Captain by Committee
By Raj Sagar
Given the cyclical, regenerative nature of collegiate athletics, programs occasionally undergo periods of transition and flux. In those times, a team often looks to its elder statesmen to serve as a steadying influence, as well as a link between the new coach and the team. Coming into this season, it wasn’t their combined 39 starts or 701 career points that defined Virginia’s three senior captains. Actually, what Calvin Baker, Jerome Meyinsse, and Solomon Tat bring to Virginia basketball is impossible to quantify.
Four years ago, each of the three Cavalier seniors made their way to the University from completely distinct backgrounds. In addition to coming from hometowns of Newport News, Va., Jos Plateau, Nigeria, and Baton Rouge, La., respectively, Baker, Tat and Meyinsse came from various realms in regards to their basketball careers.
While Meyinsse and Tat were finishing up their last days of high school, Baker was already playing at the collegiate level. A year earlier Baker had graduated high school and chose to attend the College of William and Mary. After leading the Tribe in scoring, assists, and minutes as a freshman, Baker decided it was time to move on.
“When the season ended, I was very pleased with my year, but in the back of my mind, I always had known that I wanted to compete at a higher level,” said Baker. “Since I was a kid, I always wanted to play ACC basketball, and when the opportunity presented itself following my freshman year, I had to take it.”
Upon arriving at Virginia, Baker was forced to sit out a season due to NCAA rules for transfer students. Though he was able to practice with the team, he was unable to participate in games. As Baker looked on from the sidelines, both Tat and Meyinsse played minor roles on a team that won a share of the ACC championship and earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. It was in that critical period of their first year that allowed the three future captains to first taste success as a team.
“It was great to be a part of that team as a freshman,” said Tat. “I knew coming in that I was going to be around guys that competed and studied at the highest level—everything that happened that year really helped me understand what it was going to take to be a part of this program.”
Looking back, Meyinsse points to the mentality and demeanor of that year’s captains, guards J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary, as a great influence on the way he now approaches the game.
“That team had two incredible leaders who were known for their offensive ability, but also played good, gritty defense,” said Meyinsse. “After seeing how those guys carried themselves and the success it can bring, we have tried to bring a similar toughness and mentality to this team.”
When asked about his experience with the team during the 06-07 season, Baker alludes to the maturity, humility and ‘all-hands-on-deck’ attitude he was able to absorb.
“You realize very early on in this that not everyone will be a star, but you need role players to have success as a team,” said Baker. “Now as a senior, I just want to try to pass on some of the things I have picked up in my time here to the younger guys.”
With their senior season underway, and early success in ACC play filling John Paul Jones Arena with optimism, humility remains a central tenet by which the captains abide.
“What’s made us have some success early this year is the fact that everybody is willing to learn and always looking to grow and improve their game,” said Baker. “The key to our team is that no one has an ego. We all want to do whatever possible to help the team step in the right direction.”
Despite battling back from injury this season, Baker has remained diligent and determined in his rehabilitation so he may work his way back onto the court.
”Calvin’s a fierce competitor who desperately wants to play and be a part of this,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “He’s been hampered by injuries, and any guy who’s in his fifth year has gone through that, but he still is just dying to play—that tells you what’s burning inside of him. I love his heart, his competitiveness and his experience.”
Tat hasn’t seen much playing time this season, but has consistently found other ways to help the team succeed. His intensity, energy, and emotion have placed him in a vital role as spiritual leader of the team as they have weathered ups and downs of the last few years.
“We have been through some tough times as a group,” said Meyinsse. “Solomon has always remained positive and focused and has been a vocal leader for this team throughout.”
“Solomon has the best attitude in terms of encouraging, leading and instructing his teammates,” said Bennett. “He works so hard, is a heck of a defender and he’s physically tough. I think he’s going to be successful in whatever he does because of his attitude.”
Of the captains, Meyinsse is the only one to see his playing time drastically increase in his senior season. Starting in 14 of the first 21 games, Meyinsse’s toughness under the basket has been integral to the Cavalier’s success. Equally as important to his presence at the rim is his dominance in the classroom, and his involvement in the community. As a participant in the ACE program, (Athletes Committed to Community and Education) Meyinsse spends time at Walker Elementary School in Charlottesville promoting sportsmanship and physical fitness. In addition to countless honor rolls and academic accolades, Meyinsse is the President of Virginia’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for 2009-10, and has been a member of the committee for four years.
”He really is a model student-athlete,” said Bennett. “He hasn’t played a whole lot in the past, but he’s stayed at it and been willing to do whatever is best for the team. This year he’s getting more opportunities and making the most of them. He is a role model for student-athletes everywhere.”
While this senior class has seen varying amount of playing time throughout their careers, their persistence and desire has never wavered. For four years they have strived to work cohesively as a unit—but it is from their individuality from which the Cavaliers benefit the most.
“They all bring a different demeanor,” said Bennett. “Calvin provides a fiery competitiveness, Solomon a great attitude in the midst of anything and Jerome is steady and so likable. They’ve had some success, but also gone through some discouraging or hard times. They’ve seen a lot, from sharing an ACC regular season championship to going through some hard times and a coaching change. They understand this league and I think they bring a nice blend.”