June 13, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Long before she accepted the challenge of leading the University of Virginia softball team, Joanna Hardin was familiar with the program.

As an assistant coach at Liberty, she’d been to The Park, Virginia’s home field, when the Flames played the Cavaliers there in 2008 and ’09. In 2010, she was head coach at Jefferson Forest High near Lynchburg, from which she was able to follow the Wahoos.

“I think as a coach you always circle a couple of jobs,” Hardin said by phone Sunday from Lake Charles, La. “Oftentimes life doesn’t take you there, but obviously the University of Virginia is an ideal destination for my husband and me.”

Hardin, who guided McNeese State to the NCAA tournament this season, was hired at UVA last week. She replaces Blake Miller, who posted an overall record of 42-116, with a 12-59 mark in the ACC, in three seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach.

In two seasons as head coach at McNeese State, where she was an assistant in 2013 and ’14, Hardin compiled a 79-34 record. The Cowgirls went 43-14 this season and swept the Southland Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles.

In a statement last week, UVA athletics director Craig Littlepage called Hardin “one of the bright stars in college softball.” At 32, she’s one of the youngest head coaches in Division I.

“I’m extremely blessed,” Hardin said. “I’m speechless at the opportunity I have. Not many people get to do this at my age.”

Hardin, who was born and raised in Southern California, grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Angels. She credits the players with whom she’s worked and her colleagues for the success she’s had.

“I’m a product of many, many people giving me opportunities and believing in me and investing in me,” Hardin said.

At Virginia, she takes over a program that has reached the NCAA tournament only once, in 2010, and finished with a winning record three times in the past 10 seasons — in 2009, ’10 and ’12.

This spring, with a roster that included only two seniors, the `Hoos went 18-33 overall and 7-14 in ACC play, a modest improvement over their 2015 showing (16-40, 4-20).

Hardin hasn’t had time to review much videotape of Virginia’s returning players, who include outfielder Allison Davis, a second-team All-ACC selection this season, but she’s optimistic about the program’s potential. The Cavaliers’ top nine hitters this season — and all of their pitchers — have eligibility remaining.

“I think that the pieces are there,” Hardin said. “What we hope to bring is passion and a desire to get better. It’s going to be work. It’s going to be every day, one step at a time. There’s a lot that we’re going to go through together as a team, but I think one of my strengths is I believe in the kids.

“It’s a program that’s ripe and ready, and I’m excited … I’m a kind of no-excuses person, and I think [success] will come as we work and put it together.”

Hardin, who officially starts her new job on Wednesday, has been delighted by the reaction of current and former UVA players to her hiring.

“Can’t wait to get started with @Coach_Jo4444 and @UVASOFTBALL,” rising senior Madison Labshere tweeted Sunday. “August can’t come soon enough!”

Hardin: “I’m excited, and I think they’re excited.”

A graduate of Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., Hardin started 208 games for its softball team and was named to the all-conference first team three times.

“I wasn’t super talented [as a player],” said Hardin, whose maiden name is Gray. “I always tell people I’m 5-foot-5, but I’m really 5-4. I’ve had to work and grind for opportunities, and that’s who I am and what’s made me what I am.”

At Liberty, where she was hired as a graduate assistant, Hardin earned a master’s degree, after which she started and coached the Virginia Titans, a travel program for under-12 and under-14 girls.

Hardin believes there’s considerable softball talent in the state, and she expects Virginians to be important pieces of the Cavaliers’ program.

“There’s a reason that there are Virginia kids playing in [NCAA] regionals and super regionals and at the [College] World Series,” Hardin said. “I think the key is getting out there and competing for them.

“It’s important that those kids don’t go out of state. I think there’s something special about representing your home state. It’s important to let the state know that we’re committed to Virginia and we’re committed to bringing those athletes in to represent Virginia on a high stage.”

Hardin and her husband, Travis Hardin, a math teacher, will celebrate their 11th anniversary next month.

When the UVA job came open last month, McNeese State was still playing, and Hardin kept her focus on her team. Once the Cowgirls’ season ended, however, “my husband and I just really talked about it, and we decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hardin said.

She laughed. “I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and pinch myself. I’m so humbled and thankful and excited. We’re excited to be at the University of Virginia, and we’re excited to be back in familiar territory.”

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