The Idaho women’s basketball team starts like any other team in the NCAA. Four coaches and 13 student-athletes. That is where the similarities end.
The back-to-back Western Athletic Conference champions bring an Epcot Center-like feel to the rural town of Moscow, Idaho. The 2014-15 roster represents three continents and five countries. The Vandals are just one of four programs in Division I women’s basketball to boast more than seven international student-athletes. Maine joins Idaho with seven, while Colorado State and Robert Morris both claim eight. Of the 349 Division I women’s teams, Idaho is the only school with four international student-athletes from the same country, Australia.
Jon Newlee, now in his seventh season coaching Idaho, has more than 20 years of experience recruiting players from overseas. His success dates back to 1991 when he started working as an assistant coach at Southern Methodist.
“We had a nearby junior college that had some really good international kids,” Newlee began. “I started recruiting those guys. I met the head of the Australian Institute of Sports when I was at SMU. He brought touring teams around and we often played them. I got to be good friends with him. From there I just started gathering contacts in Europe and Australia and it took off.”
Newlee has coached 10 international student-athletes since taking over the Vandals in 2009. Before moving to Idaho, Newlee patrolled the sidelines at Idaho State for six seasons. He estimates he has coached 25 international student-athletes in his 13 seasons as a head coach.“My contacts will always let me know if there is a kid I should be looking at," Newlee said. "The Slovakian Federation has been really good to me over the years. My contacts in Australia, actually some of my former players, get ahold of me as soon as they see a player they think I would like. I really rely on them a lot.”
Since travel to and from Moscow is not the most convenient at times, Newlee and his coaching staff rely heavily on film. Once the coaching staff zeros in on an international recruit, Newlee will reach out to his contacts to get more in-depth information. Newlee tries to visit Australia once a year for their spring championships, but it is not without an extra incentive. “If I have free time and I am in the right place, they have some great waves I can surf. I try to take advantage of the culture wherever I am at.”
Finding talent all over the world is the easy part. Getting players to picture themselves at Idaho is the speed bump in the process. Renae Mokrzycki echoed the sentiments of the current international players saying, “I did not even know Idaho existed. Now I am pretty good, I can point it out [on a map].” All seven players claimed that their previous perceptions of America came through the eyes of Hollywood.
Coach Newlee and his staff do not try to hide the fact that Moscow and the Palouse are a unique part of the country.
“We do tell them, ‘Hey this is not a big city experience.’ We let them know it is a safe, family atmosphere here. We really just build up the community and the Northwest with its rivers, lakes and mountains. We try to paint the scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the town of Moscow itself. They also get a chance to play right from the get go.”
The success of recent international players like Stacey Barr, who broke Idaho’s all-time 3-point record this season, continues to help Newlee in his pursuit of international players.
“I think it really helps [recruits] that they are playing at a place that understands the issues involved with being a foreign athlete," Newlee said. "I think my track record really helps out. Then they speak to players who have played here and find out that it is true. Idaho is a great place to come if you are a foreign basketball player.”
Barr first came to Idaho in 2011. For the previous two seasons she was the lone player from Austrai on the Vandals squad. Reinforcements came at the start of 2014 in the form of junior college transfers Renae Mokrzycki and Tayla Corrigan. True freshman Geraldine McCorkell rounds out the quartet.
For Barr, it is a welcomed change.
“It is good to be able to relate to conversations that we will have and be able to talk about back home,” she said. “It is nice to have people that actually understand.”
Melbourne is roughly 8,400 miles away from Moscow, Idaho. Travel to and from takes a little more than 24 hours. Barr and Mokrzycki shared similar experiences making the journey to the states. Both individuals had never been outside of Australia, let alone the state of Victoria.
“When I came to the states it was my first time really outside of Australia,” Mokrzycki said.
“It took me like 30-something hours to get here. I had so many layovers,” Barr recalled. “Not being an experienced flyer, my flights were a bit interesting. I landed at the Pullman Airport around midnight and that was a bit of a shock to the system.”
