By Trey Williams
Former Science Hill shooting guard Calvin Songster has a sweet shooting stroke, though he doesn’t sugarcoat when asked about his recipe for success as a senior this season at Maryville College.
The 6-foot-2 Songster is leading the nation in 3-point shooting heading into the homestretch of his final go-round, and he shoots straight about the elusive dedication that he’s discovered to produce it.
Songster’s altered everything from the company he keeps to the hours he sleeps. He’s lifting more weights, playing less video games, eating better and practicing harder.
Consequently, he will enter play this weekend having made 58 of 107 shots from 3-point range this season. He’s scalding the nets at a rate of 54.2 percent from behind the arc. Second-place Kyle Wagner of Simpson (Iowa) is shooting 52.8 percent.
Songster was capable of hot shooting when he was burning the candle at both ends. After all, he’s scored 1,247 career points for the Scots and shot 47.9 percent while making 236 career treys. But he’s become even more accurate in 2018-19 despite having what he and coach Randy Lambert described as fewer open shots thanks, in part, to a season-ending injury to a senior post Cole Nokes, who could command a double-team and kick out.
“I’ve shot the ball well since my freshman year,” Songster said. “But I knew I was better than the way I was playing. … And I didn’t wanna have any regrets for the rest of my life.”
Lambert is in his 39th and final season at Maryville. Songster’s swan song is enhancing his exit.
“Calvin levels with me,” Lambert said. “We’ve had a great relationship. I feel like I could talk to him about anything and I think he feels the same way. You hear the old expression, ‘He’s like a son to me.’ …
“I think the biggest difference in Calvin’s game is his ability to take care of the off-the-court issues. He came from a good family. He came from a strong high school program. He understood what discipline is all about. And it’s not like he was a bad kid. He wasn’t any different than most college-aged students. But he just didn’t get proper sleep. He didn’t eat right. His day-to-day approach was just sort of hit and miss.”
Songster’s jump-shot is more hit than miss. He made 12 of 17 treys during a stretch in December. That was right after painting what might be his masterpiece – a 38-point performance in a 96-93 overtime loss at No. 18 Emory, which is coached by Davidson 1,000-point scorer Jason Zimmerman. Songster was 13 of 18 from the field, including 7-for-11 from behind the arc, and made 5 of 6 free throw attempts.
“Obviously, scoring 38 points is a huge highlight for anybody versus anybody,” Songster said. “But to do it at Emory University, who’s ranked No. 18 and they’ve made the NCAA Tournament like five years in a row – they were a Sweet 16 team last year, and to do it against a team of that caliber is something I’ll definitely never forget. That’s the highlight of my career right now individually.”
Songster scored 1,166 points at Science Hill, where he was a sophomore on coach Ken Cutlip’s state semifinalist team in 2012. A week after helping Science Hill end its final season in The Palace with a sectional win over Maryville, he delivered a critical basket in the lone state tournament victory of Cutlip, who is now in his 15th season at Science Hill.
The ‘Toppers overcame a seven-point deficit in the final 85 seconds to defeat Wilson Central, 51-46. Songster only played nine minutes and scored two points, but he scored on an assist from Will Adams to give Science Hill a 49-46 lead with 22 seconds remaining. Science Hill also had Hunter LeVeau, C.J. Good, Reed Hayes, Tre’ Fields, Zach Howard and Marc Aples.
“I only played like 10 minutes a game that year,” Songster said. “But (assistant) coach (John) Good threw me in there for the final two minutes. I remember him telling me he thought that the most mentally tough players should be on the floor at that moment. Just as a 16-year-old sophomore, to be in that positon in my first year of varsity play, it was a huge accomplishment for a coach of his caliber to tell you that. …
“We were down seven and we scored, got a stop and scored, and we were down two. And I remember Will Adams and Reed Hayes got a trap. Will Adams ended up getting a steal and it was a 3-on-2 break and I remember knowing that Will was gonna pass it to me, and he did. He hit me with a no-look pass, like, right under the goal and I hit a little left-handed layup. And then the next play down the court, Marc Aples got a really big block and Will Adams got the outlet, took it out in transition and found C.J. for a wide-open 3. C.J. sunk that, and I just remember that was one of the highlights of my entire career – just being on the floor at that time. The other team called a timeout and I just remember jumping around with everybody and just being exhilarated. We got one more stop and C.J. hit some clutch free throws to close it out. … It was a miraculous comeback; it really was.”
