MILLINOCKET, Maine — Stearns High School’s highly publicized effort to attract Chinese students to campus this year may not have paid off enough to address its budget woes, but the addition of another exchange student through a more traditional channel has given the school’s girls basketball team a major boost.
Sigrid Koizar, a 5-foot-8 junior point guard from Vienna, Austria, who last August played for her country’s under-18 national team at the 2011 FIBA European Division B Championships, has averaged more than 20 points, six steals, five rebounds and four assists a game for the Minutemen this winter.
She has led Stearns to a 7-1 record, good for third place in Eastern Maine Class C, including a 21-point, 12-rebound and five-assist performance Wednesday night to lead the Minutemen past Piscataquis of Guilford 49-31 and avenge their only defeat.
“She is a very good player,” said Stearns coach Justin Page. “She sees the court so well, she has great vision, great court sense and basketball intelligence. She can direct traffic out there, and she can really get to the basket.”
“Her explosion off the dribble is unbelievable. Her first step is something I’ve never seen in a player I’ve coached before,” added Page, who has worked with the likes of former Hampden Academy and University of Maine player Tanna Ross and former Old Town and Bowdoin College standout Katie Bergeron.
The 16-year-old Koizar came to Millinocket less than a month after competing in the European championships in Miskolc, Hungary, where she averaged 8.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.2 assists in nine games.
But she arrived in the Magic City anonymous in a basketball sense, just another exchange student seeking to live and learn for a year in a different part of the world.
“I came through the AFS [American Field Service] program,” she said. “I wanted to come to a small town. My brother went abroad two years ago and spent a year in Maryland and really liked it, so I thought I’d try it.”
It wasn’t long before word spread about Koizar’s basketball prowess.
“I got to know her right from the start because I’m close friends with her host parents [Mark and Tracy Jandreau],” said Ashley Rollins, a senior forward on the Stearns girls basketball team. “Right before school started we played basketball at the [outdoor] courts and you could tell she was good.”
Koizar’s introduction to varsity competition at Stearns had nothing to do with basketball — but with field hockey, a sport she knew nothing about.
“I never played it before, but my host mother gave me the idea because she had a friend with a field hockey stick,” said Koizar.
Koizar proved to be a quick study — not surprising given that she also went on to earn high honors for the first quarter of the academic year.
“She missed the preseason because she was playing international basketball in Hungary,” said Stearns field hockey coach Lori Lincoln. “She was able to get in a few practices before the season started, so I had her play on the JV team in our first game at John Bapst and she had five or six breakaways on the [University of Maine] turf that I’m sure that if she had a little more practice at the time she could have had five or six goals.”
Because of her inexperience in the sport, Koizar played on both the junior varsity and varsity field hockey teams at Stearns this fall. Lincoln said she scored “six or seven” goals at the varsity level in helping the Minutemen reach the Eastern Maine Class C playoffs.
“She’s very fast and she developed good stick work,” said Lincoln. “She picked up the skills she needed very, very quickly. That’s an athlete for you.
“And she was such a team player and extremely humble. Any coach would love to have a million players like her.”
Lincoln and the rest of the field hockey squad also discovered that Koizar had additional talents far beyond the playing field.
“We were having our banquet at the end of the season, and all of a sudden you could hear classical music in the background,” Lincoln said. “And there was Siggy at the piano. She’s a beautiful piano player.”
Yet the field hockey experience hasn’t altered Koizar’s athletic focus.
“I prefer basketball,” she said.
Koizar’s introduction to American basketball has not been without adjustment.
She’s playing for a school team for the first time — Austrian basketball is club-based, with the season running from early fall through late spring — and there is no comparison when it comes to community support.
“Basketball’s a lot more popular here, there are a lot more spectators at the games,” Koizar said. “At home pretty much all the spectators we have are our parents.”
Koizar also has had to adapt to several rule differences between American and European basketball.
Here she must wait until a free throw hits the rim before entering the lane to grab a rebound, while in Europe players may enter the lane as soon as the ball leaves the shooter’s hands.
The 3-point arc in Europe is 22 feet, 2 inches, compared with 19-9 for American high schools.
But the biggest difference involves the pace of the game, specifically the 24-second shot clock used in Europe compared to no shot clock in the Maine high school ranks.
“The game’s a lot slower here because you don’t have the 24-second shot clock like we have back home,” said Koizar. “I prefer playing fast.”
Stearns has added Koizar’s faster-paced approach to its offensive arsenal, and Page said the results have been significant. After scoring in the mid-30s per game last year, the Minutemen are averaging 50.5 points per game this winter.
“I thought we were going to be pretty good anyway, because we’ve been working really hard the last couple of years, but she’s been a really big help,” said Rollins. “She’s used to playing faster, and with her at point guard we’ve become quicker and we run the floor a lot more.”
Making Koizar’s transition to American basketball easier, her coaches and teammates say, is her demeanor.
“She’s as good a teammate as she is a player,” Page said. “She will take the limelight if I tell her we need her to score more, but she’s always working to get other players involved.
“Her teammates all love her. She’s humble, she doesn’t say much, and she doesn’t have an ego at all. She’s really made it work because of the quality of kid she is.”
Stearns is ranked fourth in the Eastern C Heal point ratings and the Minutemen expect continued improvement as Koizar and her teammates mesh their skills.
“We’re growing as a team. We’re doing something better every single night,” said Page. “We can do so many more things this year because of how everybody has grown as a player and with what Siggy has brought to the team. Teams can double- and triple-team her and she can get out of it by herself so it’s tough to press us, and she’s enabled us to speed up the game.”
Koizar expects to rejoin the Austrian U-18 team next summer but is considering a return to the United States to attend college once she graduates from high school.
So far, she has just one regret about Maine — perhaps predictable since her home city of 1.4 million people is located at the eastern end of the Alps.
“I wish we had some more snow,” said Koizar.