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Land of opportunity

Even after starting 26 games last season, junior guard Laia Flores will likely be called upon to step up in a bigger role after the graduation of former guard Shalethia Stringfield. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

When USF joined the AAC after the collapse of the Big East, women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez had to get creative. 

Fighting for local recruits amongst other in-state schools such as Florida State, the University of Florida and the University of Miami was difficult enough in a reputable conference such as the Big East, but luring the top talent in a brand new conference presented its own unique challenges. 

“When we changed from the Big East to the American, (international recruiting) became a strength,” Fernandez said. “Different things happen in recruiting that you have to play to your strengths. 

“Without a doubt, would I love to have more Florida kids, more Georgia kids, right nearby? Yeah, but they have to be great fits in what we do for our style of play and our system.”

Since 2012, USF’s last year in the Big East, the Bulls’ collection of international talent has grown from three to nine players on the roster. 

While Fernandez has certainly taken advantage of every opportunity that international recruiting provides, what he’s offering these players is something they can’t find at home.

“In Spain, we don’t have teams at universities, so when you’re done with high school, you can play pro,” junior guard Laia Flores said. The league is pretty good, you can play at a high level, but studying and playing at the same time is very difficult. 

“So, I felt like when I got this opportunity to come to the U.S.A. to get a scholarship, play on a really good team, and also earn my degree, I thought that was better than just playing or just studying to get a degree.”

With the chance to earn a college education while gaining otherwise unavailable basketball exposure, it’s hard for many prospects to turn Fernandez down. 

Senior center Nancy Warioba, originally from Kenya, first saw Fernandez coaching the Bulls against UConn on television, but never thought she would one day play for him. 

“The first time I met (Fernandez), I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s the man I’ve seen from TV.’ To me, it’s a great opportunity.”

“He’s nice, he’s friendly, he’s welcoming and he’s an open-minded person. He will chat with you, laugh with you, talk with you like you’re family. It’s like you’ve known him before even though you’re just meeting for the first time.”

Much of Fernandez’s success in growing the international talent has not only been the opportunities USF has provided, but how well those players have progressed.

In limited time with the team, Fernandez has turned Flores and Portugal-native Laura Ferreira into regular starters for the Bulls, along with helping Kitija Laksa win the AAC Freshman of the Year award last season when she 12.6 points per game over 29 games. 

“I kind of wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in Europe to try to make it to the pros or something like that. I knew I didn’t want to stay in Latvia, I wanted to go somewhere else in Europe or come to the U.S. I kind of didn’t know what to expect here, but then I came on the visit and realized how great of an opportunity it is.

“I knew that I could play pros (in Latvia) after I graduated high school and I could try to go to university, but the level of play wouldn’t be as high as here even though it’s a pro level because we have two or three teams that are really good and the rest aren’t that good.

Aside from all of the off-court benefits playing for the Bulls provides, players like Flores said coming to USF has enabled her to elevate her game in a way that wasn’t possible in Spain. 

“I was really impressed when coach told us we were going to have an I.D. card and we could go 24/7 and swipe the card to go shoot in the gym,” Flores said. “For me, going to do extra in Spain is impossible. In a club, we have 90 teams and you have two hours and at 7 (p.m.) everyone goes home and you cannot shoot. 

“So, I feel like this is a good opportunity, not only to practice with high intensity, you can also just come and improve your shot. I was really impressed with that and our facilities. I wouldn’t have had any of these things over there.”

For many foreign players, adjusting to life away from family was one of the biggest sacrifices of coming to play basketball in America. 

Knowing virtually no one outside of their basketball team, Flores and Laksa  said it helps that many of her teammates are experiencing these trials together. 

“It’s just the fact that you’re alone,” Laksa said. “You don’t have your family, you don’t have anything, but it’s pretty easy for us because we have so many internationals, we kind of share some culture. We get the opportunity to know other cultures and have a great experience.”

“I came here when I was 18, so my whole life I was with my family and my friends back home,” Flores said. “At the end of the day, when you have that tough day in the beginning and you’re homesick, you can call your parents or you can Skype them, but it’s not the same. I guess that’s what I miss the most, but my teammates and coaches help me feel at home.” 

After graduating the program leaders in scoring and rebounding in Courtney Williams and Alisia Jenkins, Fernandez will look to lean on these international players as never before. 

Of returners, forward Katelyn Weber is the only American-born player to have started more than five games in 2015-16. 

Even with the indefinite absence of Laura Ferreira to plantar fasciitis to start the season, USF’s four other most-used players from 2015-16 came to Tampa from overseas. 

Beginning with a non-conference schedule which features top-50 RPI teams such as Georgia, Minnesota and Arkansas St., and ending with the perennial No. 1 team in the nation in UConn standing in their way, the Bulls will need these key returning players to make up for the loss of three of their top four scorers. 

As these foreign players have grown into the core of this year’s Bulls, Fernandez and his staff will continue to scour the world for talent, not out of necessity, but to recruit the best players the world has to offer.  

“Last year, you look at the NBA Draft, there were a record number of first-round draft choices and a record number of European players in the draft,” Fernandez said. “The game has changed globally and I think for us, we got ahead of it and we’ve changed with it.”