Thomas Close, a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), is a Belltown basketball legend. The 2018-East Hampton High School graduate scored 1,485 points, earning All-State three times as a four-year starter at the high school.
The hardwood prodigy continued his passion at the next level, joining a Warriors team in Willimantic and picking up where he left off in high school.
“It’s been great. I came in as a freshman super excited to join a winning program,” Close said of his college experience. “I’ve made a lot of friendships. My love of basketball has grown even more than I could have imagined here.”
Following a reserve role as a freshman, Close became a starter as a sophomore and has never relinquished that role.
This winter he is averaging a career-best 12.5 points per game as the Warriors are aiming to capture a Little East Conference (LEC) title for the first time since 2018.
That same year, Close was a senior in high school where he helped lead East Hampton to an undefeated regular season. The team’s winning extended into the Shoreline Conference (SLC) tournament where the Bellringers won their first SLC championship, defeating Cromwell in a 58-54 thriller on March 8, 2018.
“To this day that is one of my favorite moments of my basketball life because it was with the kids that I’ve known since kindergarten. It was great for all of us,” said Close, who scored a team-high 17 points in the win.
Close added that he and his teammates at Eastern still talk about the glory days of high school, “There’s so much freedom and you’re playing with the kids that you grew up with.”
He hopes this season ends with that same conference championship feeling. The Warriors have been on the cusp of a conference crown twice in the past three seasons, but have lost on both occasions.
During his freshman year at ECSU, the Warriors fell to Keene State in the LEC championship game. The following season (2019-2020) they were again eliminated from conference contention by Keene State and during last year’s COVID-abbreviated season (2020-2021), Keene State again ousted Eastern in the LEC tourney.
“We’ve been talking about that since day one,” Close said about winning a conference championship. “Not that rankings mean anything but in the preseason rankings we got ranked sixth and we already knocked off two of the teams that were ranked ahead us. We know what we have here and we’re definitely going for a championship.”
Keene State has been a nemesis to Eastern in recent years, but it hasn’t been all bad. Close played the hero in the 2020-2021 regular season finale, as ECSU defeated the New Hampshire-based Owls in dramatic fashion when Close canned a three point shot with 2.3 seconds left in overtime as the Warriors won 85-83. The win wrapped up an undefeated home record (5-0) for the Warriors during the shortened season.
Because of that truncated season, in which the Warriors only played nine games, Close and the rest of the college athletes were granted an exemption to play an additional college season. This means that Close will have a 5th year of eligibility next year, which he says he will take advantage of.
Coming from a small town, college basketball has been a bit of an adjustment for Close. In high school, he was the undisputed #1 option and once he got to the next level he was forced to adapt his game.
“In high school I would have the ball in my hands 24/7 and now I’m a two guard, so I really had to work on my shot over the years. In high school I would dribble drive and get to the rim because guys were shorter in Shoreline, but now I’m playing against a team like Keene State that has two guys that are 6’8”, so I’ve really transformed my game into more of a shooter,” said Close. “I’m the type of person that will do whatever is best for the team. Playing the two has been great, it’s expanded my game.”
Close has spent countless hours crafting his game and perfecting his picturesque jump shot, which looks effortless on the court.
His scoring average has gone up in each of his four seasons and his shooting percentage has followed. He also credits his coach, Bill Geitner, with shaping him into the player he’s become in college.
“I came into school super shy and as I’ve gotten older I’ve grown out of that and he’s helped. He’s helped me a lot with confidence and getting to the right spots and the overall experience,” Close said of Geitner, who has been coaching at ECSU for two decades and won over 60% of his games during his tenure. “We’ve become super close. We can talk about anything; basketball, class, family.”
During the pandemic, gyms were closed and competitive basketball was temporarily halted.
The family-oriented Close leaned on his loved ones for support in more ways than one.
His mother, Susan, and sisters, Megan and Riley, offered emotional support and would go outside and rebound for him as he shot jumpers.
“We have a super close relationship,” Close said of the family. “My mom and my grandma [Patricia] don’t miss a game at home. They are at every game sitting in the front row. Looking over and seeing them there means the world to me.”
This winter, ECSU has won eight of nine games at home, compiling a record of 9-4. They have 10 regular season games remaining, including a pair against Keene State, which could go a long way in determining seeding for the LEC tourney, which starts Feb. 22.
February’s tourney is another chance for Close and the Warriors to bring a conference championship home to Willimantic.
Despite the loss, Closed fondly recalled the atmosphere of the LEC championship game his freshman season and yearns for another shot at the title, saying “I want to get back there so bad.”
Conference championship or not, Close will finish up his degree in Sports Management this year and focus on his minor in coaching during his fifth-year at Eastern.
After his playing days are over, the former Bellringer said he will keep basketball in his life, whether it’s through coaching or as a grad assistant.
Because for Close, basketball will always be life, “It means everything to me. It’s a getaway from problems. I might have a bunch of homework that I am stressing about, but I go to practice and I’m in a different world. It’s been a passion for me and it’s created so many friendships.”
Thomas Close after helping East Hampton boys’ basketball win the Shoreline Conference Championship on March, 8 2018
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin