Coach U: The Rivals Way

Ushearnda Stroud thought she was done with the game of basketball. Then, she took a chance and now finds herself as one of the most prominent coaching figures in New England and a source of inspiration for girls with dreams of making it to the next level.
June 1, 2022

By Danny Priest

Ushearnda Stroud’s team was rolling. And she wanted everyone, including one coach in particular, to know it.

Stroud knows how to command a sideline. Normally sporting heels or off whites, or Adidas gear during grassroots season, Stroud carries herself with a presence as soon as she walks into a gym. Her teams often win big, as was the case back in 2013 in a win at a Gym Rats AAU tournament in New York. That’s when she caught Scott Hazelton’s attention.

Hazelton, then the coach for Lady Rivals, was coaching his own game one court away. He knew his team may very well run into Stroud’s later that day. So, he snuck a look at the scoreboard of Stroud’s game.

Stroud noticed.

“We’re coming for you!” she screamed. “We’re winning, and we got you next.”

It took a moment for Hazelton to realize Stroud was yelling at him. Keep in mind that Hazelton, a 6-foot-7 former McDonald’s All-American and local basketball legend, is a recognizable figure at grassroots tournaments across the country. Who was this woman yelling at him?

Stroud didn’t care.

“Right from there, I knew she was always someone that I wanted to work with,” Hazelton said.

He wasn’t mad. In fact, he saw something he liked – fire, tenacity, swag. Stroud’s passion was evident, and her reputation was already growing.

So, who exactly, is Ushearnda Stroud?

Her former players would describe her as almost larger than life. A “badass,” the “face of New England Basketball” and the kind of person who just has a gravitational pull around her.

Hazelton knew in that moment he wanted to work with her, and he would eventually get his wish. Stroud – known as ‘Coach U’ by most of her players – is now the director of the Lady Rivals basketball program, the head coach at the Brooks School and a fixture within grassroots basketball.

Stroud has won championships, coach of the year honors and guided multiple players to college scholarships. She was recruited to play at Tennessee by legendary coach Pat Summit. She changes lives every year and built a powerhouse in Lady Rivals. Basketball is her life.

Years ago, however, she was ready to give up the game for good.

‘Oh My God’

Things were trending in the right direction.

After a year at Tennessee, Stroud transferred to Sacred Heart to be closer to home. She was 19 years old, eager to embrace a better academic and athletic fit and ready to move into an off-campus apartment ahead of her sophomore year. Then it all came crashing down.

As she walked down Park Avenue in Fairfield with a friend, a dog got loose off its leash and bounded after Stroud and her friend. They both ran, darting into the street. Most traffic stopped, but one car continued barreling forward.

Stroud saw it coming, but she had no time to react. The car slammed into the two women, sending them flying through the air.

Stroud remembers saying a prayer as it happened.

“Please God, whatever happens, don’t let me land on my head,” she thought. “I don’t want to be a vegetable.”

The vehicle’s impact knocked her friend unconscious, her body landing so far away witnesses couldn’t immediately find her. Stroud, who remained conscious throughout the accident, estimated her body catapulted more than 50 feet forward.

She knew something was wrong as soon as she landed.

“Oh my god, you’re (messed) up,” said a friend who witnessed the accident.

Stroud tore her left rotator cuff, and her tibia was shattered in three different places from the knee down to her to her ankle. The injuries were so severe, the New York Giants team doctor performed her surgery. He warned her amputation might be necessary.

Doctors ultimately saved her leg, but she faced an arduous rehab process.

Stroud with the Lady Rivals in 2021 (Lady Rivals Basketball Instagram)

Stroud remembers sitting at her mother’s kitchen table weeks later, still in the very beginning stages of her recovery, with a Bible placed in front of her. She went to lift the cover with her left arm but didn’t have the strength to lift it.

She immediately started crying. Not a solemn cry of disappointment, but a ferocious cry of anger and resentment.

“God, how could you do this to me? How could you do this to me?” she asked over and over.

Stroud couldn’t contain the frustration. She was known as a lightning quick guard with an ultra-competitive edge while starring at Malden High School. Now, that promise felt like it had been snatched away.

She needed something to tell her that things would be okay. That she would recover and all her future success would be realized, even if she couldn’t see it yet.

“I remember hearing this inner voice saying to me, ‘I love you too much to hurt you, and I’m far too wise to make a mistake with you,’” Stroud said.

Her tears stopped. Stroud never deserved what happened, but she’d made a life out of proving a point to those who thought she couldn’t do something.

She heard that message loud and clear and she told herself a simple message.

