By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The coaching staffs at several colleges with prominent men’s soccer programs, including the University of Virginia, liked the highlight tape from Cabrel Happi Kamseu’s one high school season in the United States. But they were cautious, too.
Such tapes, after all, highlight players’ strengths, not weaknesses. Moreover, the level of competition Happi Kamseu faced last fall as a postgraduate student at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts was not elite.
“I think a lot of people were unsure of exactly what he was,” UVA head coach George Gelnovatch said Thursday in his McCue Center office.
Before the Cavaliers’ coaches extended a scholarship offer to Happi Kamseu, they wanted to evaluate him in person. He came to Charlottesville in January on an official visit that coincided with Virginia’s annual one-day winter camp for prospects.
The Zimbabwe native hadn’t played in a game for a couple of months, and his performance at the camp was uneven. Even so, Happi Kamseu “had enough of what we call ‘special moments’ out there that we decided, yes, we think he’s the guy,” Gelnovatch said.
Happi Kamseu committed to UVA after his visit and signed a letter of intent in February. But his development as a player stalled during the first half of this year.
Because he’d graduated in December 2016 from St. George’s College, his high school in his hometown of Harare, Happi Kamseu would have given up a season of eligibility under NCAA rules had he played competitively between this January and the time of his enrollment at UVA.
He trained on his own during the spring semester at Deerfield and during the month he spent back in Zimbabwe, but that didn’t fully prepare him for what awaited him in preseason practice at UVA.
“All his timing, everything was off,” Gelnovatch recalled.
“The transition coming here was hard at the beginning,” Happi Kamseu said, “because obviously if you don’t play for six months, you’re a bit rusty and you’re still trying to get back in shape. I knew where I was beforehand, and then not being at that level was really tough. But I had so much support from all the coaches. They believed in me and they knew what I was capable of.”
Gelnovatch said: “Even in training I saw enough moments. I just wasn’t sure how long it was going to take.”
It didn’t take long. A 6-3, 180-pound attacking midfielder, Happi Kamseu has started all but one game this season. He leads the Cavaliers with four goals.
Along with Daryl Dike, Aboubacar Keita and Daniel Steedman, Happi Kamseu is one of four freshmen playing key roles for No. 10 Virginia (6-0-2 overall, 2-0-1 ACC), which hosts No. 23 Duke (5-3-1, 1-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at Klöckner Stadium.
“He’s got a phenomenal engine,” Gelnovatch said. “He can run all day, and he’s athletic as hell.”
Happi Kamseu is not one-dimensional, either. When the Wahoos lose possession, they like to press opponents, and “he’s got the willingness to do it,” Gelnovatch said. “He’s not just a guy who comes to life with the ball. He chases, he runs hard, he’s got the engine.”
Until he enrolled at Deerfield Academy, Happi Kamseu has never been to the United States. An older graduate of St. George’s College, Victor Chagonda, had come to this country to play soccer at Philadelphia University, and he started to help match talented players from Africa with high schools and colleges in the U.S.
Chagonda knew Happi Kamseu’s family, and they had played for the same club in Zimbabwe.
“He just saw the opportunity for me to come here,” Happi Kamseu said.
At Deerfield Academy, which was founded in 1797, Happi Kamseu scored 17 goals in 15 games in the fall of 2017, and he performed well academically, too. Not every aspect of his transition, however, went smoothly for a young man from a country where warm weather is the norm.
“Winter was tough,” said Happi Kamseu, who did not arrive with appropriate clothing. “It was very tough for me, especially because I didn’t have soccer, which is my grounding. And it was my first winter, and it was a Massachusetts winter, which is not the best.”
He can laugh about it now. He came to Deerfield with the goal of earning a college scholarship for soccer, and his size, speed and skills attracted the notice of recruiters.
When he arrived in Charlottesville for the first time, Happi Kamseu had already visited Harvard and Kenyon College. He planned on visiting North Carolina and Wake Forest after his tour of UVA.
“But then when I came here, it felt right,” Happi Kamseu said.
His classmates at UVA include several other Deerfield graduates. He chose Virginia in part because he wanted to play in the ACC, Happi Kamseu said, but “the main reason was the coaches, and the plan that they had for me. And I loved the campus. It just felt right.”
Happi Kamseu, who said he speaks English, French and “a bit of the colloquial language of Zimbabwe, Shona,” rooms with teammate Tyler Willen, a goalkeeper who was born in Belgium and attended the American School of Dubai.
An excellent student, Happi Kamseu is studying kinesiology in UVA’s Curry School of Education. He has doctors in his family and is interested in a career in sports science.
His parents, who were born in Cameroon, moved to Zimbabwe not long after they were married. They supported his decision to continue his education — and his soccer career — in the United States.
“They are very liberal, and if my heart is for it, they’ll let me do it,” Happi Kamseu said.
He’s not the only UVA student-athlete who’s far from home. His friends include women’s basketball player Amandine Toi, who’s from France; women’s tennis player Sofia Munera, who’s from Colombia; and track & field athlete Alix Still, who’s from Scotland.
And then there’s his own team. The Cavaliers’ roster includes players with ties to New Zealand, Spain, Nigeria, Denmark, England, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Belgium, Ivory Coast, Scotland, Switzerland, Tanzania, Germany and, of course, Zimbabwe.
Until he joined the team, Happi Kamseu said, smiling, “I didn’t know there were this many internationals.”
All those personalities and cultures have meshed well. “The team’s great,” Happi Kamseu said. “The team doesn’t like to lose, which is a really good attitude.”
That grit was evident Tuesday night at Klöckner Stadium, where UVA rallied for a 2-1 win over No. 22 Wright State. Happi Kamseu scored the equalizer late in the first half.
“There’s a really fighting quality,” he said. “We don’t like to get scored on. We don’t like to lose.”