NEOGA — Sydney Hakman knew her height would be an issue when she started playing basketball.
Now a senior on Neoga, Hakman understood that her 5-foot-5 frame would never make her an elite-level scorer, so she dedicated her time and work ethic to the defensive end of the court.
How she learned how to play defense effectively may come as a surprise.
“I started playing defense on a bush and if the bush went one way, my feet went the other way, so that’s how I learned to stay on my toes,” Hakman said.
Without the luxury of having younger siblings to help her played a role in why the bush was used, but it wasn’t the only variable in Sydney’s development.
Sydney’s mother, Stacey, helped her, too.
A top-notch defender in her own right, Stacey learned under former Teutopolis head coach Dennis Koester when she was in high school.
Stacey played for Koester from 1985-1989.
“(Koester) said, ‘You can’t win a game without defense. We might not be better than a team, but we will wear them out,’” Stacey said.
She went on to relay that message to her daughter, too, and it worked out.
Sydney — the 2023 Effingham Daily News Small Schools Defensive Player of the Year — never took a play off when she was on the court.
She was also usually tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player and, on most nights in the last two years, won those battles.
“It’s been a lot of fun watching Syd since she was in junior high. She’s always been a fighter,” Indians’ head coach Kim Romack said. “She gets out there and she plays as hard as she can. It doesn’t matter if the person she’s defending is 5-foot-4 or 6-foot; we put her on anybody. We’re willing to put her on anybody.”
Sydney added that “being closer to the ground” was beneficial to that.
It also could catch opponents off-guard on most occasions.
“I’m closer to the ground, which means you’re closer to the ball,” Sydney said. “So, whenever I guard people taller than me, the ball is just closer to me, so every time they bring it down, you have to get your hands on it and take it away.”
Even though that did help Sydney progress, where she truly shined was with her heart and tenacity, two things every great defender possesses.
Sydney, though, thanked her high school coaches — Romack and Seth James — for helping her attain those attributes.
“They’ve made all of us better defenders,” Sydney said. “What we’ve focused on this year is our defense and being able to throw different defenses at different teams and doing specific drills every day in practice — defensive slides, switching positions on defense so that we know what each position holds and what each position values.”
She would also be remiss without acknowledging what the Sigel (St. Michael’s School) program did for her.
Sydney attended the school from when she started the fifth grade until she was a freshman.
“That helped a lot because I got into a park league program there and then I started playing there in the fifth grade, which Neoga didn’t play in the fifth grade, so I got a head start on that,” Sydney said. “Whenever we played at Sigel, it was always the bigger girls versus the littler girls and, for me, I was more challenged with my height.”
That challenge was met head-first, even though Sydney circled back and thanked Stacey for giving her the confidence to go up against those larger foes.
“My mom taught me pretty much everything I know,” Sydney said. “She told me about how she was coached. So, that’s how she treated me when I was little.”
All of that turned out to be worth it.
Sydney’s defensive prowess, though, not only helped herself shine but the program, too, as she exits the program by helping them win 77 basketball games in 91 attempts in the last three years and a lot of hardware to show for it, none of which she takes for granted.
“The memories; I walk out of school every day and I walk by and see (the hardware) every day,” Sydney said. “I remember all of the things that came from those plaques.”
What Sydney also won’t take for granted is the community that she played for, dove on the floor for loose balls for, took charges for and deflected passes for, either.
“This community has taught me a lot,” Sydney said. “I came here from kindergarten to the fourth grade, then left and went to Sigel. I wasn’t excited about coming back because I had a bad experience in elementary school. But, whenever I came back, everyone was so welcoming and I made so many friends right off the bat — it was like I never left.”
However, it wasn’t just the community that was grateful to her.
Romack was one person who was also appreciative to have Sydney return to Neoga.
“People rally around her,” Romack said. “She’s been a great leader for us and it’s been a lot of fun to watch her progress from when we got her coming in as a freshman until she played her last game for us.”
Like most players, though, times were not always great.
There were frustrating moments along the way.
Stacey recalled certain moments when times were hard.
“There would be days when she would come home frustrated or frustrated that she wasn’t getting to play this and I would let her know that she was looking at it wrong,” Stacey said. “She needed to know that defense is where she was good at and that’s where they needed her.”
What that frustration led to, though, was more hard work — typically with playing with her mother in the driveway.
“We practice a lot of defense in our driveway and I would tell her what she’s not doing right and talk about it,” Stacey said.
Just like how Sydney was coached by her mother growing up, those tough times proved to be everything she needed when it was all said and done and she took off her No. 24 jersey for the final time.
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