Through differing paths to captaincy, Hailey Leidel and Jessica George are prepared to lead UMass women’s basketball in 2018-19 By: Dan McGee

Leadership has different meanings to different people.

What it means to be a leader might have an ambiguous definition with various meanings depending on who you ask, where you ask and who you’re asking about. However, when Massachusetts women’s basketball coach Tory Verdi selected Hailey Leidel and Jessica George to be the captains for the 2018-19 season, he knew exactly what he was looking for.

“To show up and be the hardest workers each and every single day,” Verdi said. “Just lead by example, be the first in the gym, be the last one to leave. Get in the gym, get in shots on your own. Holding your teammates accountable. When adversity arises, they need to figure out how to deal with conflict, and they need to figure out how to convey their messages to their teammates, and I think both those guys do a great job at that.”

The paths that have led Leidel and George to becoming captains on the UMass team are distinctively different, yet tell a story on their own.

Born and raised in Michigan, Leidel’s basketball experience runs deep. A four-time AAU state champion, holding the Michigan state high school record for points in a game (38) and in a season (522), along with winning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year her freshman season at UMass, Leidel certainly has the on-court accolades to be declared “captain-worthy.” However, Leidel knows her role as a captain goes beyond how she performs on the court, but how she sets the bar for her teammates.

“As a team we all know the standards,” Leidel said. “We always meet every year as a team, so people know what has to be done. Basically I take whatever I hear when we meet and just make sure I’m doing that. In terms of going to class, turning in homework, making sure we’re eating healthy, making sure we’re actually eating, getting enough sleep. Just being responsible in terms of my social life and all of that so we know what to do, it’s just making sure I do it so I can’t be yelling at someone for doing stuff if I’m not doing it.

“It’s always making sure I’m doing the little things so that I can get on other people if they’re not doing it.”

Getting on other people about doing the little things hasn’t always been Leidel’s cup of tea. As a freshman, Leidel felt she often had trouble breaking out of her shell and speaking up. Despite her struggles to communicate, Leidel was still chosen as a captain last season, along with now graduated seniors Maggie Mulligan and Leah McDerment.

Serving with Mulligan and McDerment, Leidel thinks she learned a lot, but didn’t get the full role as a captain.

“For me last year, I feel like I was a captain, but I was kind of the third-wheel I guess because it was like the two seniors that’ve been here, and it was also my first year and their second year [being captain],” Leidel said. “We worked well together but I wasn’t the same now. Like now, Jess and I can say that this is our team, and I feel like I have a bigger role as a captain. And I feel like I have more say and I have better lines of communication with all the players and coaches and stuff.

“For me I feel like I’m like a ‘captain-captain’ now and not like a sophomore captain that isn’t stepping up as much, so I definitely have a bigger role and I take more pride in that because I know I have those bigger shoes to fill this year.”

Leidel learned a lot from McDerment and Mulligan, from the things they did right to the things they didn’t. Constant communication is key, whether with coaches or players, about things going right or going wrong. Leidel was quiet as a freshman but looked up to Mulligan and McDerment, and realized she had to break out of her shell to be a great captain.

Even before serving as captain last season for UMass, Leidel’s leadership experience runs deeper. During her time at Woodhaven High School under coach Rodney Scharboneau, Leidel led her team to an overall 40-7 record over her two years as captain, setting the Woodhaven school record in points with 1,526 while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.

“Even though she was a better player than every girl on her team, they still wanted to play hard for her,” said Scharboneau. “That was a big deal because she couldn’t do it by herself, no matter how good you are. So, you have to get into a situation as a team captain where you show your teammates that you care about them, and they need to believe that you care about them as people first, then the basketball stuff falls in place. I think she was able to do that, and that had nothing to do with me.”

Scharboneau recalls Leidel as the first one in the gym and the last one to leave — often having to be kicked out — usually staying up late at night to complete homework assignments.

“[Leidel] was definitely a lead by example leader just because of the way she was as a person, but I think she got better as the years went on, communicating and being a leader in all different ways,” Scharboneau said. “If that’s the role she’s going to fill with her current team in college, they’re going to benefit from that. Her senior year she really pulled our team together and everybody was hitting on all cylinders and in line together. Part of that was because Hailey was our captain. She had everybody on the team working together. It was a great thing.”

Being off the court didn’t hurt Leidel’s leadership qualities either. Even when she would get into foul trouble, or simply need a rest, her voice and influence was still recognized from the bench.

“Whenever she would be out, whether she was in foul trouble or whatever, she didn’t let that stop her from adding value to the team,” added Scharboneau. “Even when she was on the sideline, she showed what a leader does, what a good captain does. She encouraged her teammates that were on the floor. She was like having an assistant coach on the sideline.”

Leidel gets some of her inspiration as a captain from three-time WNBA champion Sue Bird. An 11-time WNBA all-star, all-time assist leader and winner of the 2002 Naismith Award for best college player, Bird is Leidel’s role model, her standard.

