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'Heaven' sent: Basketball is a way of life for Grand Rapids’ Hamling

Heaven Hamling never quits until she gets it right. That's the way she approached her entire five-year varsity career with the Thunderhawks, getting better each year and culminating with being named the 2018 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year.

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Grand Rapids senior Heaven Hamling shoots the ball during the Border Battle All-Star Game at Mertz Mortorelli Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 2018.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Grand Rapids girls basketball team had just lost at home to Robbinsdale Cooper on Dec. 15, and the regular routine was to shower and go home.

Not for Heaven Hamling.

Hamling, a 5-foot-8 guard, wasn't happy about her game so she enlisted her mom, Thunderhawks coach Kris Hamling, to rebound the basketball while she worked on her shot. They were there till nearly 11:30 p.m. as janitors cleaned the bleachers and swept and mopped the floor.

"We had to go around them," Kris said.

Heaven Hamling never quits until she gets it right. That's the way she approached her entire five-year varsity career with the Thunderhawks, getting better each year and culminating with being named the 2018 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year.

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"This was definitely the best season I've ever had, and I'm so happy it was my senior season," she said. "I got to go out with a bang, with my teammates, and it was awesome we made a little history. I'm super happy for us."

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Grand Rapids senior Heaven Hamling controls the ball during the Border Battle All-Star Game at Mertz Mortorelli Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 2018.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Hamling, a four-time All-Area performer, averaged 22.3 points, 5.4 rebounds. 4.5 assists and 4.4 steals in leading Grand Rapids (23-8) to third place at the Class AAA state tournament. The Thunderhawks' all-time leading scorer was one of five finalists for Miss Minnesota Basketball.
"Every year Heaven set a goal of what she wanted to accomplish," Kris said. "Everyone always knew her as a great scorer, but she also improved on her passing and rebounds. She made herself a more complete player."
The state tournament was a great example of that.

Except for a brief, but brilliant, stretch in the state semifinals, it wasn't Hamling's best shooting performance, but she still provided a handful of highlight-reel plays.

Hamling averaged 16.7 points for the three games, but also averaged 6.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 5.7 steals as Grand Rapids had its best finish in program history. Her eight points in the third-place game, a 51-42 victory over Willmar, was the only time she was held below double digits in scoring this season.

"They were taking away my shot, so for the rest of the team to score was awesome," Hamling said. "I just focused on getting them the ball, and it didn't really mattered who scored, just so we won. It says a lot about our team."
Hamling's father, Robert, was a hockey player and her mother was a basketball player so there was debate in the Hamling household what sport young Heaven should play. Basketball won out.

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Grand Rapids senior Heaven Hamling controls the ball during the Border Battle All-Star Game at Mertz Mortorelli Gymnasium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior in 2018.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"When I was born, my mom was coaching the Nashwauk-Keewatin varsity team and my grandpa (Ted Carlson) was the assistant coach, so ever since I've been able to walk or run I've always been in the gym," Heaven said.

While the game appears to come easy, Hamling works at it, spending three to four hours in the gym every day in the winter and least one or two hours in the offseason.

But it was the family hoop where she perfected some of her best moves and behind-the-back passes.
"She'd say, 'Here, watch this,' and 'Should I do this next game?' " Kris said. "I'd be like, 'Don't even attempt it.' But sure enough, next game, she'd attempt it. It might not be perfect at first, but she kept practicing until she got it."

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Heaven joined varsity in eighth grade and was a star by the next season. The interaction between mother and daughter, coach and player, was often animated, sometimes heated and occasionally comical.

Kris admitted their relationship was more contentious than the norm.

"Very much so," Heaven's mother said. "You can talk to any coach who has a player on their team, and you're extremely hard on that player, and I was. I expected perfection from her, but as she got older, I kind of eased back and let her do her thing, and she grew from that."
Heaven agreed.

"I'm good at getting yelled at," she said, laughing.
Still, she wouldn't have had it any other way.

"It was definitely a blessing," Heaven said. "We've gotten in a lot of fights, we've gotten on each other's nerves, but it worked out for the best. She was always hardest on me, but it made me a better person all around."
Let the adjustment begin.

Heaven took a week off after the season but felt like a fish out of water, or gym rat with no gym.
"I don't think I've ever taken a week off," Hamling said. "I didn't know what to do with myself."

She is trying to stay busy, driving her seventh-grade sister, Taryn, to Amateur Athletic Union practices in the Twin Cities (Heaven is no longer eligible). Because of the weather, the high school gym has been taken over by spring sports, and the local Y is busy.

Heaven might not realize how much she misses her mother until she leaves in July for Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. At the very least, she will need to find someone else to rebound the basketball for her after a rough night.

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"Heaven is very hard on herself," Kris said, "but she knows how to turn things around when things aren't going the way she wants them to go."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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