Corrigan’s route to Moscow differs from the three others from her homeland. She is from the rural farming town of Lucindale, 214 miles from where she went to high school in Adelaide. Australia’s 2006 census put Lucindale’s population at a grand total of 301.
“We have one main street with a post office, the local pub and the general store. We do not even have a traffic light,” Corrigan said.
McCorkell, the youngest of the four, had been to America for basketball prior to school. She had toured with teams in Texas and played in Seattle. McCorkell, a first-year post player, did not have any prior knowledge of Idaho, explaining, “I was expecting Moscow to be bigger, but I like it here.”
All four of the student-athletes have the same kind of recruiting story. The reality of having the chance to play in the NCAA blossomed in high school. Mokrzycki explained it best when she said, “It is a dream. A lot of people in Australia do not get the opportunity to come over and play basketball in America.”
There's one aspect of being away from home that the three upperclassmen know all too well -- the seasons do not change. Australia, located in the southern hemisphere, is known for its beaches and warm weather. Its summer season falls in the months of December, January and February. When classes finish up in May and players have the chance to go home on break, the winter follows them.
“That part is weird,” Corrigan said. “I have been in winter for three years now. I have not had a summer at all. It is kind of nice coming back early, before the preseason so I can get a little bit of a summer.”
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“Nobody plays basketball in Norway.”
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Scandinavia is not a traditional hot-bed when it comes to basketball. Mostly known as the birthplace to ski jumping, Norway has excelled in its winter sports. The country twice has hosted the Winter Olympics -- in 1952 (Oslo) and 1994 (Lillehammer) -- and the Norwegians boast more Winter Olympic medals than any other country with 329.
On the hardwood, the Norwegians have never qualified for the Summer Olympics or any International Basketball Federation (FIBA) tournament. But that does not come as a surprise to Maren Austgulen.
“Almost no one plays basketball in Norway,” Austgulen said. “My mom and dad both played. When I was a little kid I kind of hung out in the gym and started playing because of that.”
Austgulen also pointed out that soccer, popular all over the world, is the preference of kids in Norway. She and her sister Stine, a sophomore at Colorado State, both played soccer growing up as well.
Austgulen knew her basketball career in Norway was limited. She had been playing against the same girls since she was 10 years old and reached the pinnacle of her Norwegian career with a Norwegian Elite League National Championship and a gold medal in the Norwegian Girls Under-20 National Championship.
Austgulen knew she had to continue her career outside of Norway.
“I have always wanted to try something else. Nobody plays basketball in Norway. It was kind of a late thing [being recruited]," she said. "I was like ‘should I go or should I not?’ If I did not come here I would probably have finished school back home and just played for my club.”
Austgulen was familiar with the United States prior to arriving in Idaho. She did an exchange program that sent her to Charleston, South Carolina, for a year of high school. The 6-foot senior Austgulen recalled that the initial adjustment to living in the south was greater than transition to life in Moscow.
“It was summer year round," she said. "It was the south. It was nice and close to the beach. Coming to Idaho the weather is pretty much the same as back home.”
The itch to ski is something that Austgulen, a Norwegian, is looking forward to after graduation. Bergen, the basis for the town of Arendelle in Disney’s Frozen, is surrounded by a group of mountains known as the Seven Mountains. “There is a glacier two hours from my house,” Austgulen said with a smile. “I am pretty excited about going skiing when I get back. I love to ski.”
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“Coach started yelling, ‘Do you know what that means?’ I stood there and was like ‘No.’ ”
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Sophomore Agueda Trujillo’s story is unique in its own right.
Trujillo, a Spaniard, found her way onto the court at Idaho without ever meeting or talking to Coach Newlee. Newlee saw the initial film on Trujillo and decided to turn the recruitment over to former assistant Jordan Green. Trujillo went on to have conversations with assistants Kristi Zeller and Christa Sanford, while Green was her top recruiter.
