Bill Bradley, Byron White, Myron Rolle, Matt Leeds.
Although not a Rhodes Scholar as the former Princeton basketball star turned U.S. Senator, the Colorado All-American football star turned U.S. Supreme Court Justice or the former Florida State All-American safety turned professional football player, Leeds has epitomized the term ‘student-athlete’ in his own right at the College of Charleston.
The only other player third-year CofC head coach Monte Lee can compare Leeds to is former second-team All-Southern Conference selection and CofC Wall of Fame inductee, Joey Foxhall, who was a teammate of Lee’s from 1996-99.
Ironically, Foxhall was also a third baseman and a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-American. He was a 4.0 student and a Rhodes Scholar finalist for the Cougars, while Leeds recently graduated summa cum laude from The College with an impressive 3.93 grade-point average in accounting with minors in economics and finance.
“I tell people all the time, when they interview me about Matt, if you looked up ‘student-athlete’ in the dictionary, there should be a picture of him beside it,” Lee said. “What Matt has done academically and athletically is extremely impressive. I could go through the rest of my career and not have another student-athlete that I get the chance to coach who has been as successful as Matt in both areas.”
The Journey To Charleston
Five years ago, through word-of-mouth recruiting, current CofC assistant coach Matt Heath, who was then a member of former head coach John Pawlowski’s staff, made the 10-hour drive from Charleston to Boca Raton, Fla., where a promising, must-see switch hitter was still unsigned at American Heritage School.
As fate would have it, the night before Heath made the trek to south Florida, Leeds blew out his knee and was unable to compete in the game he was scheduled to play in the very next day. Knowing how good of a player Leeds was and that he had already qualified for academic scholarships, including to CofC, the risk was worth the reward.
“I still believe we were at the right place, at the right time,” Heath said. “I met with Matt and his mother (Janet) at a local park and we knew we still wanted to sign him.”
Leeds would come on his official visit in February and immediately fell in love with the city and campus. It was also a pretty easy decision for him to sign with the Cougars knowing it was also home to a great baseball program.
After successful rehabilitation, Leeds was in top form for his first collegiate baseball season as a freshman in 2008. He played in 30 games, starting in two, with 13 RBI – just the start to one of the greatest hitting careers in CofC and SoCon history.
His most memorable baseball moment was coming into pinch hit and drilling a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth at UNC Greensboro on May 4, 2008, in Greensboro, N.C. It marked his first collegiate home run and offered reassurance the coaching staff’s gamble on a diamond in the rough was now two fold.
“He showed up and we could tell he was a player,” said Heath on Leeds’ rookie campaign. “Until this day, I still remember that home run at UNCG. You could tell he was a special kid then.”
For the second time of his baseball career, Leeds suffered another knee injury which kept him out during his sophomore year in 2009. What some would think would be a setback was otherwise to Leeds. It not only allowed him time to focus on his studies, but it helped him decide on a major and hone his leadership skills from the dugout.
“I’m probably not the most outspoken guy on the team, but I definitely do try to lead by example,” he said. “I like talking one-on-one with guys rather than talking with the team as a whole. I feel responsible for grooming the young, freshmen hitters who come into our program to help keep up the tradition of being an offensive powerhouse. I took that role upon myself.”
Lee says Leeds is definitely a great leader by example in the way that he prepares for every game, the way that he practices and the way he goes about his daily business – someone who always gives you 110 percent. There was no doubt he would overcome his injury and turn it into positive reinforcement for the next year.
“The first thing that impresses me about Matt, in terms of what he has accomplished here as an athlete, is the fact that he’s had to deal with injuries throughout his whole career,” Lee said. “He is an amazing and very talented hitter. I would be willing to bet, no other player in Division I baseball has driven in more runs than Matt Leeds over the last two years. He is one of the most elite hitters in the country.”
A Season To Remember
The Cougars turned in a banner season during Leeds’ return from his redshirt year in 2010. They posted a 44-19 overall record with a heartbreaking loss to No. 11-ranked Coastal Carolina in the NCAA Myrtle Beach Regional. It was the fourth time in program history the Cougars tallied at least 40 wins in a single season.
Leeds set a new CofC single-season record with 88 RBI, the second-most in the country behind national leader Chris Benson of Utah Valley who had 89. He was named 2010 SoCon Player of the Year and an ABCA/Rawlings Third Team All-American in addition to being one of eight NCAA Division I players selected to compete in the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby.
“Going to the Regional was definitely the highlight of our season,” Leeds said. “Any Cougar fan knows we came really close to advancing to the Super Regional. In terms of winning SoCon Player of the Year, it’s always nice to be recognized, but it wasn’t my primary goal going into the year.”
That grace, humility and ‘team player’ mentality is what has set Leeds apart and has made him a favorite among professors on campus and to his fellow peers.
“Matt is serious about whatever he does,” Lee said. “But, he’s extremely intelligent and is a very down-to-earth kid. He listens more than he talks, which I like in student-athletes. Some student-athletes think they have it all figured out. As smart as Matt is, and as well as he knows the game, he is a really humble guy. He’s a guy on the team that the other players respect. He’s a natural leader and he’s going to be very successful in life, because of how dedicated he is in everything he does.”
