Comeback Zach (by Adam Navarro)

Comeback Zach

The story of how a broken collarbone ended Zach Garner’s football career …  but bolstered his basketball career

By Adam Navarro

“He’s going to graduate as the most underappreciated (basketball) player that Delta’s ever had.” 

That’s what varsity boys’ basketball head coach Mark Detweiler said when talking about senior point guard Zach Garner, whose career came to a sudden end in mid-March just prior to the IHSAA regional due to the COVID-19 shutdown. 

But to understand why Detweiler believes this, you have to look beyond his stat line. 

Instead you have to look at everything Garner does that doesn’t get put on a piece of paper when the game’s over, and then, it all suddenly makes sense. 

Garner has been playing basketball for as long as he can remember. As he tells it, “I started playing on the Little Tikes goal before I could even walk, so I just always played it my whole life.”

Garner’s love for basketball continued into high school, where he went on to be a three-year varsity starter, and along with it, the winningest 3-year varsity starter in program history.

“I’m going to guess that you’re not going to be able to find a three-year starter that has won as many games as Zach,” Coach Detweiler said. 

Detweiler’s not wrong. Zach’s teams won 65 games in his three years as a starter: 18 as a sophomore, 27 as a junior, and 20 as a senior, and he had a chance to win more games before the sudden shutdown. 

The school has never won more than 65 games in any other span of three consecutive years. Basketball dribbler
Point guard Zach Garner checks out the opposition's defense in a game at New Castle.

Garner also took on a leadership role this season, saying, “I just try to give everyone energy and make high energy plays to get people more pumped up.”

Garner said he felt responsibility to do so this year with the team, since last year’s team left some big shoes to fill. 

Last year, Garner was the starting point guard for a Delta squad that went undefeated in the regular season and won the sectional championship. 

“With me being on that team last year, and losing JB (Josh Bryan), who was our main leader, someone had to step up, and I guess that was me.”

With that, Garner went to work.

“(Zach’s work ethic) is second to none,” Detweiler said. “He clocks in, goes to work, and he doesn’t waste time. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t need somebody watching him to push him and make him work harder. Average players (need a push). It doesn’t matter to him. He’s going to do things a certain way and get the job done.” 

Detweiler also said that Zach has a special mix of discipline and hard work. 

“He just works. He tries to outwork people, and he’s going to outwork you. You combine his work ethic and his discipline, people are going to follow that. People want to follow someone they can count on, someone that’s going to be there and have their back, and Zach’s one of those guys,” Detweiler said. 

All that hard work would pay off, but not how most people would think. Garner only averaged four points per game. Instead, his payoff came as a lock-down defender. 

“He’s one of the best on-ball defensive players that I’ve ever had,” said Detweiler, who has been a varsity coach for 22 seasons.  “It’s no secret that night in and night out, our opponent’s best player has their worst game of the year because Zach Garner’s in front of them. That’s what he brings to us. Teams have their lowest offensive output against us, and Zach’s a big reason for that. What he does on the ball to disrupt the opponent’s offense is a big deal.” 

Garner also used his role as the point guard to create shots for others. “The best part about playing with Zach was how selfless of a player he was,” said Zach’s teammate and fellow senior starter Josh Greenberg. “He never cared about how much he scored or any stats. He only cared about winning,”  Garner put all of his athletic focus into basketball this year, in part due to an injury he sustained playing a different sport. At a young age, Garner took an interest in football. 

“I started playing flag football when I was five years old,” he said. “I also played soccer at the time and I really wanted to play football, so I decided to quit soccer and I picked up flag football at Metro.”

He took this love for football all the way to high school, where he was a two-year varsity starter on offense (quarterback as a sophomore and wingback as a junior) and on defense (cornerback both years). 
Quarterback runs
Quarterback Zach Garner (5) looks for a hole to use his speed against New Castle.

Garner said his best skill on the football field was “my speed and my ability to attack the outside.” As for his work ethic, it was just as good on the gridiron as it was on the hardwood.

“Zach has an unbelievable work ethic,” Delta head football coach Chris Overholt said. “It doesn't matter if he is in the classroom, weight room, or practice field.  Also, Zach is one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached.  He doesn't care who gets the credit.”

And while Garner was a threat at quarterback and wingback, with multiple games of over 200 yards of offense, Overholt let it be known that just like in basketball, Garner’s defense was second to none.

“He might go down as one our best man coverage corners ever! He held Eli Pancol (starting wide receiver for Duke football) to two catches for 46 yards. He held Luke Bumbalough (starting point guard for Ball State basketball) to 60 yards receiving. Both of these individuals were North-South All-Stars,” Overholt said. 

Heading into his senior year, Garner elected not to play football, not because he didn’t like it, but because of an injury he sustained last summer.

“In July, I was playing in a scrimmage at Taylor University, and the first play of the scrimmage, I took a handoff and I ran about 15 yards, and I got my legs taken out from underneath me. I landed on and broke my collarbone,” he said.

Garner described the recovery process, saying that, “I couldn’t do anything sports-wise for two months. I couldn’t lay down, so I had to sleep sitting in a chair, and it was just a long struggle. I couldn’t do anything, so I was bored all the time.”

Garner said despite the injury seeming like a negative, his mom kept him positive throughout.

“My mom always tells me ‘everything happens for a reason’ so it obviously happened for   a reason and I think it definitely helped my basketball game. I could focus more on that and I didn’t have to worry about football.”

Coach Overholt described the impact of losing Garner. 

“It was a huge loss for the football team,” Overholt said. “He was a large part of our offense and defense being a two-way starter.  He was my preseason pick to lead the team in touchdowns.  Zach had invested a large part of himself emotionally and physically to football.  It was a difficult situation to have that taken away the summer of his senior season.  The last thing I wanted him to think was that he was letting anyone down.  I'm always going to be a huge Zach Garner fan!”

Ultimately, Overholt supported Garner’s decision to focus on basketball.

“I loved watching him on the court his senior season.  The best defensive basketball player I've ever seen,” Overholt said.

Garner plans to attend Ball State University and study marketing. He doesn’t plan to play sports in college. 

Zach Garner’s impact on Delta athletics is matched by few. Whether it was on the hardwood or the gridiron, his work ethic and leadership made him a standout athlete.