ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the on-court persona of Tabor College’s Erica Hemmert belies her friendly demeanor off the hardwoods.
Flashing a charismatic and infectious smile when not competing, Hemmert becomes as fierce a competitor on the court as anyone who has ever donned Tabor blue and gold.
“On the court I’m very intense,” Hemmert said. “I’m focused, my goal is to play hard and do the little things right.
“Off the court I laugh a lot and smile a lot. I think the other girls think of me as the team mom.
Coach Rusty Allen said his senior guard is “very intense on the court yet very coachable.”
“Off the court Erica has the heart of a servant who’s completely committed to her relationship to Christ, and I think that shows in every phase of her life,” he said.
“She works hard and looks for opportunities to help other people-and all that stems back to her relationship with Christ. She’s probably as determined a player as I’ve ever been around.”
That determination, along with exceptional physical talent, has earned Hemmert numerous accolades during her Bluejay career, which is quickly drawing to a close.
Hemmert has been named Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference freshman-of-the-year, is a two-time All-KCAC first team selection and last year received honorable mention as an NAIA All-American.
Since she’s joined the team, the Bluejays have posted a 71-33 record.
The daughter of Kirk and Debbie Hemmert, Erica played high school basketball at Wakeeney for the Trego Golden Eagles.
Younger brother Sage is a member of the Tabor men’s team while youngest brother Spencer is a freshman at Trego.
Hemmert honed her basketball skills for three coaches during her four years in high school, but she said perhaps her most significant training occurred in her own backyard.
“When I was little and played basketball, my dad was the one person whom I really looked up to a lot,” Hemmert said. “I played hard because that’s the way he played with me, and he played fundamentally sound.
“I was a daddy’s girl and I think I started playing because that was a big part of his life,” she added. “I wanted to make him proud and I think I have.”
Hemmert originally planned to play college basketball in Indiana.
But it wasn’t until the Golden Eagles lost in the sub-state finals her senior season that Hemmert became serious about continuing her basketball career.
“I realized I still had a desire to play basketball, but I also realized I didn’t want to be 13 hours from home and play where my parents couldn’t watch me play,” she said. “So I started sending out films and looking for a school close to home.”
Hemmert first became aware of the Bluejays during the fall of her senior year. Brad Griffith, her calculus teacher, had a daughter Shelby at Tabor.
Hemmert’s initial reaction wasn’t positive.
“I just said, ‘No way, I’m not going there, no way,'” she said. “I’d never even heard of Tabor.”
Meanwhile, Hemmert also was proficient at tennis and was contacted by Tabor tennis coach Lonnie Isaac. But she spurned his inquiry, too.
“I didn’t even return his phone call,” Hemmert said.
But fate was on Tabor’s side when former Quinter principal and current Canton-Galva superintendent Bill Seidl recommended Hemmert to Allen.
“Once we saw the tape of Erica, we knew we wanted her on our team,” Allen said.
By then, other KCAC schools also were aware of Hemmert’s athletic prowess. Kansas Wesleyan, Bethel and Sterling were pursuing her.
“But I didn’t even visit them because Tabor was my first visit and I really liked what I saw,” Hemmert said. “The atmosphere here was great, and I really liked what I thought Coach Allen could accomplish with this program.
“I liked that the program was on the rise, too,” she added. “I didn’t want to go to Sterling and step into a program that was already at the top. I wanted to be a part of a program I could help build.”
It didn’t hurt that Allen was the coach. “He was a big part of why I came here,” Hemmert said. “There was just something about him that I trusted. I thought he was really honest with me and where I would fit in with this team.
“And I wanted to attend a Christian college and play for a Christian coach.”
In her first year as a Bluejay, Tabor finished 18-12. Even though Hemmert claimed her freshman award, things weren’t that easy.
“Coming from high school to college, you’re no longer better than everyone else-you have to work a lot harder,” Hemmert said. “I was very thankful Coach Allen was a good communicator because it can be a humbling experience as a freshman.
“I remember when I found out I was freshman-of-the-year I was very surprised because although it was a good year, it had its ups and downs.”
During her sophomore season, Tabor repeated its 18-12 record and Hemmert was named to the All-KCAC first team.
“That surprised me as well because I’d never thought about how good I really could be,” she said. “But I attribute a lot of that to my teammates and the team I played on.”
It wasn’t until last season that Tabor reached the summit of the KCAC, cruising through the conference slate at 17-1 and earning a trip to the national tournament.
“The highlight of my career at Tabor was becoming one of-if not the-top teams in the conference,” Hemmert said. “Beating Sterling the first time last year was huge, and then beating them at home for the conference championship was the best part.
“That night was just awesome for me and all of our team.”
Tabor’s appearance at the national tournament was bittersweet.
Hemmert scored 13 points in Tabor’s 59-57 opening-round victory over Daemen College of Buffalo, N.Y., setting up a match with hometown favorite and eventual national champion Morningside College.
But Hemmert was whistled for three fouls in the first half and eventually disqualified with five fouls with 15:41 left in the game after scoring just eight points.
“That was very difficult for me,” she said. “A lot of things my dad had always told me came up in my head that day. He told me to keep encouraging my teammates and to be strong.
“I don’t know if the outcome would have been different (if I hadn’t fouled out), but I like to think so,” she said. “But my teammates really did step up when I came out of that game.”
That experience generated added incentive for Hemmert and her teammates this season.
“Seeing how close we came to Morningside was a huge motivator,” she said. “We don’t want to take for granted the opportunity we have this year with the talent and potential we have gathered.
“Our team goals are to go undefeated in the conference and to make it to the final four of the national championships,” she added. “We’d love to be national champions, but really we just want to glorify God and have a lot of fun together.”
Hemmert said the attitude surrounding Tabor women’s basketball has become much more fan-friendly in the past four seasons.
“People come to watch the women as much as they do the men now,” she said. “We’ve earned respect because our style of play is fun and we play together and play hard.
“Because of Coach Allen, the way we handle ourselves both on and off the court has earned people’s respect,” Hemmert said. “When people see our team play, they see five people playing together and playing hard, trying to glorify God and having fun while we do it.”
As Hemmert’s career draws to a close, she knows coming to Tabor was the right choice for her.
“Tabor offers a unique education, but I think the people here are one of Tabor’s best qualities,” she said. “The people here care more about you as a person than just as an athlete.
“Being a part of the team is, without a doubt, the best part of college basketball,” she added. “Just the chemistry and memories and relationships you build with your teammates is something I’ll always remember.”
Allen said the thing he’ll remember most about Hemmert is her overall attitude.
“Her leadership and encouragement will really be missed next year,” he said. “It’s obvious she loves practice and that translates into leadership.
“Her presence the past four years has absolutely allowed us to get other women to join our program-and she does it all out of the genuineness of her heart.”
Hemmert will graduate in May with a degree in psychology and biblical studies. She hopes to eventually work in the field of marriage and family counseling.
For now, Hemmert is beginning to feel the urgency of winning a second straight KCAC title and a return trip to Sioux City.
Whether or not that happens, Hemmert knows her heart will always be with Tabor College.
“I feel extremely fortunate and blessed to have played for Coach Allen,” she said. “(Four years) has gone fast, but I’m very thankful to have had this opportunity.”
By the way, Hemmert finally got back with Coach Isaac. She will join the tennis team this spring.