Creating a Team of Vermont’s Unsung Heroes

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

Which Underdog Catamounts Never Got the Respect They Deserve?

132-42. That’s been Vermont’s unworldly record since the start of the 2015-16 season. During that span, there’s been an abundance of impressive and gifted athletes to don the green and gold. In fact, it’s become almost a foregone conclusion that the Catamounts will be walking away with the lion’s share of America East awards every year – and rightfully so. The 132-42 record speaks volumes into the winning culture that’s been built in Burlington, but their 70-10 America East conference record during that same span is pure dominance by any standards.

The awards and accolades have been pouring in as of late, including four straight America East Player of the Year awards (Trae Bell-Haynes, Anthony Lamb) with a possible fifth on it’s way (Stef Smith). Likewise coach John Becker has completely shattered the bar in terms of coaching expectations, as he’s taken home the America East Coach of the Year award a record five times and could very well earn it once again for the 2020-21 season. From top to bottom, Vermont has built a program where excellence has become the standard. 

But, this article isn’t about the best of the best of the best to have ventured through Patrick Gym. Since the 2015-16 season, the Catamounts have reached the America East title game every year and have managed a *3-2 record (awarded for 2019-20). Vermont’s star power certainly helped carry them throughout the seasons, but in reality it’s been their overwhelming depth that has really pushed them to that next level. The Catamounts truly embody the “We not Me” mentality, as the team’s overall success far outweighs any individual accomplishments.

Vermont’s depth has arguably been their greatest asset during this recent five year span. Many players who were third or fourth options could have easily chosen to star elsewhere, but stayed at Vermont for the chance to be a part of something bigger. It’s time to recognize those young men and see if we can put together a team of Vermont’s unsung heroes.

Guard – Dre Wills (2013-17)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

Dre Wills actually had a decent amount of individual success over the course of his time in Burlington, but he was always known for putting the team first every step of the way. After barely seeing the floor his freshman season, Wills would become a full time starter in year two, where he saw averages of 9.3 points, 2.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game on a 27.3 minutes basis. Wills quickly asserted himself as one of the top defenders in the America East, but it was what followed in the next two years that really shined a light on that type of character and leadership Wills brought to the team.

After starting in all 34 games as a sophomore, Wills would only start 9 of the next 59 contests, while taking a backseat to guards Trae Bell-Haynes, Ernie Duncan and even Cam Ward. Instead of publicly complaining or transferring schools, Wills accepted his new role off the bench without hesitation, as he fully trusted his teammates and coaches. Officially listed at 6’1, 185lbs, Wills embodied the underdog mentality. Even by America East standards Wills was undersized, but you would’ve never known that by watching him play. 

Every night Wills would pour his heart and soul onto the court. His hustle and hair-on-fire approach won over the crowd’s affection night in and night out. Cam Ward even called Wills “the greatest hype man he’s ever played with”. Wills is known for his defensive mindset, but he played smart on both ends of the court. While he often deferred to his teammates, Wills could score and even boasts a 58% career field goal percentage. However it was his hard-nosed work on the other side of the court that garnered media attention. 

The exuberant undersized guard was named to the America East All-Defensive team three straight years (2015-17) and took home the America East Defensive Player of the Year award his senior year. What’s more impressive is that Wills only managed three starts all year during his senior campaign and averaged under 20 minutes per game (19.5). To still be recognized as the conference’s best defender despite the lack of minutes is quite the accomplishment. The Catamounts really took off as an elite mid-major program around five years ago in large due to players like Wills who consistently put the team first. Wills unselfish efforts and hustle helped catapult the Cats to where they’re at today, as he was without a doubt a true unsung hero for Vermont.

Guard – Cam Ward (2014-18)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

Checking in at the other guard spot is Marshall, Wisconsin native, Cam Ward. Much like Wills, Ward was another fairly undersized guard (6’2) who was able to carve out a nice career up in Burlington. During his time at Vermont, Ward was a model of consistency. To this day Ward holds the school record for consecutive games played, as well as most games played at 141. Over the course of Ward’s four year career and 141 game span, he would only start a total of seven games, while holding a career average of just under 20 minutes a game (18.6).  

During his time as a Catamount, Ward played alongside some impressive guards such as Trae Bell-Haynes, Ernie Duncan, Dre Wills and even Stef Smith. Some might wonder why Ward didn’t take on a bigger role as the years progressed, but John Becker knew exactly where to slot Ward in, as his stability and leadership off the bench was the perfect fit. Although Ward was a good athlete, he was never going to wow you with his athleticism, insane handles or lights-out shooting. What was so impressive about Ward was his ability to handle everything that was asked of him. No task was too big or too small for Ward, as he showed up to every game with that lunch-pail, hard-hat mentality.

