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Wednesday, July 6, 2022
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Hailey Leidel, Two Years Later

Hailey Leidel answers my call from what she calls “probably the smallest apartment in Sweden.” It’s more Greenwich Village chic than Nordic; she displays a table that folds out of the wall to save space and the small hallway that serves as the dining area. “I do not care, honestly. It feels like a home, ”says Leidel, and I believe her.

It’s almost two years since her UMass career came to a carefree end. A few days after UMass St. Bonaventure blew out at Mullins Center, the Minutewomen fell to Saint Louis in the A10 quarter-final in Dayton. Leidel scored 11 points on the day, leaving her 17 points for Sue Peters’ all-time UMass record. At 20-11, the 2019-’20 Minutewomen equaled the program record for wins, hoping for a CBI or WNIT bid before Covid canceled the national postseason. Without a doubt, a post-season appearance would have given Leidel the platform to become number one.

UMass fans know Leidel as one of, if not the most productive player in the last 15 years of the program. She is the all-time program leader in games played, minutes played and three-point shooting, and she is top ten in too many categories to list. She looks back with pride, but as always has little ego. “We did not have too many options [early on], “she remarks,” so I had opportunities from day one. ”

Leidel experienced UMass zero in year. She has achieved records in her high school career in the mid-sized city of Brownstown, Michigan, but she has only been recruited by Eastern Michigan, Detroit Mercy and Youngstown State. In her words, “not many people wanted me.” UMass, though apparently the largest of those schools, was in no big shake. The Minutewomen did not finish higher than tenth in six seasons under Sharon Dawley, before Tory Verdi took over at Eastern Michigan at the start of the 2016-17 season. In Leidel’s first year, the Minutewomen played 3-13 in conference and ended the season on an eleven-match losing streak. “Teams will not even have shooting rounds when they prepare to take on us,” she remarks with a wry smile. “They just showed up, passed the ball a few times and let the walkers play before the evening was over.”

Leidel took her A10 Newcomer of the Year campaign, where she was the freshman with the most points in the country, to an immediate leadership role. As a sophomore, she became the captain of UMass, a position she would hold for her final three years. “I was never really the kind of player who, you know, would yell at players on the court,” said Leidel, but her game spoke for itself. “Vash [Perry] and Jess George [who captained the team with her] would bark at you. We balanced each other out. ”

(Hailey Leidel: A10 Newcomer of the Year / Courtesy of the Atlantic 10)

It’s hard to imagine a team with that attitude entering the Mullins center now, six years after Leidel made her debut (she scored 16 points and had nine double-digit games in her first ten games). Leidel was indeed himself the catalyst for a remarkable turnaround; the Minutewomen went from three A10 wins her first year to six, then seven, then nine. It was not only Leidel who led this charge – she was joined by a group of players including Vashnie Perry, Destiny Philoxy and Jess George – but she was more influential than she was willing to give herself credit for.

The first thing that changed during Leidel’s time at UMass was the expectation of community. When Leidel arrived at UMass, the players barely communicated with coaches outside of matches. “In my time, we started holding meetings with the coaches. These days I know players can get coffee from them and can spend time off the track with the staff. [Verdi] wants his teams to feel like family. ”

Tory Verdi is undeniably a man of expectations – “he will let us know that a lack of effort is simply unacceptable, and he will push us to the limit in practice,” as Leidel remarks – but he gives these foundations out of love . It’s impossible to listen to Verdi talking about his team without noticing the tremendous pride he takes to see growth. It is not uncommon for him to move to tears as he talks about the trials and tribulations he, his staff and his players have faced (and, in almost every case, overcome). Those expectations off the court combined with Leidel’s numbers on the court – she scored ten tries in a game once, for example – were instrumental when the Minutewomen rebuilt.

(Tory Verdi with UMass and Hailey Leidel, middle / Photo credit: J. Anthony Roberts)

“Hailey was an absolutely fundamental part of what we built here at UMass,” says Verdi, after completing the final practice before a rival match with URI. “She was a great player and exceptional leader, but her performances also gave us a story to tell recruits. They could look at her and what she had achieved and feel that this place has stories to tell. ” In many ways, Leidel was the ideal Verdi player. She barely left the gym. She was consistently the first player on the field. She played in every game over her career at UMass, starting 120 of 123 of them and playing 35 minutes a night. Many people, when I asked about Leidel’s impact on the program, were lyrical about her work effort before they even touched on her numbers. One called her the hardest working player they have ever seen.

Whether the work effort complemented the talent or vice versa, Leidel’s career is just beginning. She signed a pro contract in Luxembourg and dropped 27 points in her first game before Covid stuck his almighty head out. She spent four months at home in Michigan, where she trained and played with the Detroit Queens in a development league, and also played a handful of games in Greece before the Greek government closed the league.

I asked if she felt prepared for her professional career coming off the A10. “You can play some great players,” she said thoughtfully, “but it was our situation at UMass more than anything else. The defensive principles we learned, the mentality we had to have… that was it, more than anything. else.” Leidel is too humble to say it literally, but it’s clear that the three-year-old captain has continued to lead, calling for teammates to go over old game movies and help others adapt to the explicit strangeness that many Americans face. experienced while playing abroad, despite the fact that they were still apparently in the beginning of her professional career.

Leidel has been in abundance since Leidel’s arrival at the Mullins Center. Tory Verdi’s leadership group from his first four years at UMass includes Leidel’s former co-captain Vashnie Perry, now a graduate assistant at St. John’s (where former UMass assistant Candice Walker now serves as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator), current UMass DOBO Jess George, and Jess Nelson, who still work around the program. There may not be any correlation between Verdi’s coaching dogma, with the emphasis on consistency, and the graduate careers of players coming through the UMass program, but the logic is that a coach who requires success will produce future coaches in the same vein. .

(One of Leidel’s many tries / Photo credit: J. Anthony Roberts)

Now Leidel plays for former WNBA overall first choice Janel McCarville at Alvik, one of Sweden’s most successful clubs. “It’s been 18 months since I became a professional, but this is my real new year, ”says Leidel proudly. She averages 13 points per game, and often goes against players from Power 5 backgrounds. Leidel describes how she tackles players with experience in the league – a former Dallas Wings point guard, players with WNBA draft pedigree – but as always, she remains untouched. “Yes, it is nice to play against these players from those schools, but we have D2 and D3 players who are also here with us. There are so many elite women from so many backgrounds … but we are all here now. This is the beauty of basketball.

Leidel’s journey from Brownstown to Amherst to Luxembourg, Greece and Sweden was turbulent, but from the small apartment in the west of Stockholm you can see the same player who never left the gym and was first on the field after every game. “I have not changed much,” she says. “If I have an open shot, I’ll take it.” Knowing Hailey Leidel, she would make it too.

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