“It was crazy,” she recalled. “I talked a lot with Jordan. I did not know Coach Newlee before I came here. I met Christa, Jordan and Kristi but I did not know Jon. I was so scared.”
Trujillo grew up playing soccer, while the rest of her peers all took up basketball from an early age. Eventually she got to be “too tall for soccer” and her manager switched her over to basketball when she was 14. The switch from dribbling with her feet to dribbling with her hands was a bit of a shakeup.
“Still now I am an awful ballhandler,” Trujillo admitted.
She grew into the sport and began to excel. Trujillo averaged 21 points and 6.3 rebounds per game at Centre De Tecnificacis Illes Balears and was ranked as the No. 2 player in the Baleric Islands. She knew she wanted to continue playing basketball while looking at colleges, but initially thought Europe was the answer.
“When I was 16 or 17 I saw that if I wanted to play basketball and study, I would not be able to do that in Spain," Trujillo said. "I looked at programs in London and France at first. Then my friend told me she was thinking about going to America for basketball and I began to look there as well.”
Numerous Skype conversations and a bit of research landed Trujillo in Mosocw, making her just the second player from her club to jump to the NCAA. She's had to adjust to the strategy of the American game, noting that in Spain her club ran no more than three plays. “Here we have at least 20 plays and we can run any of them at any point.”
Trujillo spent her first month at Idaho getting adjusted to American living, mainly transitioning from Spanish to English on an every day basis.
She laughed when recalling a story of her first day of practice.
“We were in a middle of a drill and I was running out of bounds. The coaches kept yelling ‘Out of bounds. Do it again.’ I kept going out of bounds like four more times and coach started yelling, ‘Do you know what that means?’ I stood there and was like ‘No.’ ”
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“I think Coach liked visiting. My mom cooked a lot of food.”
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People know the small European country of Bosnia Herzegovina for its years of war and turmoil in the early to mid-1990s. Idaho redshirt freshman Nejra Solo calls Zenica, Bosnia Herzegovin, a home.
Born in 1995, Solo was fortunate enough not to experience the conflict in her home country, but it still had an impact on her and her family.
“My brother was three or four when the war started. He kind of remembers some things, but he was still a little kid," Solo said. "My parents went through a lot. My father is a policeman, so he was in the actual war. He has some memories that are not so pleasant. It was kind of rough for him. In my city there was a lot of hunger, they did not have a lot of food. My mom was very skinny, like a lot of other people. You look back at some old pictures and they are horrific.”
Bosnia still has battle wounds around the country. Many structures still have “war scars” as Solo described, but was fast to note that Zenica is free of visible damage. Unsafe geographical areas are still marked and “people do not go into some of our woods anymore, up in the mountains it is not safe.”
Solo and her family got a visit from Newlee during the recruiting process, where she and her brother doubled as interpreters. Solo’s parents do not speak any English, making communicating interesting.
“It was funny trying to see them talk with Coach," she said. "I think Coach liked visiting. My mom cooked a lot of food.”
Newlee recalled the visit, remembering tanks along the freeway and being told of land mines after a hike with Nejra and her brother.
“They told me about the land mines after we went hiking. That was a little scary and sketchy.”
Solo admitted to not letting Newlee know about the land mines until after the fact, but was adamant about the fact that they were not in the same area. “They were not at the place we went. They are mostly in the mountains along the lines of separation between two armies. The place we went was clear, so we were good,” she joked.
The 6-foot-5 Solo is in her second year at Idaho, majoring in microbiology. She used a redshirt year to adjust to a newer more competitive style of basketball than she was used to. She traveled to every game last season and worked diligently after practices with coaches to become more adept at the college game.
“I got to work on every aspect of my game," Solo said. "I got the chance to catch up on the physical level of play. I think it was a good decision to redshirt last year.”