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Solomon Hainna finishes off remarkable Division I journey at UTRGV

The Vaqueros senior has gone from Air Force pickup star to important piece of a winning team.

Jesica Gonzalez

Solomon Hainna knows how to do his part, though what that has meant has shifted wildly over the past few years.

In the present that part is on the basketball court and, to that end, last month he and UT Rio Grande Valley were locked in a close game at Chicago State. A struggling Cougars team — which at that point had lost 17-straight games — opened up a lead on the Vaqueros late in the first half. Surely sensing an opportunity, CSU threw on a full court press after a pair of made free throws.

Hainna inbounded the ball to guard Tyson Smith, and then waited in the backcourt as a release valve. The ball was zipped up the court quickly, from Smith to Greg Bowie, who fought off a CSU trap to get the ball to Terry Winn spacing the floor in the left corner. All the while Hainna was trailing the action and when the scattered Cougars defense left a mountain of space down the lane, Hainna cut into it, received the ball from Winn and threw in a dunk.

It was a well-run press break, with the senior forward doing his part, but it wasn’t that long ago that Hainna doing his part meant fitting planes into planes.

The 27-year old big man has one of the most unique backstories in the country, as he spent five years in the Air Force. Inspired by his grandfather, a Marine Corps veteran, Hainna joined the service after he graduated from high school in Inglewood, Calif in 2010. As a C-130 load master he was responsible for figuring out how to get Little Bird helicopters, 105 millimeter howitzer cannons and, one time, tons and tons of bubble wrap into military transport planes.

“I’ve loaded just about anything and everything that you can think of that the military would ever use as a tool or an asset,” he said.

That service included deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also included basketball. While on base Hainna — who played a year and a half of organized basketball in high school — would regularly play in pickup games at 4:30 A.M. and 6 P.M., which were well attended and full of juice.

He stood out quickly.

“Those games were really competitive. If you had 50-60 people playing and you lost, you might not be touching that floor again for another hour,” he said. “Not in a braggadocious way, but I made a name for myself by winning rather early.”

That pickup domination sparked a Division I journey. As detailed in a well-done video feature by the WAC, Hainna eventually met former Colorado State player and current Junior College coach Dwight Smith in a gym in Fort Collins, Colorado. Smith, who would end up training Hainna, encouraged the airman with a cup of coffee as a high school player to consider walking on at Colorado State.

That didn’t work out after Hainna was honorably discharged in 2015, but the pickup domination did not go to waste. He spent a year at Midland College, before signing with Evansville in 2016. After two seasons with the Purple Aces — the second packed with injuries — Hainna hit the market as a graduate transfer. With size, a late blossoming game and a remarkable backstory, he was a hot commodity on the mid-major market.

There were phone conversations with plenty of coaches, but Hainna knew what he was looking for. He found it in UTRGV, first with assistant coach Luke Mackay and then with head coach Lew Hill.

Hainna has been an important part of the UTRGV equation, on and off the court.
Jesica Gonzalez

“[Mackay] struck me in a way other coaches didn’t strike me,” he said. “This was kind of a military decision. You don’t go to the unit with the most money or funding or that necessarily looks the best; you go to the one that has the best leadership, because you’re always going to have the best career in that situation.”

It’s worked out for all parties involved. The Vaqueros are in the midst of their best season in over a decade. At 18-15, the program is assured of a winning record for the first time since 2009, and has posted its most league wins (9) since 1994-95.

As a versatile big man in Hill’s up-tempo, high pressure system, Hainna has played a big role on the court (17.8 MPG, 3.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG). Off the court, Hill unsurprisingly touted Hainna’s leadership when he signed during the summer.

“He brings a lot of experience and a quality of leadership that we really need,” Hill said. “His play fits what we’re doing, including his style and energy. He’s athletic and long. He can guard multiple positions. He’s very tough and mature. We’re excited to have him here. He’s the type of young man that we need in our program. He’s going to help us tremendously with the young guys and with the play on the court.”

That part of the package has been there.

The Vaqueros hosted Oklahoma in early November. It was a unicorn of a home game made possible by Hill’s 12 years as an assistant to Lon Kruger, five of those spent in Norman. As the powerhouse Sooners rolled into Edinburg, they did so just as you’d expect. A private plane, bags upon bags of gear. For Hainna, he sensed his teammates — which he praised as a mature group — may have started falling into a natural trap of envy.

He tried to impart the perspective that his deployments and everything else in his run up to UTRGV had taught him.

“You have to sometimes remember we’re blessed and lucky to be around the coaching staff we have,” Hainna said. “We have people that work here and care about us and have facilities and locker rooms and all those things. When you put that in perspective for people sometimes, they realize we’re all blessed and lucky to be here, so we should take advantage of every opportunity that we have.”

The next immediate opportunity ahead of the Vaqueros is the WAC Tournament, where they slot in as the four seed, and open against CSU Bakersfield. A win would likely earn them a date with league heavyweight New Mexico State, a tall task in any setting. If the Vaqueros have a chance to go on a run in Hainna’s final season, it’ll likely be because of defense.

In what has been a calling card under Hill, the Vaqueros have flummoxed opposing offenses this season. They’ve forced the third highest turnover rate in the nation (24.5 percent) with a harassing attack led by sophomore point guard Javon Levi, a WAC all-defensive team honoree who Hainna says, even with the age difference, he happily defers to as a leader. That’s also been burnished by a rotation that includes a deep back court, and long, versatile big men in Hainna, All-WAC second-teamer Winn and Lesley Varner Jr.

To Hainna, that sort of show travels this time of year.

“I believe with the full-court pressure and intense way we play, and attacking with discipline at all times, we play a brand of basketball that we can take anywhere,” he said. “And I think that’ll pay dividends.”

Hainna will now try to cap his unique career the way it started: by simply not losing, and staying on the court.