By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (October 9, 2015) — In the wee hours of Thursday morning, between 12 and 1 a.m. to be exact, Michael Hardge led Tarleton State out onto the court in a jam-packed Wisdom Gym for his final Midnight Madness.
Next will come the last exhibition, followed by the last weekend-long Texan Tipoff Classic to begin his final regular season.
You get the idea. Hardge is a senior for Tarleton State, one of the most recognizable Division II programs in the nation. The reigning Lone Star Conference and South Central Region champ. Not only one of a handful of teams expected to contend for the Division II championship, but the No. 1 team in the nation according to a preseason poll conducted by The Sporting News.
In short, Tarleton wants to win its first national title. And if were a made for TV drama with veteran head coach Lonn Reisman playing the lead role, Hardge would be the top supporting actor.
“This is all kind of bittersweet,” said Hardge, a Georgetown product. “I’ve been here four years doing all this, and it’s a blessing and an amazing experience every day I spend at Tarleton. “To be back here for my senior year and doing everything for the last time, I just know I have to give my all in everything I do. As a captain, I have to get everyone else to give it their all, too. We want to go out on top.”
A starting point guard and team captain, Hardge didn’t become a star at Tarleton in a mad recruiting rush to land the next big Division I transfer. He came as a freshman, served his time as a reserve behind All-American Chuck Guy, became the starter as a junior and led the Texans to the national semifinals last March.
Hardge sets up the offense, plays nasty defense, can finish at the rim or shoot the three, and he’s even left sports writers from outside Stephenville admiring on Twitter his knack for winning seemingly every 50-50 ball, saving possessions, creating four-to-six point swings where Tarleton scores and the other team does not. Just ask Andy Newberry, sports editor of the Times-Record News in Wichita Falls, who Tweeted during the Tarleton-Angelo State regional final, “Yeah, like Hardge was gonna lose a 50-50 ball.”
Hardge is not a big-time scorer. He is a big-time player.
Among the best in the nation.
For perhaps the best team.
“Nothing is new to me now that I’m a senior and I’ve been a starter and we’ve been deep in the playoffs,” Hardge said. “It’s my senior year now, Nad I know more of the system and how things should be run, what it’s supposed to look like out on the court. I”m ready to lead this team as a fourth-year player.”
The journey begins with an exhibition at the University of Texas on on Friday, November 6. Tipoff is 5 p.m. at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, and admission is free. The Texan Tip-off Classic the next week will officially begin the final season of Hardge’s Tarleton career.
And even after everything accomplished during his junior season, Hardge and the Texans are after a bigger prize. The only prize Tarleton has never won.
“A lot of anger. I was very angry. I felt personally like I could have done more even though I was out there giving it my all,” said Hardge of his feelings following the semifinal loss to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, when Tarleton saw a second-half double-digit lead slip away. “We came up short, but as a point guard and captain, I take responsibility for being sure we have learned from that and we use that experience to benefit us when we are in that position again.
Of course, being in that position, in the national semifinals, is a long ways off.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve got time. We’ve been working hard, and now we can start practicing for real, so we’ll start putting it together,” Hardge said. “I think we can be as good as we want to be, and we want to be the best. We just have to take it step by step and get better day by day.”
Because for Hardge and his classmates, it’s the final chance.
“I know what I want out of my senior season, and I know all of us wants it, but I know every other team in the nation wants it too, and only one team can have that,” he said. “When it’s all said and done, as long as we can look back and say everyone on our team gave it their all, I think we’ll be proud of what we accomplished.”
Especially if it’s that one bit accomplishment, the only one the program has never quite reached.
The national championship.
“I believe we have the ability to win it all, I really do,” said Hardge. “We just have to go out and prove it.”