Elizabethton Star -- "Hardin has Lees-McRae program moving forward"

February 05, 2014

This article was originally published in Elizabethton Star
Written by Matt Hill

Click here to view the original

Other than being known for the place where current Unaka High School head coach Aaron Dugger stood out in the mid-2000s, Lees-McRae basketball has basically been irrelevant since making the move to NCAA Division II in the mid-1990s.

However, another Carter County man is helping to put the school on the map for the sport, and is on his way to doing things not seen at the school in its history. Former Arby’s Classic three-point champion and 1999 Elizabethton High School graduate Steve Hardin is leading the charge to get the Bobcats to respectability and on their way to competing for Carolinas Conference titles.

With six victories, the Bobcats have already doubled their win total from last season. They also had a huge win over powerhouse King University at King in December. Hardin has been taught well, being the son of former Elizabethton High boys and girls coach Tony Hardin, whose crowning achievement as a coach was defeating the nationally-ranked Science Hill boys twice in 1995-96.

This is Hardin’s second year as head coach in Banner Elk, N.C., and already he is making waves throughout the conference. He likes the direction this team is heading in. “We have all new guys and we are trying to put the pieces together,” Hardin said. “The King win was the first time we had ever beaten them and was a big win for us. We are trying to get better and we want to make the conference tournament. The top eight make it with top four seeds hosting and right now we are in that seven spot. (As of Saturday) we have nine games left and we hope to make a little run.” The victory over the Tornado was a special one for the program and for Hardin, who started his coaching career as an assistant at the Bristol school.

It was also special for Hardin because it came against head coach George Pitts, the same George Pitts that Steve’s dad Tony had battles against in the mid-90s. Tony did beat Pitts twice in ’95-96, including for the District 1-AAA championship that year, the last AAA district Elizabethton won before dropping in classification in 2001.

With all of the history between the two families, there is also a lot of respect. And that is what made the King victory very sweet for Hardin. “It was a special victory,” Hardin said. “We have always respected George Pitts and if I have learned anything, it is it is hard to win on the road. We are looking to make history. The school record for wins is 13. But with my dad and I put together, we probably have more wins over Pitts than anyone.” 

Hardin of course is a Northeast Tennessee guy who has basically followed basketball in this neck of the woods for so many years, but once he got to Banner Elk he realized he had to go more with North Carolina recruits due to the dynamics and the state money available. 

However, he still wants to tap into that Tennessee talent and he has with players like former Sullivan North standout Chase Arnold. 

Arnold was the Northeast Tennessee Player of the Year last year, and Hardin expects big things out of him in future seasons. 

“Chase was so good in high school, but this is a different level and when you step up it hits you pretty quick,” Hardin said. “Our entire freshmen group is going to be special. They are all learning and we are doing things different with them than most people do.” 

Another local player that was on the roster heading into this season was former Elizabethton High standout Justin Wandell, but due to some injuries decided to leave the program and is now attending ETSU. 

Another reason for Justin’s exit was to be with his cousin, East Side Elementary principal Josh Wandell, who is battling ALS and has led a courageous crusade and has spoken to churches all over the area about this and having faith. 

With Justin’s injuries and what Josh was going through, Hardin definitely understood and had nothing but compassion for Justin when he made his decision. 

“Justin’s shoulder was really bothering him and he wanted to be there for Josh,” Hardin said. “He is doing great at ETSU, and I am glad he is being able to be around Josh a little more. They are a great family.” 

Overall though, things are going great for Hardin. Being just a few miles from the campus of Appalachian State University, both of the schools have some of the same challenges as far as trying to recruit top-notch basketball players to their campuses being in the bitter cold of the mountains and not having a lot of things around them. 

But Hardin looks at everything as challenge waiting to be met. 

“Us and Appalachian State both have a lot of challenges with basketball, but this is a beautiful place and we keep getting better every time out,” he said. 

Hardin knows this is going to be a process, but things are moving in the right direction. Lees-McRae basketball in Hardin’s eyes will one day be toward the top of the Carolinas Conference. 

And he is taking a page from a popular football coach in this neck of the woods. 

“Just like Butch Jones, we are taking it brick by brick,” Hardin said. “We are hoping to get a lot better every year. We want this program to keeping moving upward.” 


Matt Hill is an area sportswriter/broadcaster with 15 years experience in sports journalism. You can follow him on twitter @MattHillsports.

Media Contact:

Nina Mastandrea  |  Content Manager
Tel: 828.898.8729  |  Email: mastandrean@lmc.edu
Coach Hardin encouraging his players during a game.
Coach Hardin