“Alright, get back to work.”

‘I Want To Play For Her’

Stroud split her time between Massachusetts and Georgia growing up. She was a fierce competitor, playing everything from street hockey to the game of chicken with her friends in Malden. She wanted to be the best at everything she did, even hoping to join the school band.

She still remembers what her mother, JoAnne, told her regarding her musical aspirations.

“She said to me one time, ‘Look, you can do this every single day. Practice, be as great as you want, but there are times where some people are going to do something their very best and just not be as good as everyone else,’” Stroud recalled. “But go ahead and do it your very best.”

Stroud decided the next day she didn’t want to be in the band anymore. But she was clearly a dominant basketball and softball player, and by her junior year of high schools, colleges showed a genuine interest in her as a two-sport athlete.

Ultimately, basketball emerged as Stroud’s sport and she set her sights on heading south, closer to her birthplace of Albany, Georgia.

Stroud dreamed of attending the University of Georgia, but they didn’t reciprocate her interest. Instead, she picked playing for a legendary coach with a loaded roster at Tennessee, motivated by proving others who thought she couldn’t play at such a high level wrong.

After one year, it was clear it wasn’t the right fit.

“I knew it was not my school,” Stroud said. “I knew it with everything. I knew it with playing time, practice time, and not that it was bad, it just wasn’t my school.”

It was like the school band. Sure, Stroud could work her hardest at every practice and workout. But regardless, she was stuck behind five-star recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans. She knew she could play at the Division I level and needed to go somewhere to prove herself.

Sacred Heart represented that place. Unfortunately, the accident derailed her plans.

Nearly two years elapsed before Stroud officially played another collegiate game. In between, she spent three days a week at Spaulding Rehab in Boston rebuilding her muscle and coordination.

Stroud learned to walk again using her right leg and had to rebuild the strength in her left arm to generate enough power to dribble. Her road was long and draining, but she found the strength to keep going. Her grandfather, Milton Stroud, often called her with a message in the hospital.

“He just said to me, ‘You will outlive your darkest day,’” she recalled. “I remember sitting in the hospital bed and I just said from that point on, I’m just going to fight and get back on the court.”

Stroud returned for her senior year and still showed enough skill and talent to garner an opportunity to play professionally overseas. On the surface she was an inspiration, but internally she was ruined.

“I was in Ramstein (Germany) playing for a club and I was just miserable,” Stroud said. “Wasn’t happy, wasn’t enjoying it, missed home and wasn’t sure I really wanted to play basketball anymore.”

Stroud returned home and couldn’t even muster the energy to coach basketball clinics.

“That mental aspect of for me, it was you can do all of this, why aren’t you doing it better?” she said.

Stroud was done. She needed to get away from basketball. She took a break from the game, doing nothing more than officiating and running occasional skills sessions on a volunteer basis.

But in 2005, a seemingly harmless request changed the course of her future.

Pat Driscoll was the assistant athletic director for Malden Catholic High School and Stroud’s childhood friend. He asked if she’d be willing to lead their football team through plyometric training during spring workouts.

Stroud figured why not? Her work as the plyometric coach turned into a gig as a color commentator for the team’s Friday night games on local television. Her play-by-play partner was Al DiTullio, a Watertown native who also called basketball games for Watertown high school in the winter.

DiTullio extended an invitation for Stroud to join him as a color commentator for basketball and she agreed. During that first season in Watertown a tall, lanky freshman playing on varsity caught the attention of Stroud and others. Her name was Britt Obi-Tabot.

Obi-Tabot was raw, but it was clear proper coaching could help unlock her lofty ceiling. At the conclusion of their season, Watertown’s coach invited Stroud to join his staff as an assistant.

Stroud hesitated. She hadn’t been that involved with the game since she’d left her professional career behind.

“At first, I was like, no, no, no,” Stroud said. “Then I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just come in and help out and work with (Obi-Tabot).’”

It was the best decision Stroud ever made.

“Going through that whole process with her again, of the fun of basketball and how much fun it was be in the gym and work out and do extra work, that’s what got me back into loving basketball and wanting to be in the gym again on a regular basis,” Stroud said.

She was hooked.

Under Stroud’s guidance, Obi-Tabot developed into a Division 1 player. (Mara Lavitt, New Haven Register)

“If I don’t meet her in high school, I don’t play in college,” Obi-Tabot said. “I didn’t understand how to read defense, I didn’t understand spacing, I didn’t understand any of that and that’s the type of mentality and things you need to know before you get into college. If I don’t meet her, I don’t know if I get that from anyone.”

