Caitlin Mott/ Daily Collegian
Caitlin Mott/ Daily Collegian

Sydney Taylor’s monumental jump as a Minutewoman

Taylor's transformation into UMass' heroine

March 4, 2022

Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp.

 It’s the summer of 2020. Sydney Taylor is an upcoming sophomore in college, a year removed from her first season as a college athlete. Taylor plays basketball at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Only right now, she’s not wearing basketball shoes. She’s wearing running sneakers.

Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp.

Since the summer began, Taylor has run every day. Typically, she has music playing through her headphones during the long runs. Not today. With sweat dripping down her face, she manifests all her hard work paying off next season as the beat of her heart keeps her moving. She manifests going the distance with her team and achieving the ultimate goal: winning a championship. Her heart races as her legs vigorously propel her faster and faster into an all-out sprint. Gravel crunches against the pavement underneath the weight of her sneakers as she steps off the gas before coming to a gradual halt.

Thoomp-thoomp.                    

Thoomp-thoomp.                    

Thoomp.

 Taylor’s entire freshman year she was a benchwarmer. Not because she couldn’t play, but because she sat behind Hailey Leidel, the second-leading scorer in UMass history and one of the most accomplished players ever in the history of the women’s basketball program. Rather than complain or search for opportunities elsewhere, Taylor kept working. She knew eventually her time would come.

“From day one, I told her she could be one of the best players ever here at the University of Massachusetts her freshman year,” head coach Tory Verdi said. “She looked at me sideways like I was crazy.”

Taylor was only a freshman and was averaging six minutes per game as a reserve when Verdi made the statement. One could easily say this was an incredible amount of pressure to put on someone so early into their college career. Taylor would disagree. Instead, she embraced the challenge.

“I wasn’t getting a lot of minutes during that time, so I was kind of confused on where he was coming from and what he had saw in me that I didn’t,” Taylor said. “But once I got my chance, I worked really hard to get my starting spot and I’ve been doing good and I see exactly what he’s talking about. I agree with him 100 percent.”

Taylor’s reputation as a hard worker with a diligent work ethic was not founded overnight. With minimal opportunities to prove her worth during games, she realized her growth would have to materialize off the court.

“I know a lot of people tend to, if stuff’s not going their way or they’re not playing, they’re looking other places trying to get out, but I knew I had to stick it out,” Taylor said. “I knew [Verdi] believed in me, I knew all my other coaches believed in me. So, I just had to prove them right, work hard, and come back a different player.”

And come back a different player she did. One summer and a lot of distance running later, Taylor started in all 24 games as a sophomore, and improved drastically in every major category. Through COVID-19 related delays and all, Taylor was averaging 15.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. She solidified herself as a pillar of the team’s success alongside Destiney Philoxy and Sam Breen. Together, the trio went on an electrifying tournament run with only four other active players alongside them.

UMass was a Cinderella team. It was predicted to finish in seventh place in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll and was not viewed as legitimate contenders for the A-10 title. It buried the misconceptions by upsetting the No. 2 and No. 3 seeded teams en route to the Minutewomen’s first conference championship game since 1998. The Minutewomen defied all odds and exceeded every expectation the nation had set for them. They fearlessly charged up the hill and reached the summit, where they were met by VCU. Taylor and the team fought fiercely but failed to get over the hill, falling 81-69.

The loss put many things into perspective. For one, it showed that UMass had enough firepower to play with any team, A-10 or beyond. It also showed that it was a step behind where it wanted to be. While Taylor enjoyed a breakout season, she still struggled with consistency, a blemish that kept her from obtaining the title of being an all-conference player.

Taylor was more than capable of scoring at a high clip, but her team relied on her to deliver on a nightly basis, not just every so often. She knew she had to become even better. That summer, she started running again.

Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp. Thoomp-thoomp.

Over the course of her career, Taylor had become acclimated to overcoming adversity. Even going back to when she was playing high school ball at St. Anthony’s, Taylor was the target of taunts and frequently heckled not only by the opposing team, but by her own teammates’ parents, as well. She was often told she wasn’t good enough to play Division I basketball in college. The heckling only helped Taylor grow thicker skin, until eventually, she embraced the noise.

