Tory Verdi helped put UMass back on recruiting map

  • UMass women’s basketball coach Tory Verdi speaks with his team during a timeout on Nov. 17, 2018, at the Mullins Center. Verdi and his staff have spent years improving the program’s perception and results in order to recruit better players. J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2019 7:21:56 PM

AMHERST — When he arrived at UMass, Tory Verdi didn’t envision any issues recruiting to Amherst.

What he saw was a sparkling new practice facility in the Champions Center, an administration committed to the program and a standout public research university. With fewer resources, he helped Eastern Michigan improve by 10 wins between his first and second seasons then another six wins between year two and three.

So for his first recruiting class, he set his sights on a 5-foot-7 guard out of Pittsburgh who was a top-100 recruit in ESPN’s rankings. Desiree Oliver was the top priority for the Minutewomen in the 2017 class.

The issue — Oliver had no interest in UMass.

“She was our No. 1 recruit three years ago and we could not even get her attention,” Verdi said. “It was one of those things where it was frustrating to me because when I took this job, I thought we would be able to recruit to this wonderful facility. There’s no reason why these kids wouldn’t want to come here.

“That wasn’t what occurred at that point in time. It was really, really hard because there was no tradition and no history here and people just thought that we weren’t very good.”

Three years later, Oliver decided to leave Temple after two seasons and Verdi and his staff tried again to recruit her. This time, Oliver signed on the dotted line and transferred to UMass earlier this month. She’ll sit out the upcoming season but then have two years of eligibility available starting in the 2020-21 season.

It is a similar story with Maddie Sims, who transferred from Siena this month. Sims attracted interest from the previous UMass staff, but the then-high school forward never seriously considered the Minutewomen.

Sims conceded most of that was the mindset she had when she came out of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, four years ago, but said Verdi and his staff certainly helped sway her decision this time around.

“This coaching staff is so upbeat, they’re so excited about everything with their student-athletes and they really changed the view of UMass,” Sims said. “I’m really excited to play for them, and that’s what really brought me to UMass is their excitement and passion for the game.”

The women’s basketball offices have featured many faces over Verdi’s first 3½ years on the job. He’s had seven different assistants now and has been forced to make a new hire in each offseason he’s been in Amherst.

The only constant has been Candice Walker, who even predates Verdi after serving as the program’s director of basketball operations in 2015-16 before being promoted by Verdi. The newly named recruiting coordinator said there were some rough days early in Verdi’s tenure as the staff worked to change UMass’ perception on the recruiting trail.

“When we first got here, no one knew who we were, so we had to start from ground zero,” Walker said. “Now we can recruit those kids that are more impact kids and expect them to come here. When we first started, we always had the vision of what we wanted, but we had to get what we could get when we could get it. Now we’ve grown — we’re still not where we want to be yet — but when people see numbers keep excelling, they take an interest in that and we can recruit those more impactful kids.”

Verdi credits his staff’s hard work and diligence in helping change UMass’ perception regionally. It has also helped that Verdi hired assistants with connections to the critical recruiting areas UMass wants to reach — mainly New England, New Jersey and New York.

Mike Leflar, who joined the staff last year, has been an assistant in Massachusetts for 14 of the last 15 years, the exception being a one-year stop in Binghamton, New York. Hatfield native Lynne-Ann Kokoski spent her last three years at William & Mary, but helped lure 2019 Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year Eva Hodgson to Virginia from New Hampshire.

That’s in addition to the connections and relationships Walker has built during her time at UMass.

“Coach Leflar and Coach Walker have done an unbelievable job at tapping into some of the best talent in New England, New York, New Jersey and along the East Coast,” Verdi said. “But more importantly, as we continue to grow — and upward trajectory helps you in that regard because you can show people you’re growing the program — we started to get some respect.”

However, the easiest rationale to the change in UMass’ recruiting fortunes is its improved record over the past three years. The Minutewomen have set 10-year bests each of the last two seasons with last year’s 16-16 mark being the first time in 12 years the team finished at .500 or better.

Although the on-court improvement has helped, it really just opened the door for Verdi and his staff to break out the pitch he thought he’d be able to make from day one.

“That’s one of our biggest strategies here, just get the kids on campus, and once they see the campus, it’s a total different perspective,” Walker said. “There’s a certain (outside) perspective that this school has had for so long on the women’s basketball side, that when people get here on campus, they get a vibe for how the coaching staff is, they get a vibe for how our culture has formed to be, they get a different outlook on how it would be coming here.”

And as UMass is able to attract more recruits on campus, it starts to destroy the perception that put Verdi in this position in the first place. The momentum the Minutewomen have been able to build has allowed them to complete their 2020 recruiting class and stay ahead of the curve for future cycles.

“People are starting to realize the things we are doing and what we’re able to accomplish at an early stage,” Verdi said. “They feel confident in what we’re doing, and that’s where it’s kind of taken off and it’s become easier to get kids here on campus. Once we get them here and they see it and they get to visit with our staff and see the facilities we have, for a lot of them, it’s been a no-brainer.”

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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