NEW PALESTINE — On the eve of the fall sports season, the New Palestine Dragons boys tennis team is bracing for something no Dragon has had to endure in the past nine years: A season without Chris Hardin.
At the end of the school year, the former New Palestine boys and girls tennis coach decided to step away from the courts, and more recently, away from the chalkboard.
On Monday, Hardin officially retired from teaching after 10 years at New Palestine and is moving on to a career in fire safety education.
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As a coach, in 19 combined seasons between boys and girls tennis, the ultra-competitive New Palestine graduate accumulated a 260-96 record (.730 winning percentage) that included 12 Hancock County championships, 11 sectional titles and two Hoosier Heritage Conference crowns.
So it is with both a full trophy case and a heavy heart Hardin has decided to depart.
“I got the boys and girls teams together at the end of spring, and I let them know that I had finished my last season,” Hardin said. “I told them it was a hard decision to make, and there were definitely some tears. I think they were just a little shocked. I think I caught them off guard. … I’ll really miss them.”
It wasn’t just the players he caught off guard. A longtime and fierce rival didn’t see Hardin’s resignation coming either.
“I just kind of figured he would end up being a lifer like me,” said Gabe Muterspaugh, who has been the Mt. Vernon boys and girls tennis coach for nearly two decades. “I thought he’d be in it forever. He loved coaching (so) much.”
Once the shock wore off, though, Muterspaugh said imagining a year without Hardin opposing his Marauders, like the one approaching, feels out of whack.
“I don’t know who is who, but for us, it was like Superman versus Lex Luther,” said Muterspaugh, as he fondly recalled a decade’s worth of ferocious battles between their teams. “It’s IU-Purdue, or anything else you want to call it. He was my big enemy in this whole thing, and I’ll miss that. You knew when you played a Chris Hardin team, you were going to get their best.”
Hardin explained that his decision was largely based on his family. Before the spring season began, his wife Sara earned a promotion to a full-time supervisor position at Hancock County Regional Hospital. They both knew that when that happened, finding family time between their clogged calendars would be difficult.
After enduring a challenging few months while coaching the girls, Hardin decided that he wanted to spend more time with Savanah, 9, Sophie, 7, and Sydney, 4, so he resigned as coach.
“After coach (Kathy) Tucker left, he took the program and ran with it,” said Al Cooper, who was not just Hardin’s athletics director but a longtime friend who had watched Hardin grow from student to teacher at New Palestine. “He’s won a bunch of sectional and county championships and really improved our program. We’re going to miss him.
“He seems very passionate about his new job, and he’s not looking back. He’s doing what’s best for his family. We applaud him for that. But we also appreciate all the work he has done for our kids and this program.”
When Hardin looks back over his career, his memories won’t be filled with sectional or county titles he won, but instead the kids who made up those teams.
For Hardin, while winning was important, it was not his primary focus. He is most proud of two aspects of his coaching tenure: First, in 19 season, he never cut anybody. The game, he said, is for everyone, and everyone deserves a chance to learn it. Second, he always preached a family-first atmosphere. And now, by leaving New Palestine, he has the opportunity to be the perfect example of that and practice what he preached.
Meanwhile, Muterspaugh will have to re-ignite the New Palestine-Mt. Vernon rivalry with the man replacing Hardin. Des Evans, a tennis pro at the Indianapolis Racquet Club in Carmel, is taking over the program.
Evans emigrated from Zimbabwe to Indianapolis in 2000 and has three children, Nicola, Gareth and Stacey, who all won individual tennis state titles at Carmel High School.
Though Hardin has never met Evans, based on his background, he is sure he is leaving his Dragons in good hands.
That said, Hardin did have a piece of advice he wanted to deliver to the new coach.
“Being a pro, I’m sure he’ll bring a technical aspect to the game that I didn’t,” Hardin said. “So the No. 1 thing I would say to him is just to remember that above all, these are kids. You’re not just teaching them tennis, you’re teaching them about life. And just like in tennis, they are going to make mistakes, and you just have to deal with them the best we can and hopefully teach them a little about life along the way.”
Name: Chris Hardin
Position: Former New Palestine boys and girls tennis coach
Family: Sara (wife); Savanah, 9, Sophie, 7 and Sydney, 4 (children)
Tenure: 19 seasons between boys and girls teams
Hoosier Heritage Conference titles: 2
Sectional titles: 11
County titles: 12