Oct. 23, 2009

By Amy Farnum
NCAA.com

Ohio State first-year players Maria Briones and Berta Queralt did not know each other back in their hometown of Barcelona, Spain, but the pair’s incredible connection on and off the field has made an immediate impact on the Buckeyes’ success.

Queralt, a freshman, paces the Buckeyes with 14 goals, including five game-winners, and 12 assists for 40 points and has garnered Big Ten Freshman of the Week four times.  Briones, a sophomore transfer from the University of Barcelona, has added 10 goals and nine assists.

“They’ve both had a tremendous impact on our program as people and players,” said head coach Anne Wilkinson.  “It’s not an easy adjustment, coming from Barcelona.”

Although the duo did not know each other in Barcelona, it was Wilkinson’s Ohio State connections in Spain that eventually brought them together.  Former OSU assistant Iñako Puzo coach is now an assistant at Junior FC where Queralt played club hockey, and former OSU All-American Saskia Mueller was one of the team members.  Meanwhile, Briones was seeking out a Division I college in the U.S. Puzo’s wife and U.S. national team member Keli Smith was playing at RC Polo with Briones, and a connection was made with Wilkinson back in Ohio.

Queralt and Briones met just a few months before making the trip to Columbus, and hit it off.

“I was really planning to come here by myself and was worried about it being new and different,” said Queralt.  “I thought it was great.  If there were two of us from the same place we could talk and have someone who speaks the language.”

“I think it’s been very helpful for both of them,” said Wilkinson.  “I think there’s a nice comfort zone for them – to be able to speak Spanish together and relax in that setting – it’s been helpful for their adjustment.”

That connection has translated into a force to be reckoned with on the field.

“They really connect with each other and understand space very well in the attacking end,” said Wilkinson.  “They read each other very well.  That was a connection they made as people.  A lot of it comes down to basic skills, and they came in with very strong basic skills.  If you can perform the basic skills with pressure, you’re going to be successful.”

“We think the same way about a lot of things,” said Queralt.  “We get along well, and on the field you can see that.  We do some things that are not really common in America.”  

Along with the language and cultural differences in America, there have been some other adjustments for the pair.

“It’s really different schedule-wise,” said Queralt.  “I’m used to playing one game a week, and not three.  Our season lasts all year and it was tough to get ready, set, go and almost finish in three months.  I think I’ve adapted pretty fast.”

The style of play is also a bit different playing collegiately in the U.S.

“It’s much more physical,” said Queralt.  “We’re used to using our stick skills.  I’ve definitely had to improve my fitness level coming here.”

Briones and Queralt have definitely garnered some attention as two of the best in the league, earning Big Ten Offensive Player and Freshman of the Week, respectively, in each of the last two weeks.

“People are now very aware of them,” said Wilkinson.  “Our opponents are going to be very aware of what they are capable of doing, so they are going to have to be a little more creative with their opportunities.”

No. 15 Ohio State sits in second place in the Big Ten standings, but can grab a share of the top spot with a victory over No. 8 Michigan State on Oct. 23 at 3 p.m.  The Spartans are 3-0 in Big Ten and are riding a seven-game winning streak.

“We don’t get rings in Spain for winning championships,” said Queralt.  “And, I want to have one.  We’re going to work really hard to win a Big Ten championship.”

The Ohio State-Michigan State contest will air on a tape delayed basis on Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.