By Sam Donnelly, Staff Writer
For UNH freshman forward Tanner Leissner, basketball wasn’t something he liked from the beginning, it’s something he loved. Leissner grew up in Converse, Texas, into a family that wasn’t exactly basketball-oriented. None of his siblings played, and his father only played in high school, along with plenty of other sports. Despite the lack of interest within the family, Leissner wanted to play basketball as much as he could.
“At one point, I was on four or five different teams,” Leissner said. “Basketball never stopped. My parents were always running me to some gym so I could play.”
That love began, not because he was overly talented, but because he was always the tallest. From the beginning he dominated games on both regulation-sized hoops and mini-hoops.
“They used to put the little goals out,” Leissner said. “I remember being taller than everybody. I’d shoot, get my rebound. Shoot, get my rebound. Those were the good ol’ days.”
Early in Leissner’s high school career, he didn’t see much playing time at Judson High School, which has a 3,500 population. His freshman year, Leissner barely played junior varsity after moving up from the freshman team. His sophomore year was a test for Leissner. He barely made the varsity cut. Despite making the team, Leissner really wasn’t feeling playing varsity level.
“I was thinking, you know what, forget this, I’m just going,” Leissner said. “It was one of those things where the coach was being too hard on me.”
Despite the intensity of his high school coach, and the lack of promise when it would come to his playing time, Leissner’s mother would not let him back down from the game he loved.
“My mom told me to push through it,” Leissner said. “She told me I could do whatever I put my mind to.”
Despite playing just four minutes in his first high school game, Leissner used his determination to play to push himself close to the starting lineup. By the end of the season, Leissner was the first player off the bench and often played almost the entire game. Come his junior season, Leissner was ready.
“I got so much better my sophomore year,” Leissner said. “Me and another big man were put on the spot. That’s when I started coming into my own. The offense went through me a lot.”
Leissner was elected to the Express News Area Boys Basketball Super Team after he averaged 16.3 points and 9.6 rebounds a game.
“My senior year I was used to everything,” Leissner said. “My senior year our team had all came up together. We all played cohesively.”
Leissner was elected to the Super Team again, this time averaging 16 points and 11.4 rebounds. As for schools interested in him, the decision came down to staying home, or venturing out into a new basketball setting. Colgate was very interested but so were schools in Texas. Leissner still hadn’t made a decision by the time UNH entered the picture.
“UNH entered in late July and late in the AAU season. I was about to go in as an unsigned senior,” Leissner said. “I played well and some teams came to look.”
Leissner came for a visit at UNH during his senior season in the fall and was impressed with the composition of the team, especially the youth of the team.
“I saw the young talent,” Leissner said. “Coach Herrion does things the right way. I knew coming up here we had a chance to be good.
Another aspect of Leissner’s decision was a chance to play with guys who were making the same transition of him. The Wildcats had four players from Texas on their roster and all of them had made the transition to the northeast. Leissner saw how comfortable they were and felt as if he could make the transition, too.
After Leissner signed, he found out a few things about the Wildcats, and both of them were somewhat intimidating.
“They got me to visit during the fall, so I didn’t know about the cold,” Leissner said. “I committed before I found out they were 6-24 the season before, so that scared me.”
Soon Leissner got over that and went to work with the team in the fall. During the annual Blue-White scrimmage, Leissner led all scorers with 16 points and the rest was history. Leissner leads the team in scoring with 13.2 points a game and rebounds with 7.3.
Leissner’s skills are not just that of a big man, he can take the ball away from the basket as well. He averages 37 percent from beyond the three-point line and often will take the bigger defenders off the dribble.
“I didn’t get those skills [until] my senior year,” Leissner said. “I knew I was only six-foot-seven, so I knew I had to be versatile.”
Leissner has also been awarded America East rookie of the week five times and earned three Corvias ECAC Division I Co-Rookie of the Week Awards this season. He has tallied double-digit scoring 22 times this season, including four double-doubles. Despite all the accolades, Leissner is focused one something larger.
“I mean it’s nice to see myself but in the end I wouldn’t have it with my teammates,” Leissner said. “It’s due to my teammates and our success. I could care less about these accolades. I would love to go to the tournament. That would be way better than these individual awards.”
The Wildcats currently sit in fourth place in America East with a 16-10 record and a 9-4 record in conference. The first four teams receive first-round byes in the America East tournament. The Wildcats also are in the midst of their first winning season since 1994, and 15 wins for the first time in Bill Herrion’s tenure as head coach. Leissner is excited for what the future holds.
“We are winning games,” Leissner said. “Success has finally come UNH’s way. I would love to go to the tournament as a team and represent America East.”
The Wildcats will play on Saturday at UMass Lowell at 4 p.m.