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The Robert Morris women’s basketball program is set to welcome five new players in the Class of 2017, four of which who were born outside of the United States.
Nina Augustin (guard, Finland), Laura Carrasco (guard, Spain), Honoka Ikematsu (guard, Japan), and Irekpitan Ozzy-Momodu (center, England) are the latest international recruits landed by head coach Charlie Buscaglia and the Colonials. For those familiar with Buscaglia’s recruiting efforts in recent years, the addition of international talents should come as no surprise.
Coach Buscaglia first experimented with international recruiting as an undergraduate assistant at Manhattan University. There, he honed his ability to establish contacts abroad and bring players from foreign countries to the United States. When he arrived at Robert Morris to serve under his father, Sal Buscaglia, Charlie brought this knowledge with him, and he continues to employ it to this day.
“You just keep your contacts up and you just continue to network, and you just gotta work really hard,” Buscaglia said, regarding international recruiting. “It’s very similar in the work ethic [as] when it comes to recruiting domestically. You’ve got to do a lot of things over video call. You’ve got to be willing to get on a plane and fly over sometimes to sit down with the families.”
Buscaglia’s recruiting contacts expand across multiple continents, and he is always open to exploring new international recruiting territories. The Class of 2017 epitomizes his willingness to recruit new countries, with Honoka Ikematsu set to become the first Japanese-born player in Robert Morris women’s basketball history, and Nina Augustin set to become the program’s first ever Finnish-born player.
Bringing in players from around the world opens the door for diverse talents, while welcoming the various cultural backgrounds that accompany each player. Through the years, Coach Buscaglia has learned to overcome the cultural differences of players from disparate areas by assessing his recruits as individuals, and prioritizing how they will fit into the culture embedded at Robert Morris, before extending an offer.
“In our program, one of the biggest things that I’m making sure everybody knows, in our staff and on our team, is that our culture is the most important thing that we have,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent out there when it comes to the United States or overseas, but we just don’t take anybody based on talent.”
Players have to be student athletes. They have to care about academics. They have to have passions and goals towards basketball and academics. They have to fit the culture of the kind of team we are – the kind of values and core principles that we have. That, first and foremost, is what really attracts us to certain student athletes to come over here and be a part of the program and our family.
“Reaching out to the different countries, when you get a kid from a different country that you haven’t gotten one from before, you’re excited to bring in someone that has grown up in a different country and has some different cultural things to their background. But for us, it’s a real melting pot. They come in here, and they’re coming because they fit our culture. I’m very big into respect, and being thankful, and having passion for what you do. Players serving each other – that’s very important to me. These players that come from all over the world, they may come from different countries and have different cultures, but they are very carefully selected for our culture. And even though they come from all different countries, they have that very similar characteristic that we search for. That’s really what it’s about when it comes to how we decide which player we’re going to offer and who we’re really going to go after.”
Judging recruits off of their ability to adopt the culture at Robert Morris, and not by the culture of their home nation, has worked well for the Colonials’ head coach. According to Buscaglia, his teams have never struggled with overcoming cultural barriers.
“I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever noticed that with us, because when [players] come to play here and to go to school here, with our program, we have a very set structure with how we do things. So no matter what they’re used to in their culture as far as how they do things, when they come here, they know this is how we’re going to do it. Everything we do – our routines, how we practice, being early for everything, how we sit down for dinner and have dinner as a team – all these things are how we do them. This is our culture at Robert Morris women’s basketball.
“We don’t have many of those issues, because when they are recruited by us, we talk about this right away. We talk about this very early in the recruiting process – this is the kind of program we are. If you’re coming to play at Robert Morris, you’re going to be a part of this. Everyone has their different things … Over the years, we’ve had players from different countries that had different foods, and different likes, and dislikes and the way they did things. But when they sign up to come play here and be a student athlete on our program, they know right off the bat that they’re going to be doing some things that are maybe a little different for them early on, but they’re going to find the joy in it every day, and they’re going to go forward with grace, and we’re going to become a team.
“That’s the beauty of the whole thing of what we’re doing, with all the players from different countries, is coming together like this from all different cultures,” he added. “It’s hard for some people to imagine that you would have players from all these different cultures come together, and how did they get along? And how did they gel, and how do they do all of that? Well, it’s because of our culture and our structure that they all come here to be a part of. We’re really proud of that.”
Aside from cultural practices, language barriers also present a potential hurdle when assembling a team of international recruits. However, due to the academic requirements placed upon foreign student athletes, Coach Buscaglia asserts that language has never hindered his team’s ability to communicate.
“Sometimes you’ve got to slow down a little bit with the players,” said Buscaglia. “Like Honoka, coming from Japan, she understands English well. They all have to take English tests to come over to get into schools. They have to have strong enough English that the university would say that they would be able to handle the academics. So they do know English, it’s just you’ve got to slow down a little bit sometimes … We’ve overcome any type of language barriers throughout this process with all these international kids. Our G.P.A. has been extremely strong.”