“I’ve been watching the last couple of years of Sue Bird,” Leidel said. “I’ve just been watching her on how she leads on the court because I feel like I do things really well off the court and in practices but like in those games she literally just takes over the games, so I just try to learn from her in that way and stuff.”

For Jessica George, her rise to captaincy is a bit different. A state champion her sophomore year and team captain her senior year in high school, George’s experience changed a bit when starting at UMass.

As a freshman, George didn’t see the floor nearly as much as Leidel did in her rookie season, averaging only 3.3 minutes a game compared to Leidel’s 38.3. After becoming accustomed to college and UMass during her freshman season, the UMass coaching staff was replaced and revamped going into her sophomore year.

During her sophomore campaign, she saw a large uptick in minutes due to a lack of team depth that resulted in a disappointing 9-21 record. With the 2017-18 team gathering its highest win total since 2006-07, George has been through enough to have the experience and knowledge to be a captain.

“When coach Verdi told me I was going to be a captain this season, it just kind of took me back to freshman year until now and everything that I’ve been through, and everything that’s happened with the team and us gradually progressing into a better team and better program,” George said. “It just made me think back to like ‘wow this is not at all what I had envisioned’ from my four years being here, but I’m 100 percent grateful for it and appreciative of everything that’s happened. It’s taught lessons and I’m excited for this season.”

Growing up as the middle child in a family of seven, leadership is something rooted in George’s upbringing. Through her experiences growing up in big household, George has certainly learned from her family and how the standards she holds for herself affect the choices and decisions of those around her.

“Having three younger siblings, it definitely puts into my mind like I can’t do certain things because I know they’ll do it if they see me doing it, especially if it’s a bad thing or whatever,” George said. “So I just kind of keep that in my mind. Learning from my older siblings as well, I know that definitely created the person I am now because I learned from things that they may have done or things that they taught me to do, so growing up in a big family it helps.”

Not only does George get her inspiration as a captain from her siblings, but from her mother as well.

“I have a couple of athletes I look up to, but for me personally, [I look up to] my mom,” George said. “She’s the person who kind of keeps my head straight and I go to her about practices and anything I have as a captain, or issues that I’m dealing with. She gives me a lot of advice and keeps me in a positive path. It just keeps me grounded, and it keeps me motivated to do the same thing with my team, my mom plays a huge role in it.”

Though both Leidel and George certainly have different paths to becoming captains of the UMass team, communication between the two always makes sure their goals and expectations are in alignment, and fall under Verdi’s expectations for the team.

“You’re a captain of the team, you have to take leadership of them on the court and off the court too,” George said. “Now, we know this is our team and we just go with that and make sure we have the same mindsets toward everything. We talk a lot about what we plan to do with the team and things that we can fix, things that are going good and stuff like that. So communication is big.”

Verdi acknowledges the different qualities and traits in each of his captains. Going into his third year coaching Leidel and George at UMass, Verdi knows the different experiences from each of his captains have shaped who they are as people, and how they lead as captains.

“There’s no doubt they’re both different,” Verdi said. “I think Hailey is more of a lead by example type of captain. She’s going to put that extra work in. She’s going to spend an enormous amount of time in the gym. I think she’s in the gym more than anybody throughout the summer and the fall. Jess is the communicator of the two at holding people accountable.”

“They’ve been here for my three years,” Verdi added. “Their leadership qualities that they bring each and every single day to practice, hold themselves accountable number one, and they hold their teammates accountable. As a captain, those are the qualities that you’re looking for from my perspective as a coach. You want people on your team that will do that, and I think they’re great ambassadors for our team.”

From a player’s point of view, Leidel and George have been successful in their short stint as a captain duo to this point. Starting point guard Bre Hampton-Bey had nothing but kind words for her two captains.

“They do a lot of communicating,” Hampton-Bey said. “I think that they’ve done a really good job at telling us what we need more of and I think that they’re doing a really good job now. It’s gonna really help us this season. I’m just excited and I’m glad that they’re our captains.”

Communication is key, especially for two captains whose past experiences have varied to this point. Though they’re heading into their third year as teammates, Leidel and George certainly will have a challenge on their hands, continuing to build chemistry between themselves and with the seven new players on the UMass team this season. By remaining in constant communication with each other and with Verdi, the duo will hope to build upon their 14-win season last year. There’s little doubt in Verdi’s mind that they’ll be able to accomplish this feat. By working together, the two are certainly poised for big things this season.

“It’s things that we see each and every single day,” Verdi said. “They’re consistent, they’re here, they’re invested on and off the court. Those qualities alone show myself and our coaching staff that they’re ready to lead this team.”

Dan McGee can be reached at dmcgee@umass.edu and on Twitter @DMcGeeUMass.

(Photos by Jon Asgeirsson, Judith Gibson-Okunieff and Collegian file photos)

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