Robert Colon looked around the Winston-Salem State basketball locker room at the Gaines Center one last time.
Colon, a four-year senior, saw his career come to a premature end when the NCAA Division II Tournament was canceled last week because of novel coronavirus.
Colon and fellow seniors Julius Barnes, Mason Harrell and Dontae Caldwell were the foundation to a historic season for Coach Cleo Hill Jr. The Rams, who just two seasons ago won five games, finished back on top in the CIAA with their conference tournament championship.
“I’m going to miss this place,” Colon said as he cleaned out his locker after returning from Indiana (Pa.), where NCAA Tournament games were canceled.
The Rams finished 19-10 and earned the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. While there were no NCAA games, the consolation is the Rams finished by winning three close games in the CIAA Tournament.
The foundation is built; now, it’s up to the younger players to keep it going.
“It’s pretty tough for us seniors because it’s over, but at least we went out on top with a CIAA title,” Harrell said.
Harrell, who played two seasons for WSSU, was the team’s top shot blocker and was an imposing defensive player from his center position.
“It means for our younger guys, there’s a lot more to come,” Harrell said. “We seniors do take pride in what we accomplished and now it’s up to the younger guys to keep it going. We came here and changed the culture and made it a winning culture.”
Colon and Barnes were the two four-year seniors who went through the entire gamut during their four seasons. Colon wound up as the seventh-leading scorer in school history with 1,737 points, earned MVP of the CIAA Tournament and cemented his stature as a player whose jersey deserves to be honored in the Gaines Center rafters.
“We have laid a good foundation and we hadn’t won the CIAA championship in a long time so I felt like we did a lot this season,” Colon said. “We led the team the right way and as seniors we wanted to be make a run.”
Hill, who helped change Colon into more of a team player, thanked the seniors.
“Definitely Julius and Rob were so big for us because they had been here the longest,” Hill said. “And Dontae with his experience and playing at the Division I level and was a selfless guy, and with Mason being here two seasons they all did their parts to make this a championship season.”
Caldwell, a senior transfer from Md.-Eastern Shore, played just one season, but his outside shooting played a big role in their success.
Among the younger players, Shamon Jackson, a 6-foot-7 freshman center, will be counted on to play more minutes next season. He often started games, but Harrell played more minutes, especially late in games.
"That was big to win the tournament because that gives us a lot of momentum heading into next season,” Jackson said. “We lose a few pieces but we will still be a great team with a lot of potential.”
Jackson said he learned so much from his older teammates.
“These seniors taught a lot and they always told me to keep playing and keep my head up,” Jackson said. “They taught me how to be tough.”
The Rams will lose their top scorer, Colon, and top rebounder, Harrell. But Hill and assistant coaches Lance Beckwith and Ricky Wilson will have scholarship space.
Rising senior Justice Kithcart, who could turn into the Rams’ top scorer at shooting guard, is encouraged about next season.
“The future is bright and we have a lot of really good talent,” Kithcart said. “I feel like we just have to get better and now we are in the off-season and it’s time to get better.”
Jaylen Alston, the Rams' top defensive player who could challenge for All-CIAA, will have a year of experience in the CIAA and should be improved.
“It’s a bright future for us,” Alston said. “And I will definitely say that we went out on a good note with that CIAA championship. We have a good squad coming back. ...
“We want to hopefully experience the NCAA Tournament soon," Alston said, "and hopefully that will be next season.”
Hill said he gets about 75 emails a day from recruits, either Division I transfers, junior college players or high school seniors.
“Right now, we are so hot,” Hill said. “The players who want to come here aren’t even all in this country. We’ve been getting feelers from all over the world, and I think that has to do with what we put out there on social media. We upped our presence on social media this season, and that pays off in recruiting and getting your name out there.”