NCAA tourney brings Hammer family closer together

Ben Goessling

When your daughter is a Division I athlete playing halfway across the country, you get used to spending holidays apart from her.

Gary and Patricia Hammer knew they would not see their daughter Chelsea Hammer, a middle blocker for New Hampshire’s volleyball team, for the third Thanksgiving in a row.

But three days after they carved another turkey one family member short, the Hammers got a welcome surprise from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

New Hampshire, the America East conference champion, visits Minnesota to play a first-round tournament match Thursday night. The match provides Chelsea Hammer, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn., her first collegiate opportunity to compete in her home state.

And it gave Gary and Patricia Hammer a belated chance to spend time with their daughter.

“She wasn’t able to get home for Thanksgiving, so this worked out perfectly,” Patricia Hammer said, watching the Wildcats practice at the Sports Pavilion on Wednesday. “It’s a lot of fun to come and watch her play here.”

While most of her teammates lamented the fact their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years would be spent in chilly Minnesota, Chelsea Hammer entertained heartwarming thoughts of home.

“I’m excited to come back,” she said. “Just being at the Sports Pavilion brings back so many memories from club ball and high school. It feels good to be home.”

Thursday night also gives Chelsea Hammer a chance to renew a friendship with an old teammate.

Hammer played two years with Minnesota outside hitter Cassie Busse on the Kaepa Northern Lights volleyball team. The two were a study in contrast – Hammer, the steady blocker patrolling the middle, and Busse, the raw talent flailing away to Hammer’s right – but they immediately formed a bond.

“They were the two quietest kids on the team,” Gary Hammer said. “The team was full of extroverts, and they were the only ones who didn’t say much. But they were pretty close.”

Busse said she hasn’t talked to her former teammate in several years but added she is excited to share the court with Hammer once again.

“My mom mentioned I’d be playing Chelsea after she saw the pairings,” Busse said. “It will be fun to see her again.”

Busse, an All-Big Ten first-team selection, has become one of the game’s most feared hitters, while Hammer sees relatively little action for the Wildcats. But Hammer expressed admiration for Busse’s game and shared Busse’s excitement about Thursday’s match.

“In club ball, you could see the talent was there,” Hammer said. “She has become a great player, and I’m so happy for her. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do against her.”

The Wildcats finished in the America East conference’s top three during Hammer’s first two seasons but came up short of the NCAA Tournament twice, losing in the conference tournament finals in 2000 and the semifinals in 2001.

New Hampshire coach Jill Hirschinger said Chelsea Hammer’s parents called every day this week, hoping to work a dinner party for the team into its schedule.

Even if the Wildcats don’t find time to make the trip to Eden Prairie, the opportunity to play in front of her parents is enough for Chelsea Hammer.

“Our schedule is pretty tight, so I don’t know if I’ll have time to make it home,” she said. “But my parents called right after they saw the bracket, and it’s wonderful to have them here for this.”

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and

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