OXFORD, Ga. — When Tate Coston showed up on the Oxford College campus in August as a freshman, he didn’t have playing collegiate tennis on his radar, necessarily.
Coston, a Harrison High (Kennesaw) graduate and contributor to the school’s basketball and tennis teams, thought he was coming to Oxford to continue his basketball playing days for another couple of years.
Actually, upon high school graduation, Coston was content to call it a career athletically, and focus on academics in Athens.
“So, I really thought I wasn’t going to play sports at all in college,” he said. “I thought I was gonna be a Georgia Bulldog and just concentrate on classwork and getting my degree.”
That changed when Coston got to Oxford, made contact with Oxford men’s basketball coach and athletic director Roderick Stubbs and started showcasing his talents on the hardwood again.
It led to the discovery that he also played tennis in high school, which prompted Stubbs to connect with Oxford tennis coach Pernilla Hardin, who’s built a bit of a tennis dynasty at the school.
“I started making contact with Stubbs who told me we have a young man who can play both tennis and basketball,” Hardin said.
But she wasn’t necessarily in the business of trying to make tennis players out of basketball guys, so she said if Coston wanted to find his way to the Oxford tennis courts, he’d had to take the initiative.
“If he really wanted to play tennis, he’d have to be the one to make the first move,” Hardin said. “That’s what I told (Stubbs). And from there, Tate made the move. We met in the summer and he and I and the AD decided in the summer that we’ll let him play both.”
Thus, a two-sport Oxford athlete was born. End of story, right?
Well, not exactly.
Coston soon began to realize playing two sports and taking on a demanding course load at a fairly rigorous academic institution probably wasn’t the wisest thing for him to do in terms of time management. So he had to make a choice.
“I tried to work both for a bit, but it ended up being too much,” Coston said. “So I ended up choosing the one that I enjoyed more overall. It wasn’t necessarily about what I was better at, but what I was willing to put my time into, and tennis was that. I believe choosing tennis was a good decision, because I really, really enjoyed being out there this season.”
And with good reason.
Coston was a part of the Oxford Eagles’ fourth straight National Junior College Athletic Association national championship last month, sweeping all six singles matches, as well as the doubles finals, during the national championship tournament held in Peachtree City.
And for Coston, winning a national title was about as good as it gets for a first-year college athlete.
“It’s been a really, really fun experience,” he said. “I knew going into it it would be a really good team, just because of all the success the program has had in the past. So as a freshman, when you come into that kind of situation, it really takes the pressure off of you. You go into it know that whatever they’re doing is right, so just follow orders. And coach Hardin always seems to know what to do to help us know what to do on the court.”
Apparently, the NJCAA thought so too, as it bestowed upon Hardin its Coach of the Year designation, fresh off of Hardin’s guiding the Oxford women’s team to its fifth straight national championship.
“It never gets old,” Hardin said. “I love what I do. I don’t go to work. I just go out to do something fun, it’s almost like a hobby or whatever. My love is college coaching and seeing these kids come in as a freshman to leaving as an accomplished, developed player.”
Coston said he felt the love, for sure, from the moment he stepped onto the tennis courts at Oxford. But he described it as the tough love you’d expect from an athletic coach combined with a more nurturing approach.
“You feel that love from Coach the moment you begin,” Coston said. “I felt it from the moment I played for the first time here. It’s a mix of super high intensity as well as being personable. She puts you in a scenario to win every single time. I’ve never been on a court and playing a match this season where I felt like I was lost. Even if we’re losing a match, she’ll share something with you to do, and you do it and it works.”
Such has been the case since Hardin began coaching. Her multiple titles with both the men’s and women’s teams has cemented her as a bit of a coaching legend in the NJCAA ranks. The fact that she’s been able to bounce back into coaching after missing the 2015 season while battling cancer makes that even more true.
It also proves her intense love for the game and the athletes she’s coached over the years — something women’s assistant coach — and Pernilla’s daughter — Anna Hardin — has discovered first hand.
“I’ve been with her as her assistant now since the spring 2016 and I’ve been a part of the women’s five championships and even overall, and I get to see every year how the teams’ sophomores help instill what we need to get done to the incoming freshmen,” Anna Hardin said. “I just enjoy seeing how the program has evolved, and how freshmen may not understand some of the drills or intensity of how we work, and probably think we should be dialing it back. And then they get to nationals and they say, ‘oh, now I know why we did this drill that way or worked like we did.’”
Anna says her mother’s coached her in all her sports, including tennis. That includes soccer, basketball and even roller hockey. But she has the same testimony through it all.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “Now that I’ve graduated college and come back to help her as an assistant, she’s been a fun to be around and it’s been fun to be a part of it.”
“Although she gets on my nerves sometimes,” the elder Hardin interjected with a laugh.
As for the continued progress of the program, Coston says he knows exactly what Anna means when she speaks of the sophomore’s influence of ingraining the program’s culture into newcomers. Coston absorbed it as a freshman, and will get the chance to dish it out next year as a sophomore.
“Coach Hardin’s all about preparation,” Coston said. “All the hard workouts and all the tough work we put in pays off when we get to nationals and it’s 95 degrees outside and all our opponents are tired and stressed and cramping, and we’re loose and still pretty energetic and nobody’s cramped up. It makes things easier.”
It’s the reason why while others may succumb to the pressure of the big-stage moment, Hardin’s bunch thrives in it and treats it almost like a reward.
“Once we get to nationals, we just enjoy it,” she said. “It’s like getting dressed up for the dance. We did all the little things it took to get here. We eat well, slept well, took care of our bodies and our homework. Everybody’s ready, now we have fun.”
It’s the fun and satisfaction that goes with building young bodies and minds through tennis that keeps it fresh for the coach. And as long those things remain, Hardin sees no reason to slow down.
“I’m relentless,” she said. “I’m very demanding. But we have to be intentional in doing that with these kids, and it pays off. I love what I do. I gave it up around 1992 even though I was obsessed with it, because I had to be a stay at home mom, but my love is college coaching, and I’m grateful to be here again. Now that the kids are gone, no one cares about me being obsessed anymore.”