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Matt Lesan returns to Spartan sideline

Solon, Upper Iowa standout to lead varsity basketball team

SOLON– When the current Solon High School opened, Matt Lesan was an eighth grader.
He was there the day crews put up the basketball hoops in the new gymnasium and he snuck in to sink the first shot in the west side basket.
Former coach Ed Hansen had beat him to the east side.
Lesan went on to become Solon’s most prolific scorer, and now he’s back on the sidelines as the head coach for the varsity Spartan basketball team.
“Honestly, I am very grateful for my experience here in Solon,” Lesan said. “I really think it was a springboard for me. I was able to use Solon and all the opportunities it afforded me to go to the next level and beyond.”
Lesan, 31, graduated from Solon in 2007 as its all-time leading basketball scorer and has the second-most steals. He started as a freshman and played varsity all four years, a two-time First Team All-Conference and First Team All-State selection.
“I feel like this was a place that I really grew up, coming in as an immature freshman and leaving a little bit more mature senior,” he recalled. “I just think this is one of the best places to get a wonderful education and get a lot of really good athletic experience.”
Before Solon, home had been Clarinda in Southwest Iowa, where his father Bob had been first athletic director and then high school principal. When Bob accepted the same position at Solon in 1999, the family adopted a new hometown.
Matt’s mother Janel took a job with Grant Wood Area Education Agency and is now Grant Wood’s regional administrator for both Solon and College Community school districts.
Matt was in fifth grade when they moved, and it took some time to adjust to the new culture.
“There’s just a lot more opportunities here that are offered to kids than there were in Clarinda,” he said.
He played in all youth sports until eighth grade, when he started concentrating on basketball.
After high school, Lesan continued playing hoops at Upper Iowa University, playing all four years and graduating as eighth all-time in points scored (1,383, he’s now dipped to 10th).
The next several years were spent playing under contract with the Chicago Steam of the American Basketball Association. The Steam captured a conference title with Lesan on the team, and reached the conference finals in South Carolina.
It was a lot of good experience playing against talented players like Rico Hill, a Los Angeles Clippers’ draft choice.
“A lot of guys who were able to take their game and elevate it even after college,” Lesan noted. “Every time you go up a level, the margin of error gets smaller and smaller, and these guys play at an extremely efficient rate.”
When his time in the kind-of big leagues came to an end, Lesan decided to go back to school to obtain his teaching certification.
“Once I kind of hit the real world, I realized that I wanted to get back into school,” he explained.
He had originally been an elementary education major at Upper Iowa, but had changed to business marketing because of inherent scheduling problems between basketball and practicums.
Lesan enrolled in the University of Iowa (UI) and graduated in 2016.
For the last two years, he taught fifth and fourth grade at Coralville Central Elementary.
Now he’s teaching fifth grade at Solon Intermediate School (SIS) and has settled in Tiffin with his wife Shannon, a fourth grade teacher at Lemme Elementary in Iowa City.
“That age range– I think that’s just the wheelhouse,” he said. It’s an age when kids still love school and believe in fairy tales. “It’s one of the best ages to teach.”
While attending the UI, Lesan also served as the sophomore head basketball coach in Solon, and then became a varsity assistant at City High in Iowa City after landing the Coralville job.
He admitted being a little anxious about his return to Solon as the sophomore coach.
“There’s a lot of expectations in Solon and you have those same expectations on yourself,” he said. “You don’t want to let down those people and community members and administration that taught you so much. Getting that message across to my kids at a younger level was really important to me.”
Any time he suited up for Solon, Lesan felt a lot of pride.
“Now instead of you putting on the Solon uniform, you have 15 of your kids putting on that uniform that represents Solon and you and your vision,” he noted.
Now in charge of his own varsity squad, he plans to build a program based on a coaching philosophy of accountability, responsibility, team unity, toughness and discipline.
It’s a message he communicated early on to players and parents.
“If we can build our program with all those as our pillars, we can really do a lot of special things,” he predicted. “Not only on the court but off the court as well.”
When he was 18, he thought he could play basketball forever, but he’s realized the importance of life after sports and wants to pass on the same life lessons he learned from his parents and his former coaches.
“Once those playing days are done, you can fall back on those pillars and be successful at whatever path you choose,” he said.
Lesan wants his student athletes to be disciplined and highly motivated, putting forth maximum effort in everything they do, whether it’s school, band or choir.
It’s no longer just about teaching sports, it’s about building character and helping students learn how to make good decisions, he said.
When Lesan’s Spartans take the floor, there will be some constants and some things that change year to year, depending on where the group is collectively.
“You’ve got to play to your strengths, I truly believe in that,” he said. “You have to adapt and change to where your team is at.”
Solon fans can expect a quick, fast-paced offense and a tenacious defense.
“We want to be moving the basketball up the floor, not dribbling it into the ground 13 or 15 times,” he said.
Lesan wants all his players touching the ball to make the opposing defense work. With one pass and one shot, he said, three guys on defense don’t have to exert any effort.
Solon needs to be able to spread people out with great spacing, but that will require great screening, he added.
Defensively, he wants his team to be aggressive, physical and pressuring the ball to make the opposing team uncomfortable and dictate what they are able to do.
That means high energy and constant communication among players.
“They have to know where they’re going to be at all times and talking to each other,” he said.
It’s a team effort for coaches and players alike, Lesan noted.
“You have to stop teams together,” he added.
Joining him on the sidelines will be assistants Matt Messenger, Bubba Knight, Marc Foster, sophomore coach Lee Cusick and freshmen coach Matt Morrison.
Lesan remembers when his dad took him into the locker room to meet David Gruber– “It felt like I was meeting Shaquille O’Neal,” he said. He remembers the passionate Black Hole student section and wants to bring that feeling back, generating excitement with students and parents.
Key to that will be involving student athletes in the community, and in the elementary and middle school buildings, he said.
“As soon as people see that we’re giving back, we’re out there helping as much as we can, they’ll want to come see what our program is all about,” he said.
That also means showing support for every program in the district, he added.
Some things have changed in Solon since Lesan was a student.
He’ll be teaching in a building that used to be his football field.
“SIS is built on hallowed ground that we use to play under the neon lights on Friday nights and that’s gone,” he said. “A lot of memories out there.”
But other things have not changed.
“This is a great place to be,” he observed. “There’s no better place to raise a family than Solon, Iowa.”
The high level of character in Solon students is a testament to the community and parents, he said, and he wants to continue that tradition by building an environment where all students genuinely care for their peers.
Solon’s varsity boys begin the 2019-20 season on the road at Vinton-Shellsburg Friday, Dec. 6. The Spartans travel to Independence Tuesday, Dec. 10, and return for the home opener Friday, Dec. 13, to face Benton Community.