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University of Maine basketball teams building around diversity

Posted Oct. 17, 2012, at 8:37 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 17, 2012, at 10:08 p.m.
UMaine men's basketball player Zarko Valjarevic and his teammates go through warmups in the field house after media day at the 'Pit' in Orono, Maine, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012.
UMaine men's basketball player Zarko Valjarevic and his teammates go through warmups in the field house after media day at the 'Pit' in Orono, Maine, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Buy Photo
Brittany Wells of the University of Maine women's basketball team goes through warm-up stretches after media day in the 'Pit' Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012.
Brittany Wells of the University of Maine women's basketball team goes through warm-up stretches after media day in the 'Pit' Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Buy Photo

ORONO, Maine — After six weeks at the University of Maine, Michal Assaf is starting to realize Orono is a long way from Ganey Tikva, Israel.

Anna Heise, who hails from Halle, Germany, is adjusting to new food choices and weight training four days per week.

Serbia’s Stefan Micovic is trying to adjust to doing everything in English now that he’s at UMaine, which has developed into an international melting pot of college basketball.

Men’s head coach Ted Woodward and his staff have brought in four first-year players who were born outside the United States, pushing the team’s total to nine international players.

UMaine women’s coach Richard Barron not only has nine freshmen on the roster this season, he brought in six foreign-born players.

Still, one thing remains constant.

“It’s basketball here, in Serbia or anyplace you go,” said UMaine sophomore Courtney Anderson of Greene, the only instate player on the women’s squad. “The terminology might be a little different [for the international players], so there’s been a little learning curve with that, but besides that it’s just basketball.”

All were together inside Memorial Gym on Wednesday afternoon to take part in UMaine’s annual basketball media day.

Several countries are represented on both UMaine teams. In addition to their five Americans, the men have two Canadians, two Germans, two Serbs and one player apiece from Finland, Scotland and the Bahamas.

The women’s squad includes eight Americans along with one player each from Serbia, Israel, Sweden, Finland, England and Germany.

The sudden influx of international students on the women’s team has not been cause for much concern among the players or coaches. All say the transition has been a smooth one thus far.

“Off-the-court chemistry, this is probably the best since I’ve been here,” said junior Ashleigh Roberts, who knows she is responsible for helping the freshmen with some homesickness.

“I used to be one of the people who was from the farthest away, but they’re from another country, so it’s more important to reach out to each other because their families are thousands of miles away,” said Roberts, who lives in Wilmington, Del.

The newcomers feel as though they are adjusting well to life, and basketball, in the U.S.

“I think we’re all trying to adapt to the lifestyle here and I think it’s going well,” said Mikaela Gustafsson, a freshman from Sweden.

“I feel that we’ve become a close group, especially thinking about the small time we have all had together,” she added.

Liz Wood, a freshman from Catlett, Va., quickly warmed to the dynamics of sharing the experience with her international teammates.

“It’s actually really interesting,” she said. “I think it’s better, in a way, because we get to be exposed to new cultures and ways of living and make new friends from different places.”

Barron was quick to praise the freshmen for their efforts, but also lauded his veterans for the way they have handled the influx of newcomers.

“They’ve embraced this change, that’s a big plus,” Barron said. “They could have been resistant, but they’ve seen this is a chance for all of us to get better.”

Woodward explained the dynamic on the men’s team is a little different, since three of their players attended school and played ball in the U.S. prior to enrolling at UMaine.

“On any basketball team, you’re going to have a mixture of where guys are from,” he said. “I think for us it’s a benefit because these guys are used to playing on national teams and playing against international competition.”

Micovic admits it is taking time to get acclimated to all the changes. He is pleased to be able to lean on a countryman, sophomore Zarko Valjarevic, in whom he can confide.

“We talk sometimes in our native language and that’s good because I can ask him questions about life in UMaine because he was here last year,” Micovic said.

Freshman Till Gloger from Germany has a similar dynamic as countryman Jon Mesghna is a junior transfer from North Dakota State College of Science.

“It is a big change, another culture,” Gloger said. “He’s older than me, so he can help me sometimes when I don’t understand some things.”

There is a small language barrier for a few of the international students, although all had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language to be admitted, Barron said.

Junior Alasdair Fraser, from Scotland, pointed out some of the Europeans are challenged initially because this is the first time they have spoken a lot of English.

“Sometimes, guys don’t understand everything we say,” said sophomore Justin Edwards. “They learn after a while. You just have to slow it down with them and be patient.”

Even so, the language gap has not been much of a factor.

“Besides a few slip-ups where someone will call a screen out in German — that’s happened a couple times — it’s pretty easy,” Wood said with a laugh.

Even with seven newcomers, the UMaine men’s team has come together well during its preseason workouts.

“I think the chemistry’s pretty good in the group,” Fraser said of the men’s team. “The new guys have come in and adapted well to the way everyone plays.”

The UMaine play an exhibition game against the University of Laval (Quebec) at noon Oct. 27 at Alfond Arena.

The women’s Blue-White scrimmage is set for the same day, 9:30-11 a.m. in Memorial Gym, with their exhibition game slated Nov. 1 against New Brunswick at Alfond Arena.

Bear tracks

The UMaine men’s team has added a player who should be familiar to Eastern Maine hoop fans. Bangor High School product Luke Hetterman, a 5-foot-9-inch guard, has joined the Bears as a walk-on. The Black Bear women have already lost a player for the season due to injury. Barron said 6-4 junior center Ali Nalivaika underwent surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. It is the third surgery on the knee in the last 13 months.

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