The Oxford College men’s tennis team has won a national championship for the second year in a row, but the road back to victory was not an easy one.
When head coach Pernilla Hardin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer following the 2015 NJCAA Division III National Championship, she and the team knew the upcoming season would be an emotional one.
“It was a rougher road than it was the year before,” said Hardin.
While Hardin underwent chemotherapy during the fall semester, her husband Robert took over as interim coach, allowing her to stay in touch with the team. Robert is the coach of the Oxford women’s team, which also won a national championship in fall 2015.
Hardin rejoined the team in January, but now had a new task to tackle — getting to know her freshman players in just a few short months.
“I didn’t know the younger players that well because I didn’t have all fall to get to know them,” she said. “In tennis, it’s very important to get to know your individual players. It’s a team sport, but they’re individuals out there and they all deal with pressure differently. So I had from January to May to learn what made my players tick and to build trust.”
With a team full of freshman and three sophomores leading the way, the Eagles went into the 2016 NJCAA Division III nationals ranked No. 1, with Peter Higgins as the NJCAA Athlete of the Year. Oxford won six out of nine possible flights in the tournament, beating out nine other squads from across the country.
The team accomplished this feat after being thrown another curveball and having to play without two of their top players.
“Losing two players was huge,” Hardin said. “We had nine players and ended up with seven. My number eight and nine players weren’t looking to play, but they ended up playing nationals.”
One of those players was Vignesh Sundaram, who won the No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles.
“Since everyone had bought into working hard, the next two people in line were ready to go,” said Hardin. “Whether you play No. 1 or No. 6, it doesn’t matter because the points are worth the same.”
Other championship winners included freshman Chase Mahlrig, who earned the first national championship for the Eagles in the No. 4 singles, followed by sophomores Sundaram, Shams Sohani and freshman Andrew Chow.
Mahlrig and Sohani joined forces to win the No. 2 doubles national championship with a 6-2, 7-6 (5) result. After dropping the opening set in the No. 3 doubles, Sundaram and freshman Adib Zaibi came back in the next two (7-5, 6-1) to win their flights’ national championship.
Freshman Michael Pioso defeated the No. 1 seeded player in the quarterfinals of the No. 2 singles, while Higgins fell in the finals of his No. 1 singles flight against Andreas Jacome of Mercer County.
Though nationals were familiar territory for the Eagles, as they have now won five titles in the past 10 years, there was no guarantee that they would win again. But preparation and persevering through adversity helped them bring home the trophy once more.
“Anything can happen in sports,” Hardin said. “But no matter what came our way, we persevered.”