A freak injury early in his prep career gave Wyatt Hessler a deeper appreciation for the game of basketball.
A passion for hoops led Giovanni Perez to leave home and try to make his way in an area where he didn't fully speak the native language.
The two recent Hernando County high school graduates, Hessler from Nature Coast and Perez from Hernando, will become teammates this coming season after signing with Trinity College of Florida out of Trinity in Pasco County.
Trinity is an evangelical interdenominational Bible college that plays within the National Christian College Athletic Association Division II.
"It means so much to me," Hessler said. "Playing in high school that's your goal, and I achieved that goal, which is a pretty good feeling."
"It means a lot," Perez said. "It's my dream. I want to keep playing basketball and I want to get a scholarship with a Division I (school)."
Each one took distinctively different routes to reach this point.
???Hessler said a couple of other schools gave me him a look, but "I never felt like they really wanted me."
Two coaches from Trinity, however, had attended 15 Nature Coast games, Hessler estimated.
"I took a visit to the campus and the way everybody treated me, it felt like it was where I wanted to be," Hessler said.
His entire family is actually moving to the Trinity area, as it shortens his parents' work commute.
"If I had to go somewhere else, it would have cost more out of pocket and I wanted to be close to my family," Hessler said. "I don't know how long my grandpa has to live."
A fulltime starter for the first time with the Sharks, the 6-foot-6 guard/forward had a solid senior season, averaging 7.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
As a junior he had appeared in 25 games, averaging 2.2 points and 1.5 boards, after moving up to the varsity roster in the postseason of his sophomore year.
Prior to that, he missed six months recovering from an injury usually reserved for baseball pitchers: ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, aka Tommy John surgery.
While playing JV as a freshman, on the last game of the season Hessler dove on the ground for the ball and had someone land on his left elbow. The resulting trauma led to the procedure.
Aside from what he called excruciating pain was the mental anguish of having to sit out.
"That was tough," Hessler said. "I battled through some really hard depression. At one point I had not eaten for a week.
"When the doctor finally told me I could play, my first dribble with my left hand I dribbled it right off my foot. From there, every single day I was in the gym until I could dribble with my left hand.
"It gave me more of an appreciation for everything. Anything can be taken away so fast. A lot of people take it for granted and I did."
Hessler rebounded to contribute not only on the court, but for the track and field team, as well. He was a district champion in the high jump as a junior and in the 400 meter as a senior.
He ran in the 4x800 at states this spring despite a hamstring injury suffered at regionals. Hessler was also a member of the 4x400, and split team MVP honors with sprinter Matt Breida at season's end.
"I loved track," Hessler said. "I loved to run so much. Sometimes I'd open my mouth in practice just so coach would make us run, because I didn't want to stand around. The 400 was my favorite thing to do. I'll miss that so much."
Playing basketball for the Tigers, at least for the next two years, is his focus now. He could transfer upon earning his associate degree, to somewhere that will allow him to stay on the court while studying physical therapy.
"Right now my goal is to get better and do what the coaches ask me to do, and either transfer or stay there," Hessler said. "At this point, I want to become a better basketball player, but I want to become a better person, too."
???Perez helped the Leopards go 18-8 for their first winning record since 2003-04, finishing fifth in the county in scoring at 13.8 points per contest, adding 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals.
The 6-foot-2 shooting guard proved deadly from beyond the arc, knocking down 34 3-pointers.
But a year ago he was an unknown around these parts, a transfer from Puerto Rico.
"I always wanted to play basketball and there are a lot of opportunities in the United States," Perez said. "That's why I came here, to try to play basketball and play D-I."
He followed his friend, Jeffrey Velasquez, to Brooksville, living with Velasquez and his family while his own remained in Puerto Rico.
"It has been really hard for me. I don't have my family here," Perez said. "A lot of people here helped me a lot.
"They're really nice at Hernando High. My English is getting better and better every day. My ESOL teachers helped me a lot with my English. In the beginning it was a little bit rough, a little bit hard for me, but I adapted. Here I am now, trying to go to college."
Perez said he could carry on a conversation in English prior to enrolling at Hernando, but would often say things that didn't make sense.
He speaks his second language with no discernible struggle now, and didn't seem to have much trouble joining the Leopards on the fly. He added a weapon for head coach Mark Latsko, who has since resigned after becoming head football coach at Gainesville High.
"It was a good experience," Perez said. "There are a lot of good basketball players over there. They play basketball and football, so they're good athletes. Coach Latsko is an excellent coach. It was exciting."
There was a significant bump in the road, however. Perez was thrown out of a Dec. 21 game against Springstead and initially suspended for three weeks when he allegedly punched an opposing player.
Perez denies that he threw a punch, saying he was elbowed in the ribs and simply pushed the other player away from him.
The suspension was reduced via appeal, allowing him to return on Jan. 15. He promptly tied a season high with 24 points in an 82-78 win over Dunnellon.
He would score at least 20 points five times during the season, and failed to reach double figures in only four of the 20 contests he completed.
"I did pretty good," Perez said. "But I know I can do better and I was out for six games."
At first he thought about walking on at Pasco-Hernando Community College. He visited UCF, but couldn't make the financial end work.
Trinity assistant coach Bobby Bowman invited Perez to a tryout - he additionally played in an all-star game at PHCC and tried out for Hillsborough Community College - and eventually inked with the Tigers.
His goals are to become a doctor, specifically in sports medicine, and move on to play at a bigger school.
"I know the people at Trinity will help me a lot. They're good people," Perez said. "I'm just excited for next season to come. I'm just going to do my best and leave everything in God's hands."
By the numbers: Wyatt Hessler
YR GP PTS PPG REB RPG
Jr 25 56 2.2 38 1.5
Sr 25 186 7.4 101 4.0
Totals 50 242 4.8 139 2.8
By the numbers: Giovanni Perez
YR GP PTS PPG REB RPG STL SPG
Sr 21 290 13.8 85 4.0 49 2.3