When Doris Ilic graduated last June from North Bergen High School, it left a huge void on the girls’ basketball team.
Luckily for the Bruins, there was someone in place who could take over the leader role.
“I felt like I had to be the next leader,” said North Bergen junior forward Icies Hammer. “I felt like I had to be the one to motivate everyone else. I had to talk more on the court and keep everyone’s head up.”
Veteran North Bergen head coach Dan Reardon knew that Hammer was going to be up for the challenge.
“We didn’t want to put too much pressure on her,” Reardon said. “But I could see that Icies was a different player. Her work ethic improved. She started to play AAU ball in the summer. I think she realized that colleges were looking at her and she could get a scholarship. She didn’t realize that before. But she was ready for this year.”
Reardon said that he recently had a revelation about Hammer’s improvement.
“I was looking at old videos of Icies and I saw how much faster Icies is now from when she was a freshman and sophomore,” Reardon said of the 6-foot-1 Hammer. “I guess you can say that she was lumbering back then. Now she looks more athletic.”
Just how athletic?
“She can now shoot the 3-[point shot],” said Reardon, noting the fact that Hammer’s range has improved so much that she now regularly takes shots from behind the 3-point arc. “She looks better shooting it out there. She has the best percentage of our players from 3-point range.”
Most coaches would be very hesitant to take their dominant 6-foot-1 inside player and put her way outside from the rim.
“I saw her take a 3-pointer in practice and she swished it,” Reardon said. “She looked good doing it. She was fluid. I thought at first she was fooling around with it, but she has the power and strength to make that shot. She then can put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. It makes her more dangerous.”
“Just because I’m bigger than everyone else doesn’t mean I can’t get better,” Hammer said.
While Hammer has been dabbling from long range, she still is in total command close to the basket.
In fact, Hammer recently rolled off an impressive string of games collecting double figures in both points and rebounds.
Hammer had six straight games of double-doubles, a streak that ended last Tuesday night in a win over Weehawken in the first round of the Hudson County Tournament.
Last week, Hammer had 27 points and 10 rebounds in a win against Union City, collected 23 points and had 10 rebounds in a loss to Bayonne, tallied 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a win over Kearny and had 21 points and seven boards in the 53-13 win over Weehawken to advance in the Hudson County tourney.
In that game, Hammer collected the 1,000th point of her career, becoming the eighth girl in North Bergen history to reach the impressive milestone.
For her efforts, Hammer has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Hammer said that she has been playing basketball since she was six years old, but became more serious about the sport in eighth grade, when she realized that she was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
“I worked on my game, shooting, dribbling, rebounding,” Hammer said. “I wanted to become more dominant in the post.”
To aid in that cause, former North Bergen standout Lauren Jimenez was summoned to come and work with Hammer. Jimenez was a 6-foot-4 dominant center during her days with the Bruins, earning Hudson Reporter Player of the Year all four years of high school and taking her All-State resume to play at James Madison University. Jimenez is the program’s all-time leading scorer, tallying more than 1,800 points.
Jimenez has been giving her expertise close to the basket to Hammer.
“When Lauren gets in her face, it’s okay,” Reardon said. “And Icies takes it from Lauren. I try not to be too hard on Icies. Icies knows what Lauren has done and that she has a reputation. Lauren knows what it’s truly all about. We wanted to bring Icies along at the pace that she can handle.”
“She comes to practices and helps me a lot,” Hammer said. “I try to do what she tells me to do. I zero in on the things she tells me and I do it. It really has helped me.”
Reardon sees a lot of Jimenez in Hammer.
“She really reminds me now of Lauren,” Reardon said. “Icies is getting to that point with her footwork. She’s starting to face the basket more and hit that little jump shot. She puts teams in vulnerable positions by becoming more diversified.”
It has also turned Hammer into a full-fledged NCAA Division I prospect.
“She’s not D-I because she’s 6-foot-1,” Reardon said. “She has made herself into a better player.”
Hammer said that she has received interest from St. Peter’s, Sacred Heart, Mount St. Mary’s and St. Francis of New York. Hammer is only a junior, so she has plenty of time to field scholarship offers.
“I feel great about it,” Hammer said. “I think I’m getting better each game.”
“I think she’s D-I, but we’ll see what happens next year,” Reardon said. “She has to step it up to another level.”
Hammer is ready for that challenge.
“It’s always been my dream to be a D-I player,” Hammer said. “It’s what I want to do.”
But there was a lot of joy in gaining the 1,000-point plateau. Former 1,000-point scorers Jimenez and Betty Mendieta (the junior varsity coach) were on hand for the celebration.
“The girls bought her 100 balloons,” Reardon said. “She was crying when she scored the basket. The kids all love her. The chemistry on the team is tremendous. They all love being together, hanging out together.”
Hammer was happy to reach the milestone.
“I knew I was close,” Hammer said. “I didn’t want to think too much about it. It’s an accomplishment that not many people get a chance to do. I’m very fortunate and I’m proud.”
And Hammer is hopeful to keep the Bruins alive in the Hudson County Tournament and the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV tourney. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.