This past semester, Leeds accomplished a feat not many CofC School of Business students have obtained. He scored a 195 out of a possible 200 points on his ETS Major Field Test in business, one of the highest scores earned by any senior since the tests were first administered in 2006, according to Marcia Snyder, CofC Director of Accreditation and Academic Data Management.
The ETS Test is designed to measure the mastery of concepts, principles and knowledge expected of senior undergraduates at the conclusion of their major. In addition to factual knowledge, the tests evaluate students’ abilities to analyze and solve problems, understand relationships and interpret material.
What does Leeds credit all of his success in the classroom to? Like any student-athlete, time management is key as well as the help and support he received from his CofC Athletics Academic Services advisor, Kate Tiller. Additionally, Leeds earned the highest cumulative GPA of all 300+ student-athletes this past school year.
“During the season, we miss a ton of classes and making up the material you miss during those absences, is probably the toughest part of being a student-athlete,” Leeds said. “In terms of doing the schoolwork, there isn’t enough time during the day, so you really can’t waste it and there are some late nights. You just have to manage your time, because you don’t really have a choice.”
Professor Linda Bradley-McKee had Leeds in her tax class the last two semesters. She believes the business school is one of the more challenging degrees to obtain at The College. In her 20 years at CofC, she has always had wonderful experiences with student-athletes and working with coaches, noting no dual system between athletics and academia.
“I think students will tell you my class is one of the harder courses in the business school,” Bradley-McKee said. “It’s not just how smart you are, but how dedicated you are. I’ve had two athletes who were at the very top of the class and Matt was one of them. In both cases, it was their discipline. They are bright, but we have a lot of bright students at The College. What sets our student-athletes apart from everybody else in the world is their discipline. They know how to buckle down and get it done, when it needs to get done. They have a wonderful work ethic. Yes, they have the drive, but they have the discipline to make it happen.”
Bradley-McKee did not realize Leeds was a baseball player until the beginning of the spring, when he told her he would probably miss class due to the team’s travel schedule, but would make every effort to meet deadlines and make up the work assigned.
“Many times, I would come in early in the morning, long before the class would start, and he would be the only person sitting downstairs in the lobby working on his homework,” she said. “All of us professors try to be well organized, so we know when exams are and projects are due. Matt made every effort on his own, to be right up with the class, whether he was in class or off on a road trip. When he took the final exam, he came in late one evening to study and was right here the next morning to take the final.”
Last summer, Leeds worked on Wall Street with a hedge fund and was offered a full-time job after the completion of his internship with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) – impressive for the Long Island native who watches CNBC, follows the stock market and reads the Wall Street Journal.
“It was a great experience,” said the New York Yankee fan whose favorite player is Derek Jeter. “I’ve always been a numbers guy in my business school classes and it drew my interest. I am very interested in the financial world and investing. It was a different atmosphere. There are incredibly smart people in that industry and if baseball doesn’t work out, I look forward to joining that world someday.”
If that wasn’t enough to impress you, according to Lee, Leeds sits on deck determining the offensive percentage the team has of scoring a run dictated by how many outs they have, where the runners are on base and how many players are on base. Talk about number crunching …
“He can actually calculate our percentages of success,” Lee laughs. “Everyone understands he is a genius. I wish he would tell him me his assessment before the hitter either strikes out or actually gets a hit, just so I have a pretty good idea of what our chances are, too.”
Leeds was one of 51 current and former student-athletes who recently walked across the Cistern Yard at May Commencement. In true fashion, he was more worried about making the team’s game against UNC Greensboro that night more than anything.
“I got my diploma and quickly headed off to Patriots Point,” he said. “It was more special than I thought it would be and it felt really good to be finished.”
Leeds was one of eight SoCon student-athletes to be named postgraduate scholarship recipients and for the second time of his career was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District First Team which qualified him for the national team ballot. Off the field, he serves as a volunteer for the Charleston Miracle Leaders Group and plans to pursue a master’s degree in business administration.
“I am a very competitive person and I am competitive with myself,” he said. “I never feel comfortable doing things not at my best level. I think that carries over both on the field and in the classroom. I think that’s what drives me the most.”
The future remains bright for Leeds, who still has one year of college eligibility left, should he not explore Wall Street again or move on to the professional ranks. Prior to the 2011 season, he was listed among the top 50 corner infield prospects by The Baseball Draft Report. Leeds currently leads the Cougars with 70 RBI and is second on the team in batting average at .347.
“He has a good shot of playing pro ball,” said Heath, who served as a scout for the Houston Astros prior to rejoining the CofC staff this season. “He will be very successful. A lot of teams like him because he is a switch hitter. He has power and puts up a consistent average and number. We have all played pro ball and help to develop and prepare our players for that next level. As a coach, it has been fulfilling to watch a player such as Matt grow from his younger days to now.”
Several Major League scouts have shown interest including the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres. Lee expects Leeds to be drafted within the first 10-12 rounds of the 2011 MLB Draft to be held on June 6-8 in Secaucus, N.J.
“Anytime you put up the numbers Matt has put up over the last two years, people are going to notice for sure,” he said. “We certainly hope he gets that opportunity. On the other hand, Matt is smart enough to realize that if he isn’t drafted too high, he does have the option of coming back to school. I think when he is faced with signing a professional contract or coming back to school, he’ll make the best decision for him.”