Joe’s. Then I got to a certain age, where I wanted something different from my parents, wanted to chart my own path.”
Kenzie Gardler on choosing Villanova over St. Josesph's: "“I grew up watching the Villanova-St. Joe’s game. I was always rooting for St. Joe’s. Then I got to a certain age, where I wanted something different from my parents, wanted to chart my own path.”Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

There was big news, and Pop-Pop needed to know it. This was the Tuesday before Christmas, some years back. Kenzie Gardler had made her college decision.

“Pop-Pop …”

Bud Gardler stopped reading his newspaper. His granddaughter broke it to him — she was going to Villanova, to play basketball there.

Kenzie Gardler knew this was bigger news than anything her grandfather was reading in that paper. Bud Gardler had played basketball for St. Joseph’s before going on to a legendary career coaching high school basketball. His son Chris, Kenzie’s dad, also played basketball at St. Joe’s. Chris had married Katie Curry, who had led St. Joe’s in scoring three straight years, and then was an assistant coach with the Hawks.

The girl was going to Villanova.

“Good luck with that," Bud Gardler told her, and went right back to reading his paper.

Now a redshirt freshman guard, Kenzie Gardler will play in her first Villanova-St. Joe’s game Saturday — just not in the colors anyone would have forecast for her.

“I grew up hating them," Katie Gardler said. “I couldn’t even stomach Villanova. We were trained at St. Joe’s to hate Villanova.”

And Villanova coach Harry Perretta … nah, forget it.

“Remember, when I played, Harry was crazy," Katie Gardler said. “Harry was a screamer. We just wanted to annihilate him because he was so crazy.”

Go play for that guy? Nah. Hawks coach Cindy Griffin is Kenzie’s godmother, for godsakes. No chance. Katie ran the St. Joe’s women’s camp for years. She remembers the year Kenzie came home and said her Comets AAU team was going to the Villanova camp.

“I was livid," Katie Gardler said. She wouldn’t let her daughter go.

Funny thing about her daughter. The Hawk indoctrination kind of had a reverse effect.

“I grew up watching the Villanova-St. Joe’s game," Kenzie Gardler said. “I was always rooting for St. Joe’s. Then I got to a certain age, where I wanted something different from my parents, wanted to chart my own path.”

“She’s one of those kids — she’s very headstrong," Chris Gardler said. “She just wanted to do her own path.”

Perretta caught wind that maybe he should talk to Kenzie, a legit Division I prospect at Cardinal O’Hara High. (His next-door neighbor was her AAU coach. Typical Philly thing.) He called Katie.

“He had to ask my mom if it was OK for him to start recruiting me — that was funny," Kenzie said.

“Is this a joke?" Perretta remembers asking Katie.

“It was almost like he was asking permission to take her to the prom," Katie Gardler said. “He said something like, ‘I’ve been hearing things. I know this is like a taboo subject.' "

“He knew he was going to ruffle a couple of feathers," Chris Gardler said.

This stuff happens. An older sister at Villanova, Kelly Jekot, saw her younger sister Katie commit to St. Joe’s, where she now starts. Still, this was generations of Hawks. Bud had played for Jack McKinney. Chris had played for Jim Boyle and John Griffin. And Katie Gardler was on the Hawks staff.

The more they’ve thought about it, they decided maybe it was all a long time coming. Even as a grade-schooler, Kenzie visited Villanova with her Comets team and happily put on a Villanova T-shirt for a photo with Wildcats coach Jay Wright, whose daughter was a Comet, too.

After getting the parents’ blessing, Perretta waited a little bit to offer a scholarship. He wanted to see Kenzie play a little more, he said. The Gardlers saw him at a lot of games. Perretta remembers telling Kenzie they were going to offer her a scholarship.

“Can I commit now?" he remembers her saying, and he told her, “I’d rather you wait 24 hours.”

Perretta said he was candid with all of them, how he envisioned Gardler redshirting as a freshman, then getting on the court by her junior year. A utility player, he put it. Even though she was three-time all-Catholic and all-state as a senior, she’d taken all that in, was all in.

“She’s turned out to be a little bit more than that," Perretta said.

After the redshirt year, she’s gotten on the court this season, and maybe early on you could argue that’s because Villanova is a little thin this season in what Perretta has announced will be the last of his 42 seasons in charge on the Main Line.

But lately, this has transformed more into a typical Perretta team, which means dangerous, and painful to play against. Nobody expected Villanova to go down to Georgia and take out the Bulldogs. When that happened Nov. 24, Gardler contributed two three-pointers in 11 minutes, adding a couple of rebounds, an assist and a steal. If the feeling was that Perretta’s offense would suit her style, it has been so.

Her parents’ style?

Chris deadpanned that he’s gotten so far as wearing Villanova shorts, not yet to a T-shirt or sweatshirt out in public. Katie acknowledges that Perretta is the opposite of the caricature she had created in her own mind, that she’s seen him genuinely care about her daughter. (She did let Kenzie go to Villanova’s camp a year later as a high-schooler.) They all hate to see that he’s retiring.

It isn’t just dad’s side of the family with deep local hoops roots. Mom was an Atlantic Ten player of the year. Mom’s aunt, at St. Hubert’s, and her grandmother, at West Catholic, both played in the Catholic League title game at the Palestra. (So did Kenzie, O’Hara winning it twice.)

Bud Gardler, who had coached Geno Auriemma at Bishop Kenrick and Steve Donahue at O’Hara, and once had an assistant named Phil Martelli, died in 2018. But he’d lived long enough to attend his granddaughter’s signing ceremony with Villanova. While Mom and Dad had gone to Villanova’s campus to buy shirts for themselves for the ceremony (“How the heck did we get in this bookstore?”), Bud kept to an O’Hara shirt.

“That would’ve taken years," Chris Gardler joked about getting his dad in such attire. “Probably Kenzie’s senior game.”

In fact, Chris said, his dad was “super happy” for Kenzie, very quickly, despite the newspaper bit.

“My dad will be smiling," Chris said of Saturday’s get-together, 1 p.m. at the Finneran Pavilion. “He always said, ‘God has a funny sense of humor.’ ”