Ernie Duncan got the starting nod over Ward in part because of his sharpshooting skills, but Ward was quite the shooter himself and often overlooked due to his stature and bench role. He could beat defenders at all three levels, whether it was beyond the arc, mid-range or weaving through defenses and attacking the basket. Coming off the pine, Ward was able to successfully run the offense with the second unit and became a key cog during Vermont’s dominance over the rest of the America East. Ward could have easily transferred and found himself a more prominent starting role, but elected to stay with Vermont, helping to build the program into what it is today.

Much like Wills, Ward garnered some individual accolades as well, including twice being named the America East Sixth Man of the Year (2015, 2018). To this day, Ward is the only player in America East history to have won the award multiple times. Although those are individual awards, they are without a doubt proof of Ward’s sacrifice and commitment to the team by accepting and playing his role to perfection. Ward was truly an underdog and unsung hero throughout his entire tenure in Burlington and for that we thank him.

Wing – Everett Duncan (2015-20)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

This is a somewhat contentious pick, as Everett Duncan was quite the player for the Cats and even served as a team captain during his senior year. But the reason Duncan makes the cut is that no matter how great of a game he might have had, he always seemed to be overshadowed by players around him. Even last year when he carried the team through stretch runs, it was still Anthony Lamb, Stef Smith and to an extent Ryan Davis who were the face of the team. Likewise, older brother Ernie Duncan was one of, if not the best three-point shooter to ever come through Vermont and while Everett has a great stroke, his shot isn’t on Ernies level. Even younger brother Robin Duncan was viewed as the better prospect coming out of high school. Everywhere he looked, Everett was being overshadowed by someone else.

In the end none of that would matter to Everett, as the Evansville, Indiana native put together a very solid career during his time at Vermont. He was as dependable and consistent as they come. Everett started 77 of the 128 games he played in and proved he could be effective in either a bench or starting role. His career averages are solid across the board, as his freshman year was the only time Everett wasn’t able to average over six points per contest. During his senior campaign Everett took on more responsibility both on and off the court. His 9.0 points, 1.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 52 made threes were all career highs and his leadership in the locker room was unmatched.

What was so amazing to watch with Everett was how no moment was too big for him. In some of the biggest games when Lamb, Smith or even brother Ernie might have been struggling, Everett could suddenly get hot. His passion and intensity was felt on both ends of the court, as the Cats would feed off Everett’s big plays and take back complete control of a game. And don’t forget how the boy had ice in his veins. Having a slight lead late in the game can be risky, especially when the other team starts fouling, but Everett was automatic from the stripe. Credit John Becker for utilizing this under-appreciated asset and getting the ball into Everett’s hands on out-of-bounds plays. Everett never cracked under pressure and his .852 free-throw percentage was good enough for second all-time in school history.

Despite an all-around solid career, Everett never received much in the individual awards department. Never made any America East all-conference teams or sixth man of the year awards. But that never mattered. The team’s success was much more a reflection of Everett’s career than any individual award can measure. While Everett was never the guy, he was arguably one of Vermont’s best glue guys of all time. He’d always play unselfish and look to defer, but when the team needed him most Everett would shine. Hell of a player who deserves more praise.

Forward/Center – Darren Payen (2015-17)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

Checking in at one of the forward/center spots is Milford, Connecticut native, Darren Payen. Before joining Vermont, Payen played two years at Hofstra, but he’ll be remembered more fondly for his time as Catamount. While the other players listed so far were Catamounts for all four years, Payen only played two seasons up in Burlington. Nonetheless, he was still an integral part of their undefeated conference season and was known for always putting the team first.

After redshirting his first season in Burlington due to transfer rules, Payen would start 25 of the 37 games he played in during his junior year. The big fella put together a solid first year in John Becker’s system, averaging 6.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in just under 20 minutes a game (18.8). However, it was the following year that really shined a light on Payen’s commitment and “We not Me” mentality. Most players expect to take on a larger role for their senior campaign and after starting 25 games just a season ago it seemed like a foregone conclusion for Payen to become the de facto starter.

Not so fast. John Becker ultimately decided that he wanted Payen to help lead the second unit, alongside players like Cam Ward. Suddenly Payen’s minutes dropped from 18.8 to 12.0 a game, as he was forced to accept a new role in his final year. Instead of sulking or giving a half-assed effort, Payen became one of the most efficient players on the team. His floor time was cut by over six minutes a game yet he still averaged 6.7 points a contest. Likewise, he was playing smart and efficient on both ends of the court on a nightly basis. Payen went from shooting 53% during his junior year, to an astonishing 70% over the course of his senior campaign.

Payen provided the Cats with some incredibile bench production, along with a sense of security that he could slide back into a starting role with ease should any injuries strike. The big man wound up taking home the America East Sixth Man of the Year award in large part due to his efficiency and dependability over the course of the season. This is not intended as a slight, but imagine if Daniel Giddens, who produced 3.1 points on a 15.4 minutes per game average was able to play this efficiently. Giddens will be remembered for his highlight alley-oops and sky-scraping blocks, but it was the unflashy Payen who did all the little things that no one will remember. Payen took full advantage of his abbreviated time in Burlington and was one of the most efficient players. He hardly gets mentioned with Vermont’s other forwards of this era, but maybe it’s time to finally show the big man some love.

