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STOVALL: Finding the stories in our sports community is exciting work
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So by the end of this week, I’ll have had a full month on the job as the Sports Editor for The Covington News, and I must say it has been a tremendous experience. 

At first, I wondered how the job would be with just three GHSA schools, along with a few private schools and a small college. Not that the fewer number of schools is a bad thing, but my last two soirees in sports coverage have been in places where I covered 21 schools in a two county area and 36 in a four-county area. 

It was kind of cool because every day I knew I had endless possibilities to find something different to capture or write about. But the challenge was that I never got the chance to know every school intimately, because there were so many. And as a sportswriter who puts great value on the stories beneath the stats and numbers, I often wondered how many stories I was leaving behind, just be sheer volume of the coverage area. 

Now, though in a smaller area, I’ve quickly realized that, despite the smaller sampling size, there will never be a shortage of quality stories to tell. That’s because Covington and Newton County is rife with spectacular student athletes, top notch coaches and passionate parents and fans who love to read about the stories their schools generate. 

Already I have written stories and heard experiences that tug at my heart strings and make me excited to get up each morning and make that drive to work each day. I’ve seen Alcovy’s resiliency, Eastside’s passion and Newton’s bravado embodied in each game I’ve covered and each athlete or coach I’ve conversed with. 

But perhaps the story that sticks out with me so far is that of Oxford College’s women’s tennis coach Pernilla Hardin. 

You may know that she led the Oxford women’s tennis team to back-to-back NCAA Division III National Championships this past season. That feat, in itself, is more than newsworthy. But what you don’t know is her recovery journey as she battled back from cancer. 

Hardin will tell you that both the 2016 and 2015 national titles are special to her, so it’s hard for her to pick which one should stand above the other. They both mean so much to her, but for different reasons. 

Last season, she saw her team win the crown, sort of on the outside looking in. She was going through a particularly tough bout with chemotherapy, which kept her from being as hands-on involved with the team as she wanted to be — something that, if you know how Hardin is wired, was tremendously difficult for her.

“I’m obsessed with coaching tennis,” Hardin said. “I absolutely love it. I don’t know how to be tempered with coaching.” 

She said this as she described a stint from 1989 to 1992 when she had to give it up in order for her and her husband Robert to effectively raise their children. But when she moved to Atlanta in 1995, she realized there was too much of the game around her for her to stay away. 

“The city of Atlanta is full of tennis,” she said. “I ended up just kind of working as a tennis pro until 2013 when I took the job here at Oxford. It worked out to where I was able to do things around my family’s schedule.” 

Then came the 2015 season, and the harsh reality that there was no way she’d be able to keep up with the demands of coaching her team and getting well. That’s when Oxford College, in my opinion, showed Hardin how much she meant to the school — both as a coach and a person. 

“Because they allowed my husband to coach the team in my absence that year, I was still able to see things and know what was going on through my husband,” she said. “That was good therapy for me. And I’m grateful that the school allowed him to coach, because if they hired another person, I couldn’t get into their business like that. It was tremendous to watch, and they got it done.” 

Hardin was able to return to her team this year with all hands on deck as she helped craft a freshman-dominated squad toward a national title repeat. She talks about the amount of “favor” God has placed on her life. The kind that not only allowed her to live cancer free, but also to live the life she loves on the tennis court. 

Now here’s a fun fact about Hardin’s story. The first time I saw her wasn’t when I interviewed her after the second national championship. I remember seeing her on my second day on the job as I walked through The Square to find lunch. 

She was sitting outside at a small circle shaped table, and though I’m not the type to eavesdrop on folks’ conversations, I remember seeing her and hearing her distinctive voice, still with a trace of an accent — she was born and raised in Hudiksvall, Sweden — and whatever she was saying, I could tell it was something meant to encourage whomever she was talking to. 

Many times when I see people in passing, I always wonder what their “story” is. What is it about them that makes them who they are. I remember allowing that thought to briefly invade my conscience that day as I walked by this, at the time, unknown individual. 

Who knew that my job telling the stories of Newton County’s sports community would satisfy my random curiosity? 

It’s just another reminder to me that, while tennis or any other sport, indeed is just a game, for the athletes and coaches particularly, it’s so much bigger than just a game. 


Gabriel Stovall is the Sports Editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 as well as our sports Twitter page @CovNewsSports.