Written by Julia Fischer for CUWFalcons.com
Over the course of the past four years, Falcon fans have become accustomed to witnessing greatness. A hard-nosed, grind-it-out point guard has directed the show for Concordia Wisconsin and more times than not he put his team first, while his accolades were of little consequence. Eric Kittel's success on the court is not a surprise because of his work ethic, humble roots and attitude towards the game and his teammates.
Very rarely do you hear a head coach describe one of their players with the word 'tenacious' when summing up a career, but Shawn Cassidy chose that specific word to describe this historic career. Using his tenacious drive towards basketball and life, Kittel finished his four years on the court as the program's all-time scoring leader with 1,541 points and 263 3-pointers made, along with ranking in the top-10 statistics in many other categories.
It would be natural to assume he was a highly recruited student-athlete coming out of high school with numerous offers to play collegiate basketball. But you know what they say about assuming...
The Brillion, Wisconsin native was first discovered by Cassidy through a connection his father had with Athletic Director Dr. Rob Barnhill. Kittel was playing an AAU game at Homestead High School in Mequon when Cassidy first went to see him play. At first, the Falcon mentor had his reservations due to a lack of size, being listed at 5-foot-8 his entire career was probably a stretch, but after watching him dominate the court he knew Kittel would be a big asset to the team and a program changer.
It isn't often a head coach will recruit an incoming freshman, much less a point guard, and tell them they will be handed the keys to run the show. Those were the words Cassidy had promised many times to Kittel and his family, and what ultimately was one of the many deciding factors on obtaining the program changer.
Although deep down, the opportunity to play immediately was something he couldn't resist, Kittel ultimately made the choice to attend CUW because of its family atmosphere.
"I chose Concordia over the other school because coach said I would be able to make contributions to the team right away, which is a big thing for an incoming freshman point guard," Kittel reminisced. "I also loved the area and the people here were great."
It takes most freshmen basketball players time to adjust to the collegiate game because of its faster and stronger pace than high school, but Kittel was different. Kittel was nervous but made the transition quicker than most and eventually started all 109 games of his career.
The story goes that during one of the first open gym sessions, Kittel quickly won over the respect of his teammates, especially the upperclassmen, based solely on his work ethic and go-all-out style of play. Hours after those first open gyms his teammates were sitting in a chair in Cassidy's office, and telling him it was no question Kittel was their starting point guard.
By putting his head down and working hard, Kittel was tagged with many accolades during his career and ended with D3Hoops.com All-Central Region Third Team honors. Oh, and by the way, he was also a three-time All-NACC First Team honoree.
"I wanted to show my teammates I was here to work," Kittel said looking back to one of the first times he played inside the R. John Buuck Field House. "I was here to play a game I love, not to show off. I wanted to be a teammate these guys could count on."
The Sport & Entertainment Business major achieved many things during his career and took on a substantial load of responsibility. Point guards minds have to be on everything because they are the extension of the head coach on the court. Although playing came easy to Kittel, calling the shots didn't at first. Throughout his freshman year, he had to work not on only his skills, but also learning to be more vocal on the court and with his teammates.
"Coming in as a rookie and being told to direct the offense wasn't easy and I didn't want to step on anyone's toes," Kittel explained. "As much as it was my job to run the team, my teammates also had to listen and they had huge impact on me my first year."
As his confidence grew on the court, he used his voice and skills to bring success to the Men's Basketball program, which included a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament and two appearances in the NACC Tournament Championship game. Kittel was driven and competitive, which made him work to the fullest of his ability and even beyond that.
"He always gave 100 percent to the team," Cassidy explained about one of the greatest players in program history. "He naturally got better and as he improved he started holding his teammates to his expectations, really driving the team."
Throughout his years, Kittel improved at any and everything he could. He became a leader by example and a vocal mentor, which resulted in his teammates following his lead. Of all the challenges he faced during his career, his senior campaign was one of the most difficult because of the team's youth and inexperience. He knew he had elevated his game and leave a lasting mark on the program.
As much as he had an impact on his young teammates, they also had one on him. With Kittel being so driven and hard-working, sometimes it was hard for him to turn off the switch, but his teammates knew how to help.
"Off the court, as well as on the court, the guys have fun," Kittel said laughing at the times of joy from this past season. "They opened me up, made me relax and helped me appreciate my senior year."
In his success, Kittel was nothing but modest. He shied away from the chatter and stayed focus on the real goal. One of the many examples of his team-first mentality was evident during a NACC Tournament matchup with Dominican when he needed 19 points to set the program's all-time leader scorer and had 16 points with just over 15 minutes to play in the game.
Being the teammate he was and leader of the program, he dished out four assists as the minutes ticked off the scoreboard with no knowledge of his possible record-setting performance. As the whispers passed through the crowd of 'how many more points does he need' happened, Cassidy pulled his senior over with three-plus minutes to go and had a somewhat stern, yet light message.
"You need three points to set the program's all-time scoring record and I want you to start shooting to set the record."
After being told he was now the focal point of the offense, solely to break history, Kittel walked away with a look of disgust and his head shaking no. Following a pair of bad 3-point attempts that were off the mark, in what Kittel describes as 'awful shots', he was taken out of the game to a raucous crowd supporting him.
What many people may not have seen in the moment was assistant coach David Cooks grabbing Kittel and congratulating him as he walked past the scorer's table and the exchange of words. Those sitting at the press row table have said that when reading Kittel's lips he was telling Cooks, 'I don't want to be a part of this because it's not about me.'
That is just one of the many examples over the past four years of a player putting his team first and his accolades aside. Some players might have grasped the opportunity to make the game about themselves and a record for the ages, but Kittel just flat out didn't care and was more concerned with his team and them winning.
Kittel eventually broke the scoring record days later on free throw attempts at Aurora and finished his career with what was likely the best performance he will ever remember – a career-high 31-point out in the NACC Tournament game at Benedictine on February 26th.
With his team down eight with 41 seconds to play he put on his hard hat and went to work, scoring 10 points over the final 38 seconds to give his team a chance at an upset and continue their season. Despite the loss, which Kittel will always recall, he will remember what those in attendance did for him.
A standing ovation with 0.7 seconds on the clock as he walked off the court one final time in his career. The reason the moment was so special?
Not only was the standing ovation from his teammates, coaches and Falcon faithful, but every Benedictine fan in attendance rose from their chair and gave Kittel a well-deserved round of applause for a career that was respected, valued and memorable.
Kittel left behind a legacy at CUW.
"Throughout my years here at Concordia, I've tried to leave a positive impact on the program the best I could," Kittel explained. "The biggest thing I tried to instill in my teammates I'm leaving behind is that even if you have a bad game or don't agree with something a coach says, you have to bring it every day because not everyone has a chance like we do and you have to make it worth something."
One thing is for sure, Kittel can't be replaced.
"Eric Kittel was a diamond in the rough," Cassidy expressed. "He exceeded any expectation the other coaches and I had for him. He was the type of player that only comes around every generation or so. The sooner I realize I can't replace him the better off I'll be."