It’s rare that the pipeline of high school basketball talent flowing out of Alaska comes back the other way, but that’s exactly what the University of Alaska Anchorage men’s team has been able to pull off after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In each of the past two recruiting cycles, head coach Rusty Osborne and his staff have been able to lure a pair of local big fish back to the pond where they grew up.
In 2022, it was the return of Da’Zhon Wyche, formerly of West High, and Jaron Williams, formerly of Bettye Davis East. This year saw the return of another former Thunderbird in Hasaan Herrington, and Bishop Tosi, formerly of Bartlett. The Seawolves also got 3A Player of the Year for 2023 and recent Grace Christian graduate Sloan Lentfer to commit to play for his hometown team as well.
“We make a concerted effort every year to keep local kids and to get local kids if they’re (in the transfer portal),” Osborne said. “It’s just always whether the circumstances dictated it either way, both for us and for them.”
With this latest recruiting class all officially signed, the Seawolves will have a total of five former Alaska high school standouts on their 2023-24 roster, with junior forward Luke Devine formerly of Wasilla High rounding out the bunch.
Osborne said last year with Wyche was a “perfect example” of a situation where they had a really good relationship with the player who they felt like “was on track” to join their program coming out of high school in 2016.
When a close family friend, former East standout Louis Wilson, got the head coach job at the University of Texas at Tyler, Wyche’s plans changed, or were at least delayed as he eventually ended his career as a Seawolf.
“That was just a natural fit for him with the relationship between coach Wilson and his dad and so we understood that,” Osborne said. “Through it all, we maintained a good relationship with him and he ended up coming back.”
Herrington and Tosi, however, were two players the Seawolves followed and were “very interested in coming out of high school.” Unfortunately, their senior years coincided with the waiver year for collegiate athletes impacted by COVID, so they didn’t have any financial aid available for new recruits.
“Our kids got their extra year because we did not play that (previous) year,” Osborne said. “The only person we added that year was David Rowland because we had a little bit of aid for an experienced guard, so that was it.”
Pre-existing relationships played pivotal roles in bring back local recruits
Herrington marks their second recent transfer from the UT-Tyler, and he decided to enter the transfer portal after Wilson resigned. Herrington said he “didn’t really align” with new coach Tim Moser following some conversations they had.
“It was all good and as soon as I entered the portal, UAA hit me up,” he said. “They had been following up with me the past couple years and I know they’re very familiar with me.”
Herrington shared that his relationship with the Seawolves coaching staff dates back to his time in middle school, and when the opportunity to finally join his hometown team presented itself, he “had to take this chance.”
“Throughout high school, they really wanted me to go there, but they didn’t have aid due to COVID,” he said. “I know the staff here pretty well and I had lunch with them before I had committed. They’re all in about me, we have the same motives and morals so it made perfect sense.”
Tosi entered the transfer portal after two years at Bellevue College in Washington and was also heavily recruited by the Seawolves coming out of high school, but the program’s lack of available scholarships as result of COVID cost them another standout local talent.
“During my time (at Bellevue), they maintained a pretty good relationship with me, and (I) just thought it was the best fit,” Tosi said.
Had UAA been able to offer him financial aid, he was “seriously considering” staying home but admitted that he did want to “explore a little bit” outside of Alaska.
“It was definitely an option and obviously fell through, but I wasn’t too hurt,” Tosi said. “I’m kind of happy how it worked out because I really liked my time at Bellevue, and now I get to go back home and finish what I thought was gonna happen.”
Fostering and maintaining those relationships was integral in the re-recruitment process of both players.
“Hasaan was coming to our camps here from the time he was finishing his eighth grade year,” Osborne said. “We had a relationship with him and we’d see him in the summer maybe in some open gyms and so it’s just one of those things when he needed a different spot.”
Osborne shared that in Tosi’s case, they had a “good relationship” with the Bellevue College coaching staff and they were able to actively recruit during his two years there.
“(Associate head) coach (Ryan) Orton especially would have pretty consistent contact with Bishop over the years, letting him know that if we had a need for his position, we would certainly be interested in having him come back,” Osborne said. “As things transpired, that’s exactly what happened.”
Playing in front of family, friends again was a major draw
Herrington said family played a major decision in his return.
“There’s nothing like that feeling of being home and now your family can come to games,” Herrington said. “My last year in high school, there wasn’t a lot of fans in the stands due to COVID, but to be able to do that in front of fans now and show them how much I improved also encouraged me to come home.”
He played with Williams in high school and Wyche in his freshman year at UT-Tyler. They each gave ringing endorsements of the UAA program and what it was like to play at the DII level back home.
“They instilled in me that there is nothing like playing at home,” Herrington said. “Once I thought about it, I was like ‘You’re right.’ ”
Tosi said he is “excited to come back home” and finally get a chance to play in front of his friends and family at the Alaska Airlines Center.
“We never made state at Bartlett, so this will be my first time playing at the arena,” he said. “I always got to watch my friends play and it was a good experience so I’ll see what it’s like on the other side now.”
He played with and against many of his new teammates growing up and the opportunity to join them in playing in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference was another “huge factor” in his decision to become a Seawolf.
Tosi capped off his two-year stint at Bellevue with a NWAC national title and believes that the championship pedigree that he accrued will help propel him through the rest of his career.
“They taught me how to be competitive again and just find fun playing basketball,” he said. “That’s the biggest part I think is important for just any team is to be able to go out there and enjoy what you do because you don’t really like it, the product is not going to be as good.”
To be able to finish his collegiate career in the city where his journey started is something Herrington views as “nothing short of a blessing.”
“I get to reignite some old friendships and play with people I haven’t played with in a minute,” he said. “I also think it will encourage the next generation and show them that whatever you do, you can present yourself and represent yourself at home as well and thrive.”
Tosi echoed a similar sentiment and is looking forward to not only joining forces with his fellow local products on the court, but also showing younger Alaskans who aspire to play college basketball that they don’t have to leave home to realize and live out their dreams.
“When I was growing up, a lot of people were like, ‘You gotta get out, you gotta get out,’ but hopefully we can show them that we have what we need in Alaska as well,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with staying home. If there’s other opportunities that you want to chase, go ahead, but Alaska is still a good spot to be.”