“I kind of like it,” Taylor said of the taunting. “It doesn’t really bother me. I know they had a tough crowd at Columbia. They were yelling at us the whole game and I enjoyed it. I actually went on my phone after the game and a lot of [the fans] had hit me up saying I needed to stop playing so well against their team.”

Also, just in case you were wondering: Yes, Sydney Taylor does read your hate mail. And she thrives on it. When UMass faced off against Columbia, Taylor dropped a near double-double, scoring 19 points and bringing in nine rebounds.

In the team’s 23 wins this season, Taylor has averaged 18.6 points per game shooting at a 45 percent clip. In the team’s 6 losses, she’s averaging 5.5 points per game on a 16 percent shooting rate. When Taylor underperforms, the team underwhelms.

“I know I have to bring it every game,” Taylor said. “I know we do have other players who can step up but when you have everyone who fills a certain position you need everyone to show up. It’s been really important for me to be consistent in a game. And when I’m not, we struggle.”

Taylor has the talent and mindset needed to produce big games in big moments. However, when her shot is not falling, she has the tendency to shut down.

“[Taylor] has to be aggressive,” Verdi said. “There’s a lot of times as a shooter you stand out on the perimeter and just watch. We’re trying to break those habits and when she does go it obviously helps us. It gives her the opportunity to get second-chance opportunity points. We want four people crashing the boards.”

Everyone who watches Taylor play knows she’s a threat from the arc and can score in a variety of ways. Opponents hone in on this, not giving her an inch of space to operate. Taylor had to adapt to impacting the game in other areas besides scoring.

“Teams are definitely playing me a lot closer,” Taylor said. “They really don’t help off my side at all. It’s hard for me to cut, [defenders] are always trying to slip between the screens. I’ve been using shot fakes a lot more, trying to get to the basket and dump off passes to my post players. Just anything to get my team going. I’ve definitely had to switch up my game and keep [opponents] on their toes.”

Confidence has been key for Taylor. Trusting her teammates has been a big part of her development as a player, but having her teammates trust her has allowed her confidence level to take a noticeable leap in year three.

“The coaches and players around me definitely helped me,” Taylor said. “Knowing that they had confidence in me and coach [Verdi] saying I could be one of the best players to play at UMass. But it was definitely within myself. Any moment I could have gave up; I could’ve quit; I could’ve walked away. But I knew I could work hard and be that player that [UMass] needed.”

Whether the summer runs have paid off and Taylor has emerged as the conference champion and the first team all-conference player she aimed to be remains to be seen. For the latter, she’s built an incredible case thus far, and closed out the regular season with a bang: posting point totals of 23 and 28 against VCU and Saint Louis at 46.9 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from the three-point line. Her performances made quite the splash not just around the A-10, but around the country as well. Not only did Taylor win A-10 Player of the Week honors, but she was also voted to the NCAA’s weekly starting five, alongside the elite company of Caitlin Clark of Iowa and Lauren Park-Lane of Seton Hall.

As for the formerly mentioned accolade, UMass will begin tournament play on March 4, against Fordham at 7:30 p.m.

“I love the tournament,” Taylor said. “It’s stressful. It’s hard playing day after day after day but it’s all worth it in the end. Although we didn’t get the result we wanted last year, we were still proud of how far we had come, and it was still a great feeling to get that far with all the adversity we faced. The experience is once in a lifetime, and I can’t wait for it.”

Taylor and the rest of the team come into this year’s tournament with their heads held high, but a bit of a chip on their shoulder from last year’s loss. According to Taylor, the loss might have taught the team a greater lesson than what the win could have. Failure is a crucial component to success. If you can respond to failure, you can achieve greatness.

“There’s a quote that sticks with me, it’s like ‘the struggles along the way are only meant to shape your purpose.’” Taylor said. “That’s something that should always stick with someone. Whether you got hurt or there’s something that’s happened in your life, it’s always meant to shape you and the person that you are.”

Michael Araujo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Araujo_Michael_.

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