Over his years as an administrator, EHS athletic director Curtis Simons has been in a lot of gyms, stepped foot on a lot of ball fields and seen a lot of young, driven coaches who just don’t quite get it.
That’s why Aaron Hammond stuck out.
“Some of these young coaches, as soon as practice is over, they leave and take off,” Simons said. “Coach Hammond, he stayed around after practice. He’d help girls work on their shots or give them extra free throws. He was always available.”
Last week, EHS officially named Hammond its next head softball coach. There are plenty of reasons the move made sense; Hammond’s ties to the community, his past coaching experience and his familiarity with the school and the Lady Spartans, to name a few. But it was those post-practice moments, when Hammond hung around to keep working while others might have left, that Simons kept coming back to when speaking about the new coach.
That’s what jumped out to Simons, but to Hammond, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Put simply, to him, that’s just coaching.
“It’s not something I even think about,” Hammond said. “It’s something I truly enjoy. My personal opinion is that you can get more in one-on-one situations. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune some things. I really just love being around the field or in the gym, so that’s where time goes.”
When the spring season rolls around, the Lady Spartans will have a new head coach. Hammond, who also serves the Wellness Supervisor with the Emporia Recreation Commission, has been around the athletic department at EHS for several years and last spring became an assistant on former head coach Troy Chapman’s staff. Now, after 11 seasons under Chapman, Hammond will assume the reins of the program.
In 2019, the Lady Spartans reached the state tournament for the first time in more than a decade, the first time under Chapman. Last spring, Hammond’s first season officially staff, EHS returned all but one of its contributors from that team but saw it’s season cut short by COVID-19. It was a frustrating end for a promising squad, but Hammond is ready to keep building up the program that Chapman constructed.
“I think it’s going to be about getting better every day,” Hammond said. “For me, this is a long-term thing, not a short-term.”
Hammond, who graduated from Olpe High School, has been coaching in Lyon County for a number of years now. “I started coaching doing coach-pitch stuff when I was 18, right after I graduated high school,” he said.
After graduating from Emporia State, Hammond became the head basketball coach at Northern Heights, where he also served as an assistant with the baseball team. A few seasons ago, Hammond moved over to EHS, serving as an assistant coach for Carolyn Dorsey and EHS girls basketball while working with the Emporia recreation department.
The Lady Spartans’ softball program may have a new head coach, but Hammond’s is a familiar face.
While making a career as a coach across several sports, Hammond has never really stopped playing them. Since his brief stint playing basketball in college, he has taken up the sport of fast-pitch softball, playing now for more than a decade. With few other teams to play within the state of Kansas, the team Hammond plays for has traveled to compete in surrounding states such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado, and as far Green Bay, Wisconsin.
During his time spent on the field, Hammond has picked up technical aspects of the game he never might have otherwise, in particular picking the brains of pitchers around the midwest to gain an understanding of the mechanics. Hammond has brought that knowledge back with him to Emporia, where he trains athletes throughout the year, and it’s a knack Simons hopes his new head coach can bring to the Lady Spartans, as well.
“Pitching is his forte,” Simons said. “Pitching is so important in softball and that’s Aaron’s expertise. We hope he can help us in developing pitchers.”
After several years of working with EHS’ softball players within the limits that KSHSAA rules allowed him to, Hammond finally joined the program’s coaching staff last spring.
Equipped with plenty of firepower back from the team that has posted such a successful season in 2019, the expectation was that the Lady Spartans could go even further in 2020. COVID-19 made it so that never happened. That group of seniors, who Chapman had coached for nearly ten years and who Hammond had been around since they were freshmen, graduated without a final season.
It’s a disappointment Hammond still can’t get past.
“I can’t really put into words how disappointed everybody was,” he said. “It was a group that was together since they were about eight, putting in the time and the effort. The girls were excited to have me. I was excited to be a part of it. And it all fell apart.”
In 2021, no longer an assistant but the head coach, Hammond will be tasked with getting the Lady Spartans back on track.
Without the senior class that left last year, EHS will head into the season with few proven contributors. After a 2020 season that never began, many of the Lady Spartans by next spring will not have played a high school softball game in nearly two years, and the juniors who Hammond will certainly look to rely on will not have played since their freshman seasons. Inexperience, rust and holes on his roster are all concerns Hammond will have to handle in his first season, but it’s a challenge he feels prepared to tackle.
“We’re going to get better every day,” he said. “There may be some struggles early on. I think we’ll be competitive, though, because the players that we are returning understand the game and know how to play.”
While Hammond is eager for the 2021 season and what it might hold, his eyes are on the bigger picture. The goal isn’t just to win games in the near-term but to build a program at EHS and in the community that will thrive long down the road.
Recently, he joined the board of Emporia Energy, the club softball organization that develops players as young as eight years old. Hammond sees it as a pipeline and a track that can develop the softball community across Emporia.
That vision, and the goal of keeping Hammond in the job for years to come, is one that Simons shares, too. At EHS, and with the help of the community, Hammond hopes to create something special.
“For me, the program is not only the high school,” he said. “It’s the city of Emporia, too. I want to build this program up from the ground level.”