Westwood honors former coach Tom Hammar, wins ‘old-fashioned’ way

ISHPEMING – It was “Back to the Future” time for the Westwood High School girls basketball team on Tuesday night.

The NICE School District honored long-time Westwood girls varsity coach Tom Hammar in a pregame ceremony, then the current edition of the Patriots went out and played solid defense and a keep-away fourth quarter for a 48-41 victory over Iron Mountain.

“This should be a real confidence builder for our girls with four games in the next week,” WHS first-year coach Kurt Corcoran said. “This was an old-fashioned Westwood win.”

Hammar was joined in the crowd by a longtime Patriots’ coach, boys varsity mentor Irv Dieterle, and current boys coach Ryan Reichel, who played for Dieterle and coached as an assistant two years ago under Hammar.

“He’s the ultimate professional,” Reichel said. “The things I learned from him was to take everything with a grain of salt and always work on getting better.

“That state banner will be a legacy that will last beyond any of us.”

The banner is the MHSAA state Class C championship Hammar’s team won in 2003, the crowning achievement of 29 years as head girls coach where he compiled a record of 397-256.

“He was a stickler for the fundamentals,” Dieterle said about Hammar, who also won 13 Mid-Peninsula Conference titles and was named Upper Peninsula Coach of the Year three times. “He taught them the right way.”

Both Hammar and Dieterle joined the NICE district as teachers not long after Westwood High School opened in 1974. For a number of years, Hammar was girls varsity coach and Dieterle headed the boys varsity, with each serving as the other’s junior varsity coach.

With a number of his children and grandchildren in attendance, Hammar got a bit choked up at the microphone after WHS athletic director Jon Beckman introduced him and presented him with a Westwood golf shirt, lifetime Westwood sports pass and a plaque honoring his service to the school district.

“I really appreciate all these things tonight and all the people over all the years,” Hammar said to the crowd. “If it wasn’t for all the phenomenal student-athletes I had all these years, I never would’ve made it.”

Hammar’s departure a year ago from the program was controversial, as he was asked not to reapply for his job by then NICE Superintendent Michael Haynes, who subsequently left the district a few months later.

It caused an outcry in the community in support of Hammar, who had spent nearly four decades coaching basketball at various levels.

“When all that came down, it made me feel good when I found out how I had impacted some people,” Hammar said before Tuesday’s ceremony. “After 39 years, it was nice to feel appreciated. It made me feel that what I did wasn’t unnoticed.”

He said that support even came from people he barely knew, including a number of players and coaches of teams he had coached against.

“I guess you get that when you coach 29 years with one team,” Hammer said. “That’s something that these days doesn’t happen very often.”

After a couple years teaching and coaching junior high boys basketball in downstate Fraser, Hammar took a teaching position in the NICE district in 1975, at the same time coaching freshman boys basketball. He started coaching girls in 1981 and took over the varsity position in 1983.

During Tuesday’s game, the Patriots were in a position they haven’t been accustomed to this season – holding a fourth-quarter lead – so their slowdown technique was a little rough at times. Westwood led 37-27 entering the final eight minutes.

The Pats committed a few turnovers on bad passes and didn’t make a basket the entire quarter, but an 11-of-19 performance at the free-throw line was enough to improve to 4-9 overall and 3-4 in the Mid-Peninsula Conference.

“We were looking for the open layup, but no outside shots,” said Westwood sophomore Katie Rankinen, who led her team with 17 points and seven rebounds. “We just had to be patient on offense.”

Teammate Gabrielle Hebert had four points, four steals and four assists, while Kara Harrington had eight points and three steals.

For IM (3-12, 2-8), Abby Gerhard recorded team highs of 14 points and eight rebounds, but only made 2 of 9 free throws, all of the misses coming in the first half as the Mountaineers trailed 27-14 at the break.

Westwood also won the JV game, 56-17.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.