Songster’s strong finish at Maryville has been bolstered by assistant coach Raul Placeres, who will take the reins from Lambert next season. They wrote down some past accomplishments and season goals – on and off the court – while trying to chart new success for Songster’s senior year.
The goals included attending class consistently, reading something every morning and every night and having meaningful conversations with someone he cares about such as parents or his older brothers Jared and James, the latter of whom also played at Science Hill and Milligan College.
“I can honestly say I’ve been doing all of these (goals),” Songster said. “And that feels really good to know that I gave myself my best opportunity to succeed.”
Having older brothers aided his development.
“I consider it a huge benefit, not just as a basketball player but as a person,” Songster said. “I looked up to my brothers growing up, like, a lot. … I learned how to make them feel like they weren’t really hurting me or getting into my head.”
Songster always is eager for seasoning. He played some basketball last summer with Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner.
“I admire Lamonte Turner’s game a lot since we’re both guards,” Songster said. “Not only is he a point guard, but he plays the two guard, too. His speed and his quickness and his finesse around the rim, I just really admired that. Playing with Schofield, his strength and his power is the first thing you notice. And then secondly, his ability to shoot the ball can really catch you off guard. He can stroke it.”
Of course, it’s Songster that’s shooting well above 50 percent from behind the arc. He’s oddly pleased and indifferent about leading the nation in 3-point shooting.
“My aunt sent me a text saying something about it (this past weekend),” he said. “I didn’t really think twice about it. There was a point last year when I was top 15, I think, and I remember looking at it and stuff. So I didn’t really do that this year.
“You know, I don’t even really think about it, honestly. I’m happy with the way I’m shooting and I want to stay focused, stay in the zone I’m in, and I don’t wanna worry about any type of leaders or any type of records or anything like that. But absolutely, if I could finish it out strong, that would be a wonderful achievement to have.”
What Songster wants more than anything is a memorable postseason run that’ll give Lambert a grand finale.
“Nothing against Coach Cutlip; he’s a great coach,” Songster said. “And I love Coach Good. He’s also a great coach. And Coach (Ryan) Collins, who’s doing great things at Morristown (East), is also an amazing coach. But Coach Lambert has been my all-time favorite coach. There’s no question about that.
“I remember right when I came on my visit I knew he was unlike any other coach. He has a charisma about him that’s very absorbing to anybody he talks to. What he’s done, not only for Maryville College but the Maryville community, is very special. I went through a lot of stuff my freshman year and he could’ve said, ‘Screw it. I don’t wanna deal with your distractions. Our team doesn’t need this. I don’t want this. You’re done. Go transfer.’
“But he didn’t. He stuck by me every single second of it. He would call me every week and text me and make sure I was doing okay. I’ll never be able to repay him for that. He’s giving me the opportunity to not only play the game I love, but we won a championship together – his first USA South championship. So even though he’d been in the tournament 18 times before I got it was such an honor to take him to his 19th after a five-year drought, which was the longest of his career. He’s been like a father figure to me, absolutely. He’s been there for me every step of the way. I just really want to give him one more championship for his last year and let him end his career the way he deserves it to be ended.”
Maryville (11-3, 15-6) is in second place in the USA South Conference’s West Division. Songster leads the Scots in scoring (15.3), free throws made (67) and free throw percentage (84.8), and he’s second in assists (56).
“He has always been a highly skilled player with a competitive edge,” Lambert said. “He has matured into an elite player and one of the best guards I have coached. He leads us in several offensive categories and he is a big reason for our success this season. If he keeps playing at his present pace, I would expect him to be considered for several postseason accolades.”
Lambert said basketball doesn’t have to end in Maryville for Songster. He’s coached four players who played at some professional level overseas, and said Songster seems capable of being the fifth. Songster, however, is leaning toward calling it quits after college.
“Coming in my freshman year, my goal always was to play professional ball somewhere,” Songster said. “I didn’t care if it was somewhere in Australia. I wanted to play professional.
“And then four years of college basketball – it’s Division III, you know, and I’m not getting pampered by any trainers or fans or media or anything. It’s just hard work. I go to class and I work my butt off. And I don’t get the benefits that these Division II or Division I players get. It’s really worn me out physically and mentally, and as much as I’m having fun this year and winning ball games, I just think that this is gonna be it for me. I’m ready to move on to the next chapter in my life.”
Songster has gotten a degree in business management. He might get into business, although becoming an athletic director sounds appealing. Who knows, perhaps he’ll be the AD at Maryville someday.
“I’m always gonna be around following Maryville College basketball,” Songster said. “This place is gonna mean a lot to me for the rest of my life.”