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Tammy Church Hagstrom

Hagstrom thrilled to get the call

First of a series...

By KARL PEARSON
Staff Writer

Tammy Church Hagstrom, a 1989 Conneaut graduate, was pretty sure the call would never come. She was at the inaugural Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation dinner, when her nephew, Tom Church, a former Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year and a senior at Ashland University in the spring of 2003, received the Alumni Achievement Award.

She wondered as the first Hall of Fame class was inducted if the ACBF would ever take notice of her exploits with the Spartans girls basketball team. She wasn't hopeful.

"I thought that night, ‘Wouldn't it be something if they got around to me some day,'" Hagstrom said. "I guess I thought they'd have to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. It wasn't that I didn't do well, but we didn't have a dominant team, we never went 20-0. But we played the game because we loved the game, and we had a lot of fun."

So, when the call finally did come, Hagstrom could hardly believe what she heard.

"I was so excited," Hagstrom said. "I was speechless. I am the first female from Conneaut to be inducted. It really is a wonderful honor."

Hagstrom was a post player for the Spartans and played for Greg Lucas as a freshman and for Dave Simpson her sophomore, junior and senior years. At 5-foot-10, she wasn't always the tallest person under the basket, but by the time she reached high school, Hagstrom was used to playing against people taller than she.

"I didn't play organized basketball until the seventh grade at Rowe," she said. "But the truth is, I was born with a basketball in my hands. My brothers, Tom and Tim, would take me out and play basketball with me."

To say that Hagstrom was the kid sister is a little misleading. She was the much, much, much younger kid sister. Her brother Tom graduated from Conneaut in 1969, the year before Hagstrom was born. But her introduction to the game proved to be helpful later on.

"I did get banged around playing against my brothers," Hagstrom said. "But I learned how to play against people who were taller than I. My brothers didn't take it easy with me, and that helped with my inside game. Besides, the hoop we had was nailed to a tree in the backyard, which meant you had to worry about your footing, too, with all the roots."

Playing against her brothers raised the level of Hagstrom's game.

"That's not to say that there aren't girls who are very athletic and very aggressive," she said. "But playing against my brothers really helped. I was 5-10 and going against taller players most of the time. Knowing that I could hold my own against my brothers gave me a little more confidence."

Watching her brothers play, especially Tim during his high school career, only heightened her interest in the game.

"I was just in awe of the things the players were able to do and their love for the game," she said. "I couldn't wait to get out there and play for the team."

That's just the way it was for the daughter of Harry and Leonore Church.

"My parents were the biggest influences," she said. "They always wanted me to do my best, and I'd go out and shoot for hours. They were a huge influence."

When Hagstrom finally reached high school, the Spartan program was entering a rebuilding phase. Most of the players from coach Paul Ruland's great Conneaut teams graduated in 1985. The following November, the Spartans had a new coach — Lucas. Hagstrom was a freshman and the team was short on varsity experience.

The five freshmen on that team — Hagstrom, Krissy Usher, Carrissa Bihlajama, Jackie Tylman and Paula Horwood — kept at it, however, despite a 2-19 record that year.

"Krissy and I had been playing together since kindergarten," Hagstrom said. "And we'd been with the other girls since Rowe, when the kids from all the elementary schools went to junior high. And it paid off for us, because, by the time we were seniors, we knew what the others were going to do, how they were going to do it and why."

The Spartans went 33-51 during Hagstrom's four years, breaking .500 only once, her senior year, when they finished 14-7.

"The hardest part was not winning," Hagstrom said. "We had some talented athletes, but we couldn't get it to click into high gear. The losing was difficult to deal with. We tried so hard to get it turned around, but we couldn't do it.

"But it was great our senior year. We were able to put a string or two together and show people that we knew how to win."

Hagstrom was busy in high school. She was in the band, on student council and a member of the drama club, but she was also a determined basketball player.

"I loved being challenged," she said. "If the coach asked if I thought I could handle something, I said, ‘I'm on it.' It didn't matter if the other girl was four inches taller; I was going to go after it.

