For Villanova Star Maddy Siegrist, an Early Rejection Was Motivating

And the more she scores (and scores), the more she makes good on her promise to always make the team.

Maddy Siegrist, wearing a white and pink Villanova uniform, dribbles in a game against UConn.
Maddy Siegrist, a 6-foot-2 Villanova forward, has evolved into one of the best players in Division I basketball.Credit...Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

Maddy Siegrist had been closely monitoring her phone.

Siegrist, then a seventh grader, had tried out for the St. Martin De Porres basketball team earlier in the day, and the coach was supposed to call players that night to let them know whether they made the A-team or the B-team. Eventually, Siegrist’s phone rang. She didn’t like the news: She had made only the B-team.

With tear-filled eyes and quivering lips, Siegrist told her parents, who at first wondered if something more serious had happened.

“I’m like, ‘It’s OK, honey, it will work out,’” her father, George Siegrist, recalled while laughing. “And she’s saying, ‘No, Daddy, it won’t.’”

So that November night in 2013, George Siegrist remembers his daughter turning on the lights in their driveway and putting up shots until it was time for bed. That winter, she began shoveling heavy snow in that driveway to make way for practice. The following year, Siegrist made the A-team — and hasn’t played on a B-team since.

“That was a turning point in her early career,” said George Siegrist, who played college basketball at Marist. “She decided that she didn’t like having that feeling.”

“I’m a super competitive person,” Maddy Siegrist said, “and I never wanted to be on a second team again.”

Siegrist, now a 6-foot-2 Villanova forward, has evolved into one of the best players in Division I, leading it in scoring and breaking records en route to securing her team a fourth seed in this year’s N.C.A.A. women’s tournament, where Villanova (28-6) will host No. 13 Cleveland State (30-4) on Saturday. In a year in which it seemed like Villanova basketball might fade from prominence because of the retirement of the school’s men’s coach, Jay Wright, Siegrist’s season has put her among Philadelphia’s biggest sports stars.

Siegrist’s season has put her among Philadelphia’s biggest sports stars.Credit...Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

“It was kind of like, here’s an opportunity to really make some noise and make our mark, and you know it’s really drawing attention,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “When you put out a good product, and you have a star people want to see, people come out.”

Philadelphia is known for its crazed sports fans, particularly for professional teams like the Eagles and the Sixers. Fans are infamous for climbing greased poles and reveling in the streets in celebration. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Temple men’s coach, John Chaney, captured the city’s attention with competitive seasons and multiple deep tournament runs.

But for much of the last two decades, Villanova — with two men’s basketball championships — has also captured its share of local attention. Now the focus at the school has shifted toward the women’s program, primarily because of Siegrist’s play. “They treat Maddy in the same way they treat the Sixers,” said Wright, who retired after last season.

Wright remembers arriving at his office as early as 7 a.m. some days and leaving as late as 10 p.m., and looking out his window because he would hear a basketball bouncing from the nearby women’s practice gym. “I would always just check to see, like, who would be in there this late or who would be in there this early?” Wright said. “And it was always Maddy.”

Siegrist’s most impressive game this season came when she scored 50 points against Seton Hall. That night, she showed her versatility on offense, using post and dribble moves for scores, and also running and making sharp cuts without the ball to get herself open. Her 50 points were a record for the program and the Big East Conference, and Siegrist accomplished the feat in only 32 minutes, a relatively low amount of playing time for her.

“We don’t often get to give her a rest,” Dillon said. She had taken Siegrist out before being notified by Villanova’s sports information director that she was close to breaking the school record for points in a game. “So we kept her out there when she got to 50, but I jokingly was like, ‘We’re pressing our luck here.’”

Siegrist won the Big East Player of the Year award, and was given a trophy by Val Ackerman, the conference commissioner.Credit...Jessica Hill/Associated Press

After that performance, Jalen Brunson, a former Villanova guard who now plays for the Knicks, said Villanova should retire Siegrist’s jersey “as soon as she’s done.”

After Villanova’s next game, against St. John’s, dozens of fans, mostly young girls, rushed to the bottom of the stands carrying pens, markers and papers as they vied for Siegrist’s autograph, which she signed after scoring 39 points and 11 rebounds in the win.

“I can remember how impressionable I was at that age watching other talented college players, so you just want to be a great role model for them,” Siegrist said.

When she was the same age as those autograph-seekers, she thought her basketball career was over after being left off the St. Martin De Porres A-team. She and her family are still close with the coach, Jerry Fiore, who was on the other end of the phone call that night many years ago. Fiore has even attended some of her games this season; no one lets him forget that moment.

“You know, he helped Maddy develop into the player she is,” George Siegrist said.