Long before arriving at Air Academy, Gannon Gardner and John Sims had built a friendship on and off the soccer field, going back to middle school and with the Pride Soccer Club.
But heading into his junior year, Gardner made the decision to leave the Kadets squad in favor of the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy, which had shifted its season to overlap with high school. Sims, meanwhile, remained with his prep team.
Although the two went their separate ways on the pitch, they both found their ways to become teammates again after national letter of intent ceremonies Wednesday at Air Academy. Both will attend the Air Force Academy and play men's soccer at the Division-I level.
"I'm really excited to be with Johnny again," Gardner said. "It's good to know we're going to be playing together again. I had a choice to make, and I chose the (developmental) academy. It's not for everyone. I know Johnny liked the high school team. I think we both made good choices."
Gardner and Hunter Howard chose the academy route, while Sims and Alex Granados played high school soccer all four years. On Wednesday, all four signed letters to play college soccer.
Howard will head east to Davidson (N.C.), while Granados, whose 12 goals last season ranked second on the team and helped Air Academy to a 4A state championship appearance in November, signed his letter with Fort Hays (Kan.) State.
The foursome was part of 20 Air Academy student-athletes to take center stage in the school's auditorium in front of a cheering crowd for its only signing ceremony of the school year.
"I still felt part of the team, even though I wasn't on the field with them," said Howard, who played varsity soccer at Air Academy his sophomore year after moving from Texas, then chose the academy route. "I went to as many games as I could. I liked to be a part as much as I could."
Gardner held no regrets about leaving his Kadets in favor of the Developmental Academy, but appreciated his days of playing high school soccer.
"It was good experience playing for my school," Gardner said. "When I made the decision to move to the academy, it was tough. I knew I wouldn't be with all the friends I had known, and the atmosphere of the games was very different. But I knew stepping up to another level would help me as a player, and I wouldn't have gotten the same college exposure. That being said, I learned a lot playing high school soccer, too. It was a good experience."