By Kathryn Arena / Sports Information Staff
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- When senior Leonel Hyatt enrolled in college, he never thought that most of his time would be spent in a gymnasium, training to become one of the most valuable leaders on the Eastern Connecticut State University men’s basketball team.
Hyatt started his basketball career at a young age and continued to work on his game through high school. After his final season at Greenwich High School in the winter of 2015, Hyatt decided to continue his education at Eastern. Playing for the basketball team was not on his radar, but he chose to take his chances as a walk-on. After Hyatt showed off his work ethic and team-first attitude, head coach Bill Geitner found a roster spot for him.
“His freshman year at tryouts we watched a 6’5-6’6 player that had some ability” said Geitner. “At that point it wasn’t polished, but he was definitely someone we hoped could grow and blossom into a good player.”
As a walk-on joining a program coming off its sixth straight 20-win season and second Little East Conference regular-season title in a row, Hyatt knew that his road ahead would be a challenge.
“I had to prove myself from Day 1 on the court,” he admitted. Hyatt, unlike other members of the team, was not formally recruited to play at Eastern. The coaches, however, had previously seen him play in high school.
Point guard Jaysen Nunez of Hartford, a classmate and four-year teammate of Hyatt, recalls his first year playing with him. Both athletes were walks-ons and relied on one another to get through their first year of adjusting. “Both of us had a chip on our shoulders,” acknowledged the 5-foot-6 inch Nunez. “We both had to get used to the new group and prove ourselves.” Together they were able to accomplish just that.
Over the course of four years, Hyatt has developed his game both mentally and physically. During his first two years, he played behind All-America Hugh Lindo and 6-foot-10 inch David Canny, two strong centers. “Boxing them out and going against them every day was hard, but it taught me how to be physical,” Hyatt said.
The 6-foot-6, 220 pounder worked hard to earn minutes in his first two seasons – he came off the bench in 33 games in those two years, averaging only 4.5 minutes as a freshman and 11.8 as a sophomore -- behind the two upperclassmen and never became discouraged with his minutes. Instead, he maintained a team-first attitude, which ultimately boosted his confidence as a teammate and player.
As one of the team’s three seniors – along with Nunez and Donny Craig of Waterford -- Hyatt has a strong sense of pride in how much he has developed mentally. “I feel a lot more comfortable when I am out there,” he said. “I now know that I belong on the court.”
That comfort level is clearly evident for Hyatt, who has been a starter and stalwart in the paint each of the last two years, averaging 26.1 minutes per game. It is easy to see the major improvements he has made as a player. Last year’s rebounding and points averages were 5.2 and 5.1, respectively. This year, he is averaging career-highs of 6.9 rebounds (ninth-best in the LEC) and 7.1 points per game. After shooting 57.1 percent from the floor as a junior, he has even managed to elevate that number this year, with a mark of 60.9 that has lifted his career percentage to 54.4 “He does a lot of our stats that don’t get noticed,” says junior point guard Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield, MA. “It definitely doesn’t go unnoticed by me, though. I appreciate everything he does on the court,”
The improvements to his game have also resonated with the Eastern coaching staff. “He has an impact on the court both offensively and defensively,” points out Geitner, who has led the Warriors to the last five LEC regular-season and last two LEC tournament titles. “Defensively, he is kind of the glue that keeps everything together. He knows where he is supposed to be, and he knows not only his rotation, but everyone else’s rotation. He is never out of place.”
Seventh-year assistant coach Bill Roveto, a former four-year player under Geitner and one of the current head coach’s all-time best defensive players ever, has personally seen growth from Hyatt. “Every year he has improved,” praised Roveto. “The last two years, we don’t like to play without him on the court.” Roveto specifically noted that Hyatt keeps the defense organized and composed, which is why the team considers him their defensive anchor. According to Roveto, Hyatt’ ability to communicate, and his knowledge of the defensive rotations, have set the team up for success.
Creating a strong team presence is something that Hyatt has strived to focus on over the course of his four years. “It is important to build a bond [with your teammates] on and off the court,” he says. “That is something that I came into that separates us from other teams; we get along on and off the court.”
As the season and Hyatt’s career head toward the finish line – with the three seniors being recognized on Seniors’ Day Saturday (Feb. 9) at Geissler Gym -- Hyatt wants to leave his teammates with this advice: “Keep your head up, even when you’re not playing that much. Stay positive and take advantage of the opportunities the coaching staff gives you.”
In addition to the Eastern coaching staff, Hyatt also gave a shout-out to Drew Gladstone, his former AAU coach, and Bobby Spazzano, his first basketball coach, for helping to shape him into the player he is today.
Hyatt will graduate in May with a degree in Business Administration. He hopes to enter into the field of financial analytics.