CAT TRAX: INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCE
This is the first installment of "Cat Trax," a series of feature stories that will periodically appear on the UNH athletics Web site.

By Kristine King, UNH Athletic Media Relations


Collectively, they have traveled over 20,000 miles, and have traded ocean and continents for opportunities to play on the field and court. They have come to UNH ready to play and ready to teach.

Lucia Bridova (Bratislava, Slovakia), Kate Collins Smyth (Parteen, Ireland), Radar Onguetou (Yaounde, Cameroon) and Rony Tchatchoua (Douala, Cameroon) are four of eight foreign student-athletes that have traveled over seas to UNH to excel as Wildcats and share their culture.
Lucia Bridova

 
Lucia “Lucy” Bridova is Jill Hirschinger’s first foreign student-athlete to be recruited in her 13-year tenure as head volleyball coach. Hirschinger brought Bridova, a native of Slovakia, in as a setter and defensive specialist after seeing tape of her play.

 “I really wanted to come here,” said Bridova. “There is a good balance of sports and academics. It was really hard freshman year. It took a while to get used to everything.”
 
This everything included adjusting to the game she had always loved.

“Europe plays a completely different game. They call the setter’s hands really tight. When Lucy got here she got the whistle blown a lot,” said Hirschinger.

Bridova, who Hirschinger calls a “smart player,” adjusted well, making 730 assists her freshman season. She averaged almost ten assists per game, putting her fifth among league setters. She also racked up 29 aces, 166 digs and 21 blocks.

“Europe produces more all around players because of substitution rules that force players to play full rotations,” said Hirschinger. Bridova’s strong all-around play is evidence of those differences. 

Bridova, who could read and write English well, struggled when it came to speaking.


Kate Collins Smyth
“The language barrier was the toughest. We use a lot of slang and not a lot of proper English,” said Hirschinger. “Lucy could not speak very well.”

Bridova agreed that it was a crash course in speaking the language, but her team helped her adjust to that and the culture shock.

“Being on the team was a huge help for me. I will miss everything,” said Bridova, who is graduating this year. “I complain about spending five hours in the gym but I cannot imagine doing it any other way.”

 Along with the traditional accolades for athletes, Hirschinger pointed out the interpersonal connections sports create by traversing social groups.

“Sports are a common language,” Hirschinger said. “Not just internationally, but even here at UNH. The players are so different they probably wouldn’t hang out except for being on the team.”

Bridova, an accounting and finance major, is also an exceptional student. Last season marked her second straight season on the American East Academic Honor Roll, and this past summer she completed an internship with Ernst and Young.

Hirschinger said everyone is very proud of Bridova. As the only senior this year, she will continue to be an asset defensively and also a team leader.

Freshman field hockey player Kate Collins Smyth is also from Europe and has made the trek from Parteen, Ireland. Going into her 18th season with the Wildcats, Coach Robin Balducci takes a more active approach to recruiting foreign players.

“If we want to be a great program, we need [international athletes] to be a big part of our program and recruiting,” said Balducci.
Rony Tchatchoua


She has recruited athletes from Trinidad to Germany, but gravitates towards players from Great Britain, like Collins Smyth, because of how well they mesh into the UNH program.

“We feel players from Great Britain are a better fit because of the nature of field hockey in those countries,” said Balducci.

Balducci remarked that in other countries like Germany, Holland and New Zealand, where the game has been played a high level, the game is very structured but not as much attention is paid to practice.

“The idea of conditioning and training is foreign. With Kate, her biggest concern was to be able to practice enough. Players from Great Britain are such an easy fit. They are hard workers. With players from Trinidad, there is more of that island mentality of ‘let’s play and go have fun,’” said Balducci.

Balducci went to the European National Championship in 2007 and saw Collins Smyth playing for the Ireland 18-and-under national team. Balducci often goes to international events to scout players wanting to play in the U.S.

One of the challenges for Balducci is getting players to commit. Many players treat it like a study abroad experience and stay for two years or less. There are many deadlines and expectations that need to be fulfilled for students to be accepted at UNH.

“We have to be very careful. Academic acceptance is a difficult process with deadlines and distance,” said Balducci. “It depends on what they study, but most things don’t transfer. It is hard for athletes to make that decision and commitment for all four years.”

Like Hirschinger, Balducci sees the competitive edge foreign athletes contribute. She also appreciates the cultural interaction they bring.

“Foreign athletes are more mature, a bit more worldly. It is a great positive for our kids. International students get our kids to look beyond themselves. It makes them think bigger to understand how cultures are different. We think the South or the Midwest is foreign; these kids have to deal with religion, politics, everything,” said Balducci.

Men’s basketball head coach Bill Herrion said he does not specifically go after foreign players, but recruits players that fit the team best. This goal is personified in his two players Radar Onguetou and Rony Tchatchoua.

Both from Cameroon, Onguetou played high school basketball just to the north at the New Hampton School and Tchatchoua played at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas.

Though international basketball is played differently, the major difficulty for these players was being able to communicate, not the style of play.

“The biggest challenge was the verbal part,” Herrion said. “I might talk too fast or too loud for them to fully understand. Both are different from other international players because they come from AAU and competitive high school teams and are Americanized, basketball-wise.”

Both athletes have been put to work on the hardwood for the Wildcats. During the 2006-07 season, Onguetou shot 50 percent from the field and had a career-high 12 rebounds.  Herrion saw Onguetou as a leader from day one and appointed him as a captain last year as a sophomore. 

“Radar does a lot of the dirty work,” said Herrion, referring to setting screens and picks, grabbing rebounds, and taking charges. “He does a lot of little things to help the team win.”

Onguetou has performed in the classroom as well.

“As much as you want to talk about Radar as a player, he can’t be overlooked as a student. He has a 3.7 GPA as a political science major and will graduate in three years,” Herrion said.

Last season, Tchatchoua shot over 50 percent from the field and averaged 3.1 rebounds. Herrion sees in him as much talent as any other player in the program and expects him to grow this season.

 “The positive quality in both is that they really appreciate the opportunity and that makes things easier.  Both players are well-liked and respected on campus. Professors and students hold these kids in high regard, not just because they are basketball players, but because of who they are,” said Herrion.
 
The most important trait these coaches look for in foreign athletes is the seamless fit with the team. A sport allows students to cross boarders onto the field or the court. Athletics bring them to UNH, their commitment and passion keeps them on a level playing field.
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