NFA graduate Evans thrilled to be coaching at his college alma mater

R.J. Evans took a nice leisurely walk in the woods on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

It gave Evans another chance to appreciate where he's lived and worked — Asheville, N.C. — for roughly the past year and think about where he's headed.

"Just taking in the sights before I head back up north," Evans said when reached by phone on Thursday. "Got to move my stuff out tomorrow."

Evans, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, is moving back close home after recently accepting a job as an assistant coach at Holy Cross, his alma mater, in Worcester, Mass.

Over the last seven years, Evans has received an education in the coaching profession and become an expert mover.

Since playing a post-graduate season at UConn and earning a master's degree there in 2013, Evans has had coaching jobs at Nichols College (assistant coach, 2014-15) in Dudley, Mass., Texas (graduate assistant, 2015-17), Louisville (assistant, 2017-18) and UNC Asheville, where he spent the 2018-29 season as an assistant on Mike Morrell's staff.

It was a difficult decision to leave Asheville.

"It was great," Evans said of Asheville. "I've known Mike Morrell for a long time. He's like a big brother to me. ... That was a tough decision for me because of how close I got to the players in a year's time."

Ultimately, the chance to coach at his alma mater was too hard to pass up.

Evans excelled on and off the court while at Holy Cross. An economics major, he scored 1,200 career points and earned Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors.

"Obviously the Northeast is where I'm from," Evans said. "Hopefully, Holy Cross is a place where I can really help build the program. Definitely a place I'll be comfortable at because I played there. There's a lot of love there for me and I've got a lot of love for the place."

It was a connection from his playing days that helped Evans return to the Crusaders.

One of his assistant coaches, Mark Daigneault, who's now working an assistant coach for the NBA's Oklahoma Thunder, helped Evans land the job. Daigneault convinced Evans to join the coaching ranks.

Daigneault recommended Evans to Holy Cross first-year coach Brett Nelson.

Nelson contacted Evans and the pair met at restaurant in Atlanta last month during a recruiting weekend.

Evans came away impressed and decided to take the job as Nelson's assistant.

"We talked for awhile," Evans said. "I was in a good situation, so it had to be something that felt right with a guy that I believed in and who I came to trust as far as like what he's about. I talked to a lot of people. He has a great reputation. The vision that he had for the program was something that I could get behind.

"It felt right." ... There's a good core right now to build off of. With coach Nelson's energy and vision, the program will take off."

Here's what Nelson said about Evans in a press release announcing the hiring: "R.J. is a terrific coach and recruiter, and an even better person. He is a former Holy Cross player who bleeds purple, and I know he will have a great connection with everyone in our alumni base."

Evans already is starting to settle into his new job, spending two weeks on campus last month.

Prior to that, he hadn't been back to Holy Cross since 2015.

"Everything has changed," Evans said. "There's a new athletic facility there, which is amazing. They're doing a lot on campus, so they're headed in the right direction."

Evans fell in love with Holy Cross during his search for a college. He was attracted by the school's academic reputation and the storied basketball program. He still remains in contact with Ralph Willard, one of his head coaches during his time there. Evans still considers Willard, now retired, a mentor.

"We're still close to this day," Evans said.

Now Evans is looking forward to promoting the Division I school to high school recruits.

Holy Cross has meant everything to him.

"Everything about it prepared me for life," Evans said. "Every opportunity I've gotten in college basketball has come from Holy Cross. So it means a lot to me. I'm happy to have the opportunity to give other kids those opportunities as well."

And his biggest fans, parents Ray and Deborah, are happy, too.

"They're pretty excited to come to a bunch of games," Evans said. "So I expect them to be at 85 percent of the home games and a lot of the away games that they can get to."

g.keefe@theday.com

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