Never have so few witnessed so much.
In front of friends, family and athletic department personnel, Pacific High School senior Cullen VanLeer eagerly signed his NCAA Division I letter of intent to play basketball next season for the University of Missouri Tigers.
“It feels good,” Cullen said after signing the paperwork and posing for photos. “It’s something you dream of being a Missouri kid, playing for the University of Missouri.”
So, what should Mizzou fans expect to see from the newest Tiger?
“I’m going to come in and be a shooter,” VanLeer said. “I hope to expand my game through all facets so I can become a complete all-around player by the time I leave.”
Cullen said he tries to be intelligent with his play.
“I just play my game,” he said. “I play with the flow of the game. I don’t really force anything. My knowledge of the game and being able to outsmart other players and play more with my head than most other players.”
VanLeer is the first local athlete to sign with the men’s basketball Tigers in many years. It’s thought Washington’s Mike Sandbothe, who played at Mizzou from 1984-89, was the last local scholarship player with the Tigers.
Cullen has no illusions that things are going to be easy now that he’s signed.
“I’m going to go in, work my butt off and try to represent the area and Pacific High School as well as I can,” he said.
Seeking to keep the best Missouri talent at home, Mizzou’s first-year Head Coach Kim Anderson also signed Blue Springs 6-7 forward Kevin Puryear Wednesday.
“They are two of the top players in the state of Missouri, and we are elated that they have decided to stay home and be members of the Tiger basketball family,” Anderson said. “Additionally, they are both high character young men who are winners.”
VanLeer was The Missourian All-Area player of the year last year while also being named the Four Rivers Conference player of the year. He’s been an all-state selection for the past two seasons.
Cullen has made his high school mark by playing for the Indians, coached by his father, John VanLeer.
“I’m very proud,” John VanLeer said. “Being dad and coach makes it even more special. When any of your players sign at a place like that makes it exciting. With him being my son, it’s a dream come true for our family.”
Cullen said he’s relished the experience he’s had with his father.
“Everything I’ve learned came from him,” Cullen said. “It might be a little bit of a transition to college, but I think I can make it. This summer was the least amount he’s ever coached me. I’m going to enjoy this last year with him and then move on. It will be good from there.”
Cullen’s mother, Washington School District Superintendent Lori VanLeer, also has a coaching background. A volleyball coach before she got into administration, Lori led Pacific to the 1994 Class 4A state championship. She also coached East Central College.
And Cullen’s younger brother, Cameron, is a freshman for the Indians this season. He has made the varsity roster and Cullen is looking forward to playing with his brother this season.
“It should be fun playing with Cameron,” Cullen said. “We have chemistry. We should be pretty good and play well together.”
John VanLeer is looking forward to having both sons playing this season.
“We were always hoping Cameron would be good enough as a freshman to play,” John said. “He’s worked really hard and Cullen has really pushed him. He’s going to be ready to play for us and I think he’s going to make a big impact on how we do this season.”
Cullen has played other sports. He was one of the youngest players to break into the Pacific Post 320 baseball lineup as a seventh-grader. He also has played for his father on Pacific’s golf team. But he’s always had hoop dreams.
“As far as I can remember, when I started playing it became my favorite sport,” Cullen said. “I never really thought about other sports. It always was going to be basketball.”
Lori said he could have stood out in her sport, volleyball, as well.
“He could be good at that,” she said.
Road to Mizzou
When Anderson replaced Frank Haith as Mizzou’s head coach, the Tigers started to take notice of Cullen’s ability. John VanLeer said Cullen had one of his best club games at an event in Milwaukee and Mizzou just happened to be at that contest. The interest blossomed into an offer.
“The coaching change happened and Kim Anderson is just a good guy,” John said. “He’s old school like the way I coach. We do a lot of the same things. He expects the same things out of his kids. He wants high-quality individuals, not just good players. It was just a great fit.”
It didn’t take much for the Tigers to impress Cullen.
“When they (Coach Brad Loos and Coach Rob Fulford) really started talking to Cullen a lot, they won him over,” John said. “In our visit up there, they just put together the plan for him for the next four years sold it to Cullen right away.”
Cullen said the coaching change played a key role.
“When the new coaching staff came in, they started talking to me more,” he said. “I really liked them all. When I went to visit, I liked it a lot. From there on out, that’s where I wanted to be.”
John said Mizzou’s interest came after a number of other schools had been chasing Cullen’s signature.
“We took notice (of the Mizzou interest),” John said. “We weighed it all out as a coach and as a dad. I told Cullen it’s going to be hard to get on the floor there right away. We had a good offer from Missouri State, which would have been another good place for him to go. He probably could have gone in there and played right away if he keeps getting better.”
John knows Cullen has the ability to make an impact with the Tigers.
“He’s going to work hard and hopefully he’ll be able to contribute earlier than they even expect him to,” John said. “It’s going to depend on his work ethic. They really recruited him as a shooter. He can shoot it, but he can also do a lot of other things. They’ll find that out when he gets there.”
Cullen credits his recruiting to playing with St. Louis Gateway, and he’s played there since he was in the seventh grade. The club travels to showcase tournaments and that’s where the college interest is cultivated.
“They recruited me more through club ball,” Cullen said. “That’s mostly how it is for the big schools now. You’re always going to be seen more through the summer circuit. You’re not going to get many looks if you just play high school.”
And, as far as practices go, Cullen said it’s not the length of time you work, but the quality of the workout.
“It’s more about getting good, quality reps,” Cullen said. “You’ve got to come in and work hard for the set amount of time you have and then get out. You come back and do it again the next day.”
Cullen is looking forward to his final season with the Indians.
“We have to all play together this year,” he said. “We have to have confidence in ourselves. We were so close last year. That’s enough motivation to come back and work hard to take the next step this year.”
VanLeer had a huge game in Pacific’s final game last season, the district championship overtime loss to Borgia. Cullen scored 26 points in the game, all during the second half and overtime.
“That one still hurts,” John said. “People bring it up and talk about it being one of the best high school games they’ve ever seen. Maybe that was, but we didn’t come out where we wanted to come out. It was a great game for the fans. It was a great game to be a part of, but it was a hard game to get over. I don’t think we’re over it yet. We think about it and we talked about it all of the offseason. We’ve used it as motivation to get the kids into the gym or weight room. Our goal is to get better. We want to be challenged every night out and be ready for the postseason.”
The Indians return to the site of that game Thanksgiving week for the 62nd Annual St. Francis Borgia Pepsi Thanksgiving Tournament.
“We’re probably going to be undersized,” Cullen said. “We’re going to have to make sure we block out and play good team man-to-man defense. If we do that, I think we’ll be good. I think we can make some noise in the Borgia Tournament.”
Overall, he feels it should be a good season for the Indians.
“As a whole, we’ve got to make sure we do all of the little things and the big things will work themselves out,” Cullen said.
“He’ll play all five spots on the floor at some time this year,” John said. “He’ll guard all five spots on the floor. It makes my job a lot easier having him out there. It’s like having another coach out there getting people to where they need to go. I think that separated him from a lot of other kids at the high school level. He understands the game and has high basketball IQ. When we put set plays in, he runs one spot and knows all five spots after we run them. It’s been a real treat to coach him and I’ll enjoy his last year.”