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A new man in charge

Westwood head football coach, head boys track and field coach Syrjala to take over varsity boys basketball program

ISHPEMING — Westwood High School will have a familiar face leading its varsity boys basketball program this winter.

Scott Syrjala, Patriots head football coach, boys track and field coach, and boys junior varsity basketball coach, will take the reigns of the varsity squad as well, first announced on social media Wednesday morning.

Syrjala has led the Patriots football team since the 2015 season, the same year he was hired on as the JV basketball coach, assistant track coach and physical education teacher within the NICE Community School District.

The varsity basketball opening comes after Chad Hewitt stepped down last month, citing personal reasons. Hewitt’s son Blake is a recent graduate of Westwood, and will be continuing his education and football career at Michigan Tech in the fall.

In a phone interview with The Mining Journal on Wednesday, Syrjala said it simply felt natural to step into the basketball slot at the varsity level, following in his predecessor’s footsteps.

“I didn’t 100 percent know Coach Hewitt was going to resign,” he said. “It was a bit of a surprise, but with Blake moving on to Tech, it kind of made sense. I can’t say enough about Chad and what he did for me as a new arrival (in 2015). He bought into what I’ve tried to get my (junior varsity) kids to do.

“I can’t thank him enough. I want to continue what he’s done with my kids. The position became open and it felt natural to move into it.”

Before moving to NICE, Syrjala was a long-time teacher and coach at Ishpeming. He served as an assistant football and basketball coach, working under the wing of legendary Hematites head coach Jeff Olson, and also had a head coaching stint with the Ishpeming track and field team.

Syrjala took over as the Westwood football head coach after former coach John Jessen resigned in July of 2015.

Syrjala will continue to coach both the Patriots football and track and field teams, as well as teach, leaving little room for a break throughout the school year.

“Some people think I’m crazy holding three varsity jobs,” he said. “I would go from varsity football season to JV basketball season, so I really had no downtime there anyway.

“This month of June, there’s not one day I’m not doing something. We’ll go from our football camp to our basketball camp. Then the U.P. Football All-Star Game. A bit of a break and then more team camps. From that aspect, I’m a little bit busier. I talked it over with my wife, and it’s something I want to go try (to) go after and give it my best shot.”

The support of family, the athletes, his coaching staffs and the administration was important in Syrjala’s decision, stating that none of his coaching or teaching jobs are possible without them.

“I feel as if the kids have committed me, and the administration has committed to me, and what I’m trying to do,” he said. “We want to give our kids a positive athletic experience. I’ve been doing three sports the last four years and for most of my careers. I’m able to do all of that without letting it affect my No. 1 job and that’s teaching.

“It’s not really a job. I mean sometimes it is. It’ll be stressful sometimes, but I want to perform my best and do my best. These are human beings and young kids. Things aren’t always going to go right. I enjoy teaching and coaching, helping kids out and I enjoy my job.”

While Syrjala is a passionate educator and coach, he also realizes sometimes it’s okay to take a step back.

“I’m going to have to take a break at some point,” he said. “I’ll relax, put my feet up and re-charge. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I get it, it’s the varsity level, but it’s still high school sports in the Upper Peninsula. It’s not like I’m asking to coach (Michigan State head basketball coach Tom) Izzo’s and (MSU head football coach Mark) Dantonio’s teams back-to-back.

“Who knows, maybe I won’t be able to handle it and I’ll be like ‘holy smokes,’ but I have great coaches and great kids around me willing to help us out.”

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.