By Sarah Moomaw
Everyone is talking about Nancy Gartin Sterling, except herself.
Her longtime doubles partner. Her late-father. The William Carey University's athletic director. Even, her former college coach from the late 1970s. But not the William Carey University Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
In the spring, the lifelong Meridian resident – minus the years spent at WCU playing women's tennis – joined seven others in the third class of inductees at the Hattiesburg university. Also included in the Class of 2013, was Meridian-raised Ricky McMullen, class of 1979, who played baseball for the Crusaders.
The university is looking to honor its former athletes and re-thank them for their time and effort. A Sports Hall of Fame seemed to be the most fitting, current WCU athletic director and men's basketball coach Steve Knight said.
"We're trying to get caught up with a lot of good athletes in the past," he said. "It's quite an honor for Nancy to have been chosen in just the third year."
The only surprise in the honor to Sterling's longtime doubles partner, Donna Jill Johnson, was that Sterling's father shared the news, but even so, the shock was minimal.
"That's just who she is," Johnson said. "She'd be the last one to tell you that she was the best female tennis player to grace Meridian and Lauderdale County. She'd be the last one."
In late June, Sterling's father, Al Gartin, came to Johnson because of her and Sterling's longtime friendship stemming from the game to see about how to share the news of the induction since she hadn't done it herself. He wanted it to be a surprise, but within the week, passed away. He would have been 91 on Sept. 6.
"He said, 'Somebody's got to help us get this out there because Nancy won't do it,'" Johnson said.
Johnson said Sterling has been one of the best, if not the top, Mississippi women's tennis players since they met 40 years ago, but has always been modest about her game.
The two first met on the tennis court when former Meridian High School coach Carlene Barkley asked Johnson to work out with Sterling because she could see the potential. Johnson happily obliged.
"I told her, 'I hope to work with you long enough, and hard enough, that you'll be able to beat me one day,'" Johnson said. "Well, I thought I was sincere with that statement, but low and be hold, a few years later she came back and beat me. Then I realized that, apparently, I wasn't very sincere because I didn't take it very well."
After Sterling's collegiate career ended, they reunited to play in a competitive state-wide doubles league with success, winning tournaments around Mississippi. Johnson put down her tennis racket when she got into politics as she now serves as the City Clerk of Meridian, but hopes to be back on the court with Sterling some day.
"Before I go to the nursing home, I hope to be playing doubles with Nancy again," Johnson said.
Sterling's game and record in Mississippi tennis earned her a place in WCU history even before the Hall of Fame was created in 2010.
After a standout career at Meridian High School, Sterling spent a year as an Eagle at Meridian Community College without losing a set at No. 1 Singles before becoming a Crusader.
In 1976, she moved to Hattiesburg to attend WCU, which had just instated a women's tennis team the year earlier under the direction of head coach Frank Pinkerton. That school year, she went 13-0 and the team went to the American Intercollegiate Association for Women (AIAW) Division 2 National Tournament, where Sterling finished in the top eight players in May 1977.
Over her three-year career at WCU, accumulated a 34-9 record at first singles, with wins over major NCAA Division 1 programs such as Mississippi State University, University of Southern Mississippi, University of New Orleans and Southeast Missouri State University. At first doubles, she finished with a 23-9 record.
"Her strength was her mental toughness and her all around game," Pinkerton said.
Her presence on the court left a mark on Pinkerton as he rattled off her accomplishments from memory and nominated her for the award.
"Those years, that I was associated with William Carey, she was far and above the best player, women's player, that came through that period," Pinkerton said. "In my mind at least, I knew the Nancy belonged in the Hall of Fame because she was such an outstanding player."