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JACKSON, Tenn. -- When T.J. Hardeman guided Azusa Pacific into the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball championship game against long-time power and local favorite Union (Tenn.), the Cougars’ run to the title game caught most people by surprise.
The Cougars’ rapid ascent into the NAIA’s elite was surprising not only to those accustomed to seeing the same dominant programs year in and year out; it caught off guard many of those involved with Azusa Pacific who watched Hardeman win as many national tournament games in one season than the program had accumulated in its 11 previous appearances combined.
He certainly has their attention now, although it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. The signs of progression Azusa Pacific was making both within and outside of the powerful Golden State Athletic Conference were there for those willing to give an up-and-coming program a closer look. The Cougars shared the 2010 GSAC title with long-time GSAC power Vanguard, which had won 6 of the previous 7 conference championships, and Hardeman continued to assemble a deep and talented roster built around a starting lineup that has returned intact for 3 straight seasons.
The entire 2010 starting five consisted of 4 juniors and a sophomore, and their run to the title game validated Hardeman’s expectation of turning his young upstarts at Azusa Pacific into a viable national championship contender. Within that 5-player group, 4 of them have scored at least 1,000 career points, while the fifth (Michelle Byrd) brings a 999-point career total into this year’s tournament.
“I think a national championship is very important to him,” said Dan Ploog, Hardeman’s son-in-law and assistant coach. “Of course we were disappointed last year, but we didn’t want to let that disappointment take away from all the good things we did last year. Even this year, we’ve done a lot of good things, and our goal of winning a national championship is our ultimate goal.”
Under Hardeman’s 4-year watch, the Cougars have posted more wins (104) than in any other 4-year stretch in the program’s history, and they came 1 win away from a 30-win season last year, which would have tied Azusa Pacific’s single-season wins record. Five of Azusa Pacific’s 8 all-time NAIA Tournament wins came in the past 2 seasons, and after claiming consecutive GSAC titles for just the second time in program history, the Cougars enter the 2011 NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship as a No. 1-seed for the first time ever.
“I think he definitely raised a level of expectation within the program that we can do this,” Ploog said. “He talked about it a lot last year, and I don’t know if the team truly believed we could win a national championship, but they saw how close we got to winning it. When he said it again throughout this year, I think the girls have bought in a little bit more and believe they really can do this together, which has only raised our level of play and commitment.”
It would be easy to dismiss Azusa Pacific’s latest run of success as a blip in the radar, a temporary visit to college basketball royalty that will fade as soon as the Cougars’ current batch of talented players conclude their collegiate careers. But to do that, however, one would have to ignore the momentum Hardeman has created to get Azusa Pacific to the precipice of college basketball’s highest peak. One would need to overlook the fact that although the Cougars’ women’s basketball history is filled with NAIA All-Americans and 1,000-point scorers, there had never been more than 2 players on the court together with 1,000 career points. The 2010 squad will have 5 when Byrd scores her first points of the tournament, and each member of that group has spent time in the individual spotlight only to take a back seat at other times in order to advance toward team goals.
“You don’t have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand,” said Tim Beauregard, a first-year Azusa Pacific assistant who spent the previous 4 years coaching across the bench from Hardeman on the Fresno Pacific coaching staff. “One of the things I like about him is that he’s realistic with the fact that some of our girls may not always get along, but he understands that we have to be able to work together when we step on the court. He’s created that by giving us time to be together, and when you spend enough time with somebody, you realize how you can work well with them.”
With Hardeman leading the way, his team has maximized its value as a sum greater than its parts with unprecedented team success, and it’s done so by more than what the rewritten record books will tell when all is said and done. In a short amount of time, Hardeman has transformed Azusa Pacific women’s basketball into far more than what can be seen on the court. It’s a family, and it’s no coincidence that the Cougars’ brand of team basketball and unselfish play are very much designed around the idea of family to drive the team’s overall success.
“I think the ability to pull them together and have a family atmosphere is essential to reaching your full potential,” said Azusa Pacific athletic director Bill Odell, who was inducted just this week into the NAIA Hall of Fame for his own stellar Cougar coaching career. “There are so many different personalities when you’re recruiting, but as a coach you’ve got to bring them together. It’s always been difficult to do that, and I think it’s getting more difficult to take away the egos and the entitlements and everything else players come into a team with, but he does a really good job of that.”
The family atmosphere is the root of the entire Azusa Pacific program, starting with Hardeman’s engaging personality, his passion for his players, and his unmistakable personal touch. Hardeman’s own family shaped his program philosophy, and his life experience has given him a deep knowledge of what it means to be successful.
“Our team is the definition of a family,” said junior guard Eboni Sadler, who transferred to Azusa Pacific after a visit to campus to observe a Cougar practice last spring. “We can’t hand-pick our teammates, we don’t always get along, and we don’t always see eye to eye. But we have each others’ backs in the end.”
Hardeman’s father, Tine, was one of the all-time men’s basketball greats and a 2-year head coach at Westmont, and T.J. played for his father as a 1975 freshman there. T.J. and his wife Cindy had 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys, and all 4 played GSAC basketball in college. His oldest daughter, Heidi, had a 4-year career at Biola, where she met and later married a fellow Biola men’s hoopster in Ploog, who is in his fifth season of coaching alongside his father-in-law.
“I rarely hear him talk about basketball with recruits,” Ploog said. “I’ve heard him tell the team, parents, and recruits, that if all we ever do as a coaching staff is make you better basketball players, then we’ve failed. We want to make them better students, better daughters, better friends, better Christians, as well as better basketball players.”
Hardeman’s wide range of experience as the child of a parent who coached college basketball, as a parent of children playing college basketball, and now as a coach of other parents’ basketball-playing children gives him a unique perspective on how to create a family atmosphere while pushing his teams to compete at the highest level.
“That combination is the best for a coach, to be a part of a family and be a demanding coach, as well,” Sadler said. “Having daughters who played basketball gives him insight into how hard he can push them and what to expect from us. He is as compassionate as a male coach can get, and I appreciate that. Him having daughters lets us know that he does know a little about what he’s talking about, and he’s not going to expect the impossible. We know that he coaches us as he would coach his daughters.”
This family atmosphere is evident with the presence of his own family, which now includes 3 Ploog children that attend nearly every Cougar home game and have accompanied the team to this year’s national tournament.
“From the beginning, it wasn’t going to be just about winning with him,” said Kristie Hala’ufia, a senior center who has played all 4 seasons for Hardeman and was already in the program after a redshirt season when he was hired. “With him, it was about making us better people, and he has been like that since day one. He has that unconditional love for us that he would have for his own daughters, and it makes us feel comforted because he still has that supportive side.”
There is also no shortage of competitive fire with Hardeman, an attribute that pushes his teams and holds them accountable to reach their full potential while also displaying a protective instinct that shows his love for his players as only a father can. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it, but it couldn’t be more evident once you’ve seen those interactions take place.
“We have good days, bad days, and worse days, but we’re all here together,” Sadler said. “In practice, when we’re hurting, we’re all hurting together. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re not the only that’s going through it. Your sister to the left and right of you, and your sister across from you and next to you are all feeling the same thing. We’re not always going to have great practices and good days on or off the court, but we’re still together. We’re still a family. We get to wake up and see each other the next day.”
There’s no telling what will transpire over the next week. Perhaps Azusa Pacific will bring home its first-ever women’s basketball national championship, and it’s possible the Cougars will be a first-round upset victim – that’s the reality of a single-elimination tournament.
What is certain is that when Azusa Pacific leaves the floor for the final time this season, they’ll do so as a family – as T.J. Hardeman’s family. As the Cougar family.