HICKORY — Hickory native Chase Hodges probably never thought he would see himself in Sports Illustrated, but that’s exactly what happened earlier this month. The 1994 Hickory High graduate was featured in SI’s “Faces in the Crowd” segment, which recognizes the accomplishments of amateur athletes and coaches, in the issue that hit newsstands Aug. 8.
“That was awesome,” said Hodges, who is currently the head men’s and women’s tennis coach at Georgia Gwinnett College, of appearing in SI. “Our sports information director here at Georgia Gwinnett (Dale Long), I think he must have submitted me for that, which was pretty cool. I remember growing up in Hickory and reading Sports Illustrated all the time.
“What’s funny is the ‘Faces in the Crowd’ section was like the one section I always remember really taking an interest in,” he added, “because you kind of felt like you were reading about under-the-radar type people. You kind of were getting like a hidden treat to learn about people that maybe you wouldn’t learn about otherwise. So to be in that part of it was really cool … it was fun, a lot of fun.”
Hodges has been having a lot of fun at Georgia Gwinnett since being named the program’s first tennis coach in 2012. During his seven years at the helm, he has guided the Grizzlies to 11 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championships, including six men’s titles and five women’s titles. He is also an 11-time NAIA National Coach of the Year and a seven-time International Tennis Association National Coach of the Year.
Before taking over at Georgia Gwinnett, Hodges was previously the head coach at Georgia State University. He also had coaching stints at Longwood University in Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Drake University in Iowa.
“I didn’t have to leave Atlanta (to take the Georgia Gwinnett job) because I was the head coach at Division I Georgia State University for a couple years,” said Hodges. “When this job opened in 2012, it was very fascinating for me because the school just started an athletic department in 2012 and here I am seven years later with 11 national championships, which is hard to believe. … When I think about Grizzly tennis and starting a program and seeing where it’s at now, it’s something that I take great pride in for sure.”
The men’s tennis team at Georgia Gwinnett has won 109 straight matches dating back to 2015, the longest active streak in college sports. The Grizzlies are 277-22 overall since starting a tennis program, including a 151-3 mark for the men.
“We’ve strung together a bunch of undefeated seasons and obviously going undefeated in the postseason is what’s most important because that’s what gets you the national championships,” said Hodges. “We’ve been on a heck of a run here, and my biggest goal is trying to keep it going.
“Every year we graduate players and have to replace those players, but luckily for us, the recruiting has been going very, very well for us,” he continued. “We’ve had the opportunity to continue to have very high-level players in here, so I’m amped up for another big season coming up.”
The success at Georgia Gwinnett almost seems surreal to Hodges, who couldn’t have imagined winning so many national championships this early in his tenure.
“When I took the job, I was thinking national championships obviously would come; however, I did not expect them to happen this fast,” said Hodges. “In 2012-13, that was our first season, we were not eligible to compete in postseason play since we were a first-year athletic program. So when I started in July of 2012, all I could think about was May of 2014 because that’s the NAIA national championships and that would be our first opportunity to win a national title.
“So it was amazing being able to win that in our first year of eligibility on both the men’s and women’s side, which I don’t think has ever been done for a program in their first season of postseason eligibility,” he added. “… We went in there and pulled off some upsets and took home two national titles, and then we’ve just been able to pretty much defend it. Winning national championships was definitely the goal, but I don’t think I expected it to happen that fast.”
Hodges’ teams have also had success in the classroom, which he calls priority number one. Several of his players have earned Academic All-American honors.
“We’ve been very, very blessed to have some really high-level academic kids that perform well in the classroom and we’ve been able to take home a lot of Academic All-American awards for a couple years now,” said Hodges. “So that makes it even more special, that our players really see the value of academics. The number one goal here is to get a degree from Georgia Gwinnett, and everything else falls behind that.”
Hodges started playing tennis at the Hickory Foundation Center — now known as the Hickory Foundation YMCA — when he was 9 years old under the legendary Kathy Kim, who still coaches today after over 40 years. Primarily a basketball player at the time, he quickly took to the sport.
“Tennis was booming back then in Hickory,” said Hodges. “There were a lot of players and a lot of my friends were basically engrossed into the game, and I think that played a big role (in his love of the game). Hickory was a big tennis town back then, so I’ve got to give credit to Hickory as a whole because I feel like that really shaped who I am today in terms of being a young kid, being able to be introduced to the game.”
According to Hodges, one thing that differentiates tennis from other sports is the fact that it’s an activity people of all ages can play.
“It’s a lifetime sport. How many sports out there can you play at 10 and then play after you retire?” said Hodges. “Outside of golf maybe, I think tennis is what most people would think of. And just being able to stay active and healthy and being able to still enjoy the sport regardless of your age I think is a huge bonus that the sport of tennis offers that maybe some other ones don’t.”
Georgia Gwinnett tennis returns to the courts on Friday, Sept. 13, when the men travel to Wilmington for the UNC Wilmington Invitational and the women take part in the Thomasville Collegiate Invitational in Thomasville, Georgia.