Forward/Center – Sam Dingba (2017-19)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

At the final forward/center spot we have Yaounde, Cameroon, native Sam Dingba. Much like Payen, Dingba was another late transfer to Vermont and only spent two years in Burlington. Dingba has seemingly been an underdog his whole life and has been on quite the journey on his path to Vermont. Officially listed at only 6’5, Dingba is one of the smallest F/C’s you’ll ever encounter, but an 87 inch wingspan helped propel Dingba into a defensive menace. After enrolling at Quinnipiac, Dingba soon realized that his skills weren’t a good fit for their system and would enter the transfer portal after his sophomore year. Originally Dingba considered dropping down a level, but John Becker, who had sought Dingba coming out of high school convinced him to join the Catamounts and help stabilize their frontcourt.

After being under-utilized at Quinnipiac, John Becker was able to find the perfect role for Dingba as an inside defensive presence. The undersized big man set the tone on that end of the floor, as his game-changing wingspan helped control the glass and keep defenders at bay. Unfortunately Dingba was plagued with injuries throughout his career, holding him back from potentially reaching his ceiling. Ask any of his teammates and coaches and they’ll tell you just how happy and upbeat Dingba always was, but after another injury setback Dingba was hurting in a different way. He wanted to be there for his teammates who were depending on him, yet he just couldn’t stay healthy. Dingba realized that if he couldn’t be there for his teammates on the court, he’d be there for them off the court and soon embraced a larger mentorship role.

When Dingba was on the court the first aspects of his game you’d notice was his hustle and determination. He gave 110% every night, while fighting for every inch of a loose ball. While his stat line is modest at best, 2.9 points, 3.3 rebounds on 14.3 minutes a game (2018-19), his contributions go well beyond the stat sheet. John Becker assigned him a role and he executed it to perfection. Known for his defensive abilities, Dingba was never much of a threat offensively, but when he broke through to record his first ever double-double the crowd at Patrick Gym erupted in cheers. Catamount country regularly sell-outs Patrick Gym and are some of the most passionate fans. They love the team and the players, but more than anything they love that underdog hustle mentality and boy oh boy did Dingba have that.

By all accounts Dingba was a team first player. Only in his senior season was he recognized individually for his efforts, landing on the America East All-Defensive team. He could have elected to transfer to a lower level, taking on a larger role and more prominent role, but he ultimately landed on Vermont for the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than himself. Putting aside ego and statistical greatness is one of the sacrifices that needs to be made when you’re a role player. The atmosphere and culture at Vermont won Dingba over and continues to prove why Burlington has become such a special place to play.

BONUS! 6th Man – Bailey Patella (2017-21)

Courtesy of UVM Athletics

What’s a team of underdogs and unsung heroes without a sixth man? Current Catamount and sprightly swingman Bailey Patella checks-in as the first man off the bench for this team of Cats. The Lenox, Massachusetts, native will be entering his senior year in Burlington for the 2020-21 season and will be looking to finish off his career going 4/4 in America East regular season titles. Slowly, but surely Patella has honed his craft and worked his way up the depth chart, as he was just one of four Catamounts to play in all 33 games just a season ago. Patella took on a bigger role last year, playing with a greater sense of consistency and dependability as the season went on.

Through 67 games Patella has yet to log any official starts, but his high-flying energy off the bench has been the catalyst for numerous stretch runs by the Cats. Patella will certainly see more responsibility for the upcoming season, though it remains to be seen if John Becker views the swingman as a better asset to the team coming off the bench in a sixthman-esque role. Though Patella would barely see much of the floor during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he still brought that same energy whether he was going in for thirty seconds or five minutes. If there was a stat that showed who won the most 50-50 balls Patella’s name would no doubt be sitting atop that list.

Patella is arguably the best athlete on this list and showcases his talents through hustle and determination every night. He’s as bouncy as they come, as his high-flying dunks and barreling screams after have brought the house to their feet. His junior year stats were fairly modest, 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds on a 15.4 minute basis, but again, Patella’s value goes far beyond the stat sheet. He’s the kind of player that helps his team win by doing a little bit of everything. With 13 blocks and 27 steals, Patella would finish fourth on the team in both categories, along with finishing third in field-goal percentage (51.7%) for the year. Only time will tell how Patella finishes out his career in Burlington, though hopefully we’ll be seeing quite a few more hustle plays from Patella before it’s all said and done.

Through three years at Vermont, Patella has yet to garner any type of individual awards or accolades, but the three straight America East regular season titles should have him feeling proud of his time in the green and gold thus far. Maybe Patella can pick up an America East Sixth Man of the Year award or All-Defensive team honors for his senior campaign, though the only measure of success in Patella’s eyes is another trip to the NCAA Tournament. With only one season left in Vermont, Catamount fans should really appreciate Patella now more than ever. Likewise, don’t forget to thank Tony Patella for his immense support from the bleachers as well!

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