Overlooked in high school, Hailey Leidel ending historic UMass career on high note

  • Hailey Leidel, center, of UMass, moves the ball against Dayton defenders Julia Chandler, left, and Erin Whalen, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hailey Leidel, right, of UMass, drives past Erin Whalen, of Dayton, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hailey Leidel, center, of UMass, passes over the head of Dayton defender Jenna Giacone, left, to teammate Maeve Donnelly, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2020 8:26:44 PM

AMHERST — Hailey Leidel has always had a chip on her shoulder.

She was overlooked while playing on the AAU circuit as a junior and senior in high school despite playing on a state championship team. She had to fight for respect as a player from Brownstown, Michigan, which is part of the Downriver area of the state that often gets overlooked in the shadow of Detroit. Even though she held the records in Michigan for most points in a game (38) and a season (522), the big schools didn’t come calling.

So going through the whole recruiting process took its toll on someone who in her heart believed herself to be better than her offer list suggested.

“Getting recruited was pretty stressful for me because I played on really good AAU teams, but I didn’t really get any offers,” Leidel said. “I had three or four and they came kind of late, so it was stressful seeing other people get so much attention and I’m out there competing with them and against them.”

Leidel signed with UMass under former coach Sharon Dawley, hoping to add a shooting threat to a team that didn’t have many talented perimeter shooters. She chose the Minutewomen over Eastern Michigan, which at the time was coached by Tory Verdi, because she didn’t want to play college basketball so close to home. Leidel even told her mother that she wanted to play for Verdi at a school like UMass, but figured that would never happen.

When Dawley was fired after the 2015-16 season, serendipity stepped in.

“I honestly don’t know how it worked out as well as it did, but it couldn’t have worked out any better than it did,” Leidel said. “When my AAU coach called me and told me he heard through the grapevine that Coach Verdi was going to get the job, I was very happy. I remember telling my mom how much I liked him and his coaching staff and the atmosphere with his team and his players at Eastern. I was wishing I could have that, but not at Eastern because it’s 15 minutes from my house and I played there every other weekend from six until ninth grade.”

Since the summer, Verdi has admitted he didn’t know exactly how bad the situation was at UMass until he arrived on campus. But from the outset he knew he had Leidel to anchor the rebuilding process and knew she would be a reliable scorer to build around as he constructed the program. And from the beginning Leidel was put in the position to make the pressure plays for the Minutewomen.

She led the team in scoring as a freshman and then did so again in each of the next two seasons as Verdi continued to rely on her to lead the offense. It was a potentially unforgiving position to put a freshman in, but at the same time, the coach knew it would pay dividends for the Minutewomen this season.

“The roster was depleted, so she had to carry the burden,” Verdi said. “We put her in position to have the ball in her hands and score and take the last-second shot. ... Having that type of pressure and being the one who’s going to take the last shot is something that she just had to swallow and accept. Regardless of the results, she was going to get those opportunities. It prepared her and it put her in position to be successful now and be confident.”

Leidel’s freshman season was the wake-up call she needed to turn her UMass career into the historic one it has become over the last four years. She admitted that she wasn’t ready for the responsibilities that came with being a leading scorer and taking all the pressure-filled shots, and that she had to mature quickly between her freshman and sophomore years to adapt. Fueling that was the chip on her shoulder, telling her she couldn’t fade quietly after being named the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year after the 2016-17 season.

“It was kind of a shock to me at first because I started getting faceguarded my freshman year, and I had never gotten faceguarded before,” Leidel said. “It gave me a little slap in the face that I had to not get comfortable with where I was at because once teams started to faceguarding me, I had to grow in that aspect and get my game up. ... It made me realize how much extra work I had to put in to get better and not be stagnant and keep being able to be that top (scoring option). It motivated me to improve because I didn’t want to be A10 Rookie of the Year and be on the top of the (scouting report) then the next year fall off.”

Quite the opposite actually happened as Leidel had eerily similar statistics as a sophomore while growing into her role as a team leader. She began to play with more confidence and exuded it in the locker room, too, where she became the pinnacle of excellence within the program. Junior Bre Hampton-Bey said Leidel is the poster child of how to be great at this level, and Leidel’s roommate, Vashnie Perry, said she has become a role model to so many in the locker room, including herself.

“The most growth I’ve seen in Hailey is her trusting herself,” Perry said. “We know Hailey, she’s a superhero, in my opinion, she’s my superhero. She does everything, and that’s not even just on the floor. Off the floor, she keeps her grades up, she stays in the gym, she eats right, she’s grown in herself and that has helped us look at her and want to be as great as she is.”

Despite a rough junior season statistically, Leidel put herself in position to leave her mark on the UMass record book.

She entered her final season 10th on the career scoring list and was already the program’s leader in 3-pointers made. She also had the best UMass team in two decades around her for her senior campaign.

This season, Leidel is averaging a career-best 16 points per game while shooting a career-high 40.3 percent from the floor and 41.2 percent from behind the arc. She’s moved up to No. 2 all-time in scoring, just 41 points behind Sue Peters’ record of 1,858 points, and she’s set the record for most games played (121) and started (118) in program history. Neither Leidel nor Verdi expected the senior’s assault on the record book four years ago, but neither one of them was surprised it happened, either.

“I know I can play, but I’m not always the most – I don’t want to say not confident – but I’m not the most ‘Oh, I have all this so I can do all this,’” Leidel said. “I just wanted to come in and do my best. That was really my goal, I just wanted to do my best and improve and be able to say I improved. I never came in saying I wanted to be the leading scorer for four years or be one of the best to play here statistically or be the No. 1 on everyone’s scouting report. But I’m not surprised, though, because I know how hard I work. It makes sense at the end of the day looking back on how I got here.”

As Leidel has grown and matured in Amherst, so has the program under Verdi. The Minutewomen went from winning nine games in the coach’s first year to having an 11-game winning streak this season. They went from having to travel to Saint Louis for a 40-point blowout in the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament four years ago to being the No. 5 seed and hosting a first-round game on Tuesday at 7 p.m. against St. Bonaventure.

In between have been plenty of smiles and tears, victories and defeats, but Verdi said that has made the bond between player and coach that much stronger over the last four years.

“Through our four years together, we’ve had our ups, we’ve had our downs, we’ve laughed a lot, we’ve cried a lot, but it’s made our relationship, really unique and special,” Verdi said, “because we spent a lot of time together building the foundation of this program. She’s definitely a huge cornerstone to that.”

Leidel said she is hopeful to continue playing basketball overseas when the season concludes, but right now she has much bigger goals on her mind. A win over the Bonnies on Tuesday would be UMass’ 20th of the year, a feat the Minutewomen haven’t accomplished since the 1995-96 season. A 20th win would make UMass far more attractive to the WNIT, which would be the program’s first postseason appearance since 1998.

All of that history is at the forefront of Leidel’s mind as she enters what she hopes won’t be her final week of college basketball. But whenever the season does end, she said she’ll appreciate knowing her legacy will forever be etched in the record books.

“It’s nice to be able to look back when I graduate and just know that what I’ve done is worth it and it’s documented somewhere,” Leidel said. “Not everyone can say that their hard work legitimately paid off, I can literally look back in four or five years and see my name somewhere and know all those early morning sessions or staying up late to shoot, two-a-days, the extra running I do at home ... everything I’ve done, everything people who have helped me have done, it’s nice to be able to visualize it and actually see that hard work paid off.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.


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