Before coaching Highland Community College in Freeport, Blake Bekke coached five years at nearby Pearl City, where he saw four fellow NUIC girls basketball teams reach the Class 1A state title game.
“I knew how strong the talent was in the NUIC,” Bekke said. “When I first got the position here, my main focus was on keeping the area talent in the area.”
That’s now helped his focus. Bekke either goes hyper-local in his recruiting, with five NUIC players and a Freeport grad on his team, or he goes international. The other six Cougars are from Brazil, Poland, Serbia, Macedonia and Spain.
Rock Valley College, which has reached the NJCAA Division III national tournament in eight of the last 10 years, has been so successful that it makes it hard for Highland to recruit the Rockford market, despite playing in a higher division. So if the Division I Cougars can’t go next door for recruits, they now go far, far away.
“It’s a neat blend,” Bekke said.
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And a culture clash.
No more walking to practice
The European players were surprised at a recent team dinner when Talena Rogers showed them pictures of her house.
“There were skulls of different animals everywhere,” said Lucia Pinto Martin, a sophomore guard from Zamora, Spain. “We were so shocked. It’s not like that in any of our home countries.”
Not skulls. Hunting trophies.
“I go hunting. They don’t do that over there,” Rogers, a sophomore forward from Eastland, said. “They were surprised about everything that I do and all the animals we have in the house. The way they do daily things is very different from what we do here.”
The biggest difference is cars.
“Everything is so spread out,” Martin said. “You need a car for everything. You cannot just walk. I feel dependent on people because we don’t have a car. You always have to ask for a ride just to buy milk or water here. It’s so different. In Spain, I’d walk to the court where I practice. I walked to my high school. The most was a 20-minute walk away.”
Ariadna Kuc, a freshman guard from Poland, said she never needed a car in her hometown of Krakow.
“We have trams. We have trains. Buses,” she said. “And you also can walk to places. Where I live, I meet up with friends and go for a walk. Here it is a one-hour walk to the friend before you can even start.”
It’s still basketball
Schools and sports are also far apart in Europe. Not so in the US That’s what the international Cougars like most about playing for a community college in Freeport.
“Everyone in Europe plays for clubs,” said Natalija Beleska, a sophomore guard from Struga, Macedonia. “We don’t play for the college. Every city has a club, and we just play for the clubs, not the school.
“I really like it this way. The whole community, the whole college, is cheering for you. It’s awesome playing for a college. We can play the sport we love and study at the same time. That’s why I decided to come to the US”
Many of Highland’s international players were scouted by coaches watching video of the European championships. International players and coaches also reach out themselves and make calls to the US Highland has a long history of welcoming foreign players.
“It’s a fun process. I meet a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds,” Bekke said.
They play different styles of basketball, too.
“The local players are more physical,” Bekke said. “That Midwest Tough. That’s a real thing. Whereas the internationals usually are very, very skilled with the ball.”
While many of the girls speak languages native to their homeland, all the girls speak the international language of basketball.
“Having so many international players is special,” Kuc said. “We have all these different perceptions and points of view that we can talk about and share.
“When it comes to basketball, it’s still basketball. No matter where you are from, we still play the same sport and we’ve been playing it for the majority of our lives. We can all play together and play good.”
Contact: [email protected], @matttrowbridge or 815-987-1383. Matt Trowbridge has covered sports for the Rockford Register Star for over 30 years, after previous stints in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa City.