"I would do whatever I had to do to make the team better. I went to basketball camps and I used the skills I'd learned. I did all I could. I tried to be strong boxing out, and I learned to read rebounds. And God created me with a large bottom, which helped."

The important thing was to keep playing hard, regardless of the numbers on the scoreboard. Part of what kept Hagstrom going was playing for her teammates and striving for a common goal.

"I just enjoyed the team aspect of the game," she said. "If we needed to score, I tried to score. If we needed a rebound, I worked harder at boxing out. I always worked hard. I loved the game, and I kept working hard and hoping the rest would fall into place."

The game of which Hagstrom is most proud came in her junior year against Riverside.

"I remember that game because I had 21 rebounds and their entire team only had 22," she said.

Hagstrom has a more difficult time when asked to name the best player she ever faced.

"That's tough. It's really hard to name just one," she said. "Tammy Busser and I were co-Players of the Year. And Dawn Martin — she just seemed huge. I really had to go to stay on her."

Kelly Laituri was another player from that era who really impressed Hagstrom.

"Some days, it seemed like she had a vertical leap of five feet," Hagstrom said. "She was only 5-7 or 5-8, but she could jump. She could soar over everybody. She is a lot like (2007 Jefferson graduate) Kelcie Hellmer with her athleticism and the way she could jump."

Hagstrom also played volleyball and softball for the Spartans. She enjoyed them all, but she enjoyed basketball the most.

"I guess I always preferred basketball partly because I am better at it," she said. "And basketball was really the sport my family was focused on. Basketball is such a wonderful team sport; it's just the sport that clicked for me."

Hagstrom at one time hoped to play collegiate basketball. It didn't quite work out, but she has no regrets.

"I went to Kent, and I talked to the coach," Hagstrom said. "Then they changed coaches and nothing ever came of it. Maybe they overlooked me because I was a 5-10 post player. I did play intramurals for a while, but then life took a turn and I got married."

She and her husband, John, who is Conneaut's JV girls coach, have five children: daughter Alex, 16; son Chris, 11; daughter Annalee,5; and twins Robert and Steven, 4.

It makes for a busy life — Tammy coaches third- and fourth-grade basketball and is involved with the Conneaut Hoopster Boosters — but she and John have found a way to make it work.

"It does get hectic," she said. "I'm a nurse and John teaches. But I work on the weekends, so I'm able to spend time with the kids during the week and watch them grow up."

Mother, wife, nurse, basketball coach, booster member — it's a lot to fit in, and having participated in sports helps.

"Sports, especially basketball, was a big part of my life," Hagstrom said. "And I enjoyed it, and I am glad I had the opportunity to play. I didn't know at the time that it was helping with some of the problems of school and being a teenager. But beyond just the athletic skills, you learn time management and how to work with other people. I learned so much from sports."

In the years since Hagstrom suited up for the Spartans, girls basketball has evolved. The game isn't all that different from the game she played, but in other ways the differences are striking.

"In some aspects, the game really hasn't changed," she said. "But the girls are a lot more physical now. We thought we were pretty rough when we played, but the girls are even more so now.

"And the quality of the game has improved so much. The girls all go to camps, their ballhandling skills are much better. There are many more really good players than when I was in high school. At that time, each school might have one or maybe two good players. Now, they're all pretty good. And the play is a lot more intense."

She finished her four-year Conneaut career with 791 points and 585 rebounds.

Still, Hagstrom occasionally yearns to be back out on the floor at Garcia Gymnasium.

"I've joked with Dave Simpson at the games a couple of times," she said. "I told him, ‘Come on. Get me a uniform and let me go in.'"

Hagstrom was interviewed for this story on the day of the March primary, and she was hoping that the Conneaut school levy would pass. There is still plenty of blue and gold coursing through her veins.

"Athletics have been such a big part of my life," she said. "I just hope the kids in Conneaut aren't faced with the decision of having to go elsewhere if they want to participate in a sport.

"I try to be involved and try to make this a better place for me and my neighbors. Conneaut might not be the best place in the world. But it's my home, and I love it."

Harris is a freelance writer from Ashtabula Township.