Another area where players will experience a learning curve is on the court. The game of basketball is not taught and played the exact same way globally, and as such, international recruits must often alter their game in order to achieve on-court success in the United States.
“Sometimes, when you come from overseas, they’re not as strict when it comes to traveling,” said Coach Buscaglia. “When it comes to Europe, they allow them to shuffle their feet a little more. They don’t teach a lot of footwork, because they’re so loose with the travel calls. So sometimes you really have to pound in footwork with the guards and posts. As far as the way they call the game, as well. The level of physicality that they allow on the American side as opposed to over in Europe, it’s a lot more physical. Even though the game has made some changes when it comes to physicality, it’s still more of a physical sport here. So you sometimes have to get used to that.”
No player arrives at college as a finished product. Foreign and domestic recruits alike must accept the need to develop as a player in order to maximize their potential. For Coach Buscaglia’s foreign recruits, this principle is not only understood – it is embraced.
“The players that come here – they want to be a part of this,” Buscaglia said. “They want to be a part of what we’re doing, and they get to see that very closely when we recruit them. We get them watching us, and they see the way we play. So they’re very aware of the fact that there’s going to be some adjustments that they have to make on both ends of the floor … People are the way they are because of how they’ve created their routines, what they’ve been through, and their experiences in life. If you want to change, you can change. You can change things about your game and how you play. When they come over here, they know that they’re going to have to change some things, and they’re going to have to adjust their game and get used to the routines of what’s healthy to play in the states.”
Coach Buscaglia – as both an assistant coach and as a head coach – and the staff at Robert Morris have helped multiple foreign recruits make the necessary adjustments, develop as players, and find success in basketball. Two of his most prominent international talents in recent years, former N.E.C. Player of the Year recipients Artemis Spanou and Anna Niki Stamolamprou, are currently using the fundamentals learned at Robert Morris while representing Greece in the F.I.B.A. European Championships. Witnessing the growth of players like Spanou and Stamolamprou, and understanding that he had a salient role in the players’ development, is what makes Buscaglia’s position so rewarding.
“[Spanou and Stamolamprou] are out there playing together, and they’re doing something amazing right now. They’re in the Final Four in the European Championships, which Greece has never, ever been in the Final Four. And these two players are graduates of Robert Morris recently … To me, that’s just such a joy as a coach, because I’m watching them play on the computer through the live stream, and I’m watching the things that they’re doing now that they did not do before they came to play for us. And that’s really, for me, so special. That’s one of the biggest things I would say – dealing with these international players – that’s such a joy to me is watching players come in and pushing themselves to change, and to do better, and to get better and to get tougher.”
The success of players like Spanou and Stamolamprou is not only recognized by Coach Buscaglia, it is seen and appreciated by other international recruits, as well. In fact, Coach Buscaglia’s track record with developing international players may be his greatest asset along the international recruiting trail.
“When you’re overseas and you’re thinking about coming to the United States, seeing players come over and have success in the States is very important to [international recruits] when they make a decision to come over … You build up a reputation of success with players that have come over and done what these players are looking to do. And so many players will come over from international countries, and they’ll come over, and they won’t play. They’ll be on a team that doesn’t fit them well, on a team that doesn’t have any other international players. And I would say that’s been a big part of why international recruiting has done well with us also, is that we’ve had success with the players that have come over here.”
The Class of 2017 will continue Robert Morris’ recent trend of featuring international players, but not to be forgotten in the class is guard Megan Callahan of Bristow, Virginia. Callahan, who knew she would be joining a diverse group of girls before committing to Robert Morris, will unite with her classmates to provide immediate contributions for the defending Northeast Conference champions. The Colonials, who posted a 22-11 record in 2016-17 while earning a berth in the N.C.A.A. tournament, lost multiple key contributors from a year ago, and playing time is there for the freshmen to earn.
“We lost three players last year that were very important to the team … So this class coming in, we’re looking for them to get right involved and be ready to help us fill the void of some players that played a bulk of minutes for us. Any recruiting class that we bring in, there’s always the opportunity for them to come out and to play as big of a role as they earn. We’ve got a little bit of everything in this class: we got some point guards, we got wings, we got a center. We got inside, and we got outside. I would say this class has a very strong talent level. It’s just going to be a matter of how quickly they can adjust, and be able to go out there and compete. I mean, we open up with Michigan State. Right away – Big Ten, on the road. These players know that, coming in as a freshman at Robert Morris, they’re going to have the opportunity to earn their position right in there. I would look for some of these players to definitely be a big part of things right away.”
With the start of the 2017-18 season months away, Coach Buscaglia and his staff will be spending the next couple of weeks identifying their primary recruiting targets for the upcoming year, seeking the players that best fit the Robert Morris women’s basketball culture. And yes, it is safe to assume that Buscaglia will be looking well past the borders of the United States to find his future Colonials.
“One things for sure: we’re actively recruiting a lot of international players right now,” he said. “So we’re either going to be going out there, or they’re going to be coming here.”