Obi-Tabot went on to score 1,000 points and collect 1,000 rebounds at Watertown and receive a full scholarship to continue her career at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

When she moved on, Stroud did too. She became a coach with Visionary Basketball Group (VBG) often leading skills and drill sessions for 100-150 players on a given night. She gave clinics overseas in Germany, rubbing elbows with grassroots greats such as Wayne Turner, John McVeigh Sr. and Anthony Taylor.

Stroud landed her first head coaching job at Notre Dame Cristo Rey in Lawrence. She took a winless team from the previous year to a 16-2 record in her first season on the sidelines.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I’m back,’” Stroud said.

In one sense, she was back. In another, she was just arriving, now a dominant coach instead of player.

“She would just command the room, the lady can dress,” Obi-Tabot said. “She would come in, her shoe game is crazy, she would come in the gym and I used to coach with her a bit and everyone would be like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Coach U.’ Without even speaking, just her swag alone, she reminds me so much of Dawn Staley and South Carolina. The swag on her own is just so badass it makes you think, ‘Hey, I don’t know who this lady is, but I want to play for her.”

Building Her Empire

After spending a year in the college ranks as an assistant at Salem State, Stroud returned to high school basketball as the girls coach at Lawrence High School.

Scott Hazelton, who still hadn’t forgotten his interaction with Stroud years ago in New York, was teaching at Lawrence at the time. He played pickup basketball on Sunday mornings and knew the girls team practiced there as well.

“I just went over there super early and rolled up at her practice,” Hazelton said. “I said, ‘Let’s do this. What are we waiting for?’ … I think that was the first time she kind of took me seriously because it was like, man, this dude is rolling up to my practice.”

Hazelton, still with Lady Rivals, had courted her for years. Stroud ran her own program at the time called United Conquerors based in Malden, but she decided to give Hazelton a chance in 2016.

By 2018, the Lady Rivals were ascending to a powerhouse and Stroud found a way to maximize her opportunities.

The women’s basketball coaching position at the Brooks School in North Andover opened and Stroud wanted the job. During her interview process, Stroud was asked why Brooks couldn’t compete with other prep powerhouses in the area. She had an answer ready.

“(Other schools) are on the front line of where girls’ basketball is growing,” Stroud said.

“I’m in grassroots year-round. If you have me come in here, I’m going to identify the kids that can be successful in the classroom, on campus, and then on the basketball court. I guarantee within two years, we’ll show it.”

Stroud went 5-20 in 2019. Come 2020, she brought in those girls she’d identified and led her team to a 20-6 record and Brooks’ first NEPSAC title since 2003. After COVID shut down the 2021 season, Brooks returned in 2022 to go 24-0 and win another NEPSAC title. Stroud earned NEPSAC Coach of the Year honors.

As all of this went on, Stroud continued to work alongside Hazelton with the Rivals and after a few years serving as the Co-Director of the Lady Rivals alongside Hazelton, Stroud will be taking over as solo director this season.

She wants to set the standard for girls’ basketball in New England.

“I want to build this program to be the face of New England for grassroots on every level,” Stroud said.

Her personal story is important and an inspiration, but for Stroud, it’s less about what she’s done and more about where she believes she can take girls in the future. For her, the wants and needs of her players will always come first.

“This is my story, but I really want it to be the woman who’s going to take the Rivals that way.”

Stroud can point to success stories all over the country. Britt Obi-Tabot, Morgan Lumb, Sam Dewey and countless others elevated their games working alongside her. Hazelton isn’t just leaving the girls program in good hands, he’s leaving it in trusted hands.

“Seeing her interact with the kids, yes on the court she’s coach, but off the court I see her go above and beyond,” Hazelton said. “The way she advocates for kids and seeing kids that buy into what she’s trying to do and see how she elevate their lives, it’s incredible.

“I went in the gym last Sunday because my boys had practice right after. The girls were in there practicing and I start walking onto the court and she’s doing her thing and I just turn right back around and went to the office. I’m like, ‘You know what, she’s got it.’”

Hazelton completely trusts Stroud. Her resume, resolve, and presence on the court leave no limits on what the future can hold.

“Where I want this program to go is you come here, not just for the top kids, but this is the program that WNBA players come out of,” Stroud said. “What happens with big programs in the south or west …I want us to be that kind of program. Kids are looking to stay in New England or get their parents to move to New England because they want to be a part of the Lady Rivals.”

If you’re lucky enough to walk into a gym where Stroud’s coaching, it won’t take long to notice her. Just be careful if you look over at the scoreboard, she might have a message for you if you do.