The Hammond boys basketball team is on the road to improvement, and a former SLU Lion is setting the tone for a new era in Tornado basketball.
Onochie Ochie, who played forward for Southeastern from 2010 to 2015, was hired to take over the struggling boys basketball program in the summer, a promotion after serving as an assistant coach there.
“We are 6-5 right now so there is some improvement over last season, but we have a long way to go in order to get where we want to be as a program,” Ochie said.
“But we control our destiny right now, and we’ll keep getting better. Last season, we only won a few games, and we’re in a position to do much more.”
The team is banking off the experience of nine seniors and one transfer student who make up most of the roster.
“Last year they didn’t have their confidence and you can see it now,” Ochie said. “They’re more seasoned, and they’re buying into the kind of program we want to have here at Hammond.
“We want a program that’s a family environment,” he said, “and I’ll always push that it’s more than winning. When you leave Hammond I want you to be a great member of society.”
Ochie stressed that he wants to bring the pride back to Hammond boys basketball and be in a position where the team is always in the running for district, and eventually, state championships.
Midway through the current season, Ochie believes the Tornadoes can still win the District 6-5A Championship if they come together and play their best ball to close out the regular season.
He also acknowledges that challenges remain, and one of the team’s biggest adjustments has nothing to do with basketball, COVID-19.
“This is my first year as a head coach, and it has felt like trial by fire,” he said. “The silver lining to doing this season with COVID-19 is that, right now, it’s all I know and if I can guide them through a season and these protocols then I can handle anything.”
Ochie said strict attention to detail must be applied to make a season during a pandemic work.
Every player has to do temperature checks before entering the gym for practices and games. Every player must sanitize when entering and exiting the court.
As a coach he has to keep constant tabs on where his players are throughout the day because most of them are participating in virtual learning online at home, he said.
Often, he coordinates rides for players coming and going from practice.
It is a lot of responsibility, but Ochie believes he is well equipped for it due to years of having a strong work ethic.
“I was really blessed to be able to play Division-I basketball at SLU,” Ochie said. “I learned so much being a part of that program. Everything from discipline in the weight room to conditioning you have to do every day. Those are the values I want to instill at Hammond High.”
Ochie also knows what it takes to survive in professional sports. After Southeastern, he went played professionally overseas.
Immediately the competition level goes up, he said, and it takes dedication to make a career last as long as it can.
Although basketball has taken him all over the word, Ochie feels Hammond is the perfect place to return to.
“I love Hammond,” he said. “It feels like home, and everything began here. When I came back, I came for grad school and the next chapter of my life began quickly from there.”
When word that Ochie was back in town, a high school program that needed help came calling, he said.
“I was working at North Cypress at the time, and I ran into my friend, Chris Carter,” he said. “Chris was the head coach at Albany and said that he needed help so he asked me to be his assistant.”
Once Ochie got a taste for coaching on the prep level, he took a job as the athletic director of the SLU Lab School and served as an assistant for Hammond before he was offered his current job.
“I was up for the challenge because I know that it just takes winning to bring the greatness back to a program,” he said. “We will establish a strong local culture here, and once you reach that next level then scouts start coming to town. Then our athletes can get the attention we know they deserve.”
“My favorite thing I remember about SLU is just the friendships I had and feeling like I was part of a brotherhood,” he said. “That’s what I want to bring to Hammond High.”
Before college, Ochie moved with his family from Oklahoma to West Virginia and Alabama before they settled in Albany, Georgia, a place he considers his hometown.
His parents are Nigerian immigrants and college professors who provided a culture of education in the household. He fell in love with basketball playing for his high school.
“I went to Westover in Albany – a lot of people don’t know about it around here – but it is a dominant program,” he said. “There are many good programs in the area so I really came out of a basketball culture.”
While Ochie works to lay the foundation for sustainable basketball traditions at Hammond High, he continued to stress that nothing is more important than education and self-development.
“Our goal this season is to get mature,” he said. “Sure, we want to win the district, and we can, but we want to reach the highest levels in years to come. I want every player to come out of this program as better men.”