Four years ago, I drove 1,300 miles from Indiana to Wyoming, in my rear view a basketball city in which I spent the first 25 years of my life so heavily engrossed.
When I re-planted my roots in Sheridan, I wasn’t sure where to begin in getting my hoops fix. The Wyoming Cowboys played four and a half hours away, and teams like the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz played even farther away.
NBA League Pass would grow to become my best friend…at least at first.
Pretty much at the exact same time I was leaving the basketball Mecca for Wyoming, another hoops guru was fitting himself into the Western lifestyle. Matt Hammer came to Sheridan the same summer I did, as an assistant for Steve Smiley and the Sheridan College Generals.
A self-proclaimed hoops junkie, I admittedly had no understanding of junior college basketball. Vincennes is the only Division I juco in Indiana — a perennial top-tier squad — but it gets lost in the mix of power NCAA programs, the Indiana Pacers and high school gymnasiums the size of government buildings.
However, mostly due to my summer-arrival time, I got a feel for the juco life rather quickly. Smiley coached the Wyoming-Montana All-Star Game my first weekend in Sheridan, so I got to work with him right away. It was also the 50th anniversary of legendary coach Bruce Hoffman’s time at Sheridan College — my first column and first true understanding of the juco process and its importance in Sheridan.
Shortly after, though, Smiley left for a job at Weber State, and Hammer was thrust into a head coaching role he wasn’t expecting and maybe wasn’t fully prepared for.
Hammer was forced to quickly learn the game, and I hitched a ride on his journey as I sought out top-level basketball as a young sports reporter having Lance Stephenson withdrawals.
I’m not sure how many people realize what it takes to be a full-time college basketball coach, especially at the juco level. We see the big-time contracts at the NCAA ranks and seemingly-unlimited budgets and wooings of five-star recruits. None of that eases the pressures of the job — it maybe adds more — and none of that exists at the NJCAA level.
I watched as Hammer logged countless hours in his office — as interim head coach at the time — pushing to win games with players he didn’t know in a league that already made it tough to win games; a coach working to prove himself.
He was never not in his office. Seriously, whether I ran up to the dome at 7 a.m. on my way to the office or at 7 p.m. for a volleyball match, Hammer was drawing up plays or on the phone with recruits or watching film. The pressure from Hammer’s office — much of which he put on himself — smacked you in the face when you walked through the door of the gym.
It was obvious to me then the level of basketball at the NJCAA ranks and more so the direction in which the Sheridan College Generals were headed. This bloke could flat out coach.
Fast forward four seasons — full of ups and downs, highs and lows. I’ve covered dozens of games and practices, talked with players from all walks of life, experienced road trips and locker speeches and, just weeks ago, seen the cutting of nets.
The coaches in Region IX voted Hammer Coach of the Year for the conference Tuesday, a non-surprising yet impressive feat. The coach just wrapped his most enjoyable season to date — from an outsider’s perspective — and the future looks bright for a team that finished the season ranked 16th in the country.
As I watch coaches from around the league curse out referees and players, I see Hammer pushing himself and his players in a very tense yet respectable manner. I see a guy who refused to leave the dome because his interim-tag had yet to be removed and one who didn’t change his schedule once it was removed. I see players in the NCAA Tournament and a bunch more well on their way. Hammer tweeted about his three players winning All-Region awards; he made no mention of his Coach of the Year recognition. So I’ll do it for him.
Winning is hard; winning a lot is even harder; and winning the right way is even harder than that. Certainly Hammer is on his way to winning at numerous levels, but as long as he’s in Sheridan, expect more nets to come down at the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome.