When Tijana Raca, Riikka Kujala and Marta Gomez first arrived in Laramie, all they had was each other.
Each traveled thousands of miles to Wyoming with a goal of playing collegiate basketball in the United States. They didn’t know each other very well, but their similar cultures helped ease the transition.
“I was feeling so far from home and we were homesick at first,” Raca said. “For me it was easy at the same time. This is a great opportunity, it’s my life, I have to go and say goodbye.”
Raca is from Pylea Thessaloniki, Greece; Kujala is a native of Vimpeli, Finland; and Gomez hails from Valles, Spain.
The first person Raca met was Gomez. For the first couple weeks, they spent their time with Kujala while trying to adapt to being a student-athlete in the United States.
Wyoming's roster this season is young, with 11 underclassmen, including six freshmen. Everyone was trying to adapt and learn on the basketball court, but most didn’t need to make much of an adjustment to their overall lifestyle.
The three international Cowgirls were trying to become comfortable speaking English all the time, in addition to surviving away from their families on the other side of the world.
“The most difficult is the language,” Kujala said. “Here, people talk very quick and I need to be very concentrated in people talking.”
Since arriving for the start of the academic year, they’ve assimilated with the rest of the team. Although they had each other when they first arrived, they’re comfortable hanging out with any of the Cowgirls now.
“The first night was like 'Where am I? Why am I here?'” Kujala said. “But I learned the people (teammates and coaches) are always here to help you.”
Marquelle Dent and Jordan Kelley are Wyoming’s only seniors and they’ve embraced trying to get everyone to come together on and off the court.
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“We didn’t know they were coming until everyone came back for the year,” Dent said. “That was definitely different having them come in, but I feel like with girls it’s so easy to get to talking and hanging out and that makes it a lot better on the court.”
Still, the rigor of Division I basketball is different than the three international players were used to overseas.
Raca’s teams in Greece didn’t run sprints or emphasize conditioning. Kujala said the rules are different, but beneficial because everyone can play more free and fast. Gomez said she liked that anyone can get the ball and shoot.
Gomez, a 6-foot-1 forward, earned a start during last week’s exhibition game against Adams State. She was one of four Cowgirls to finish with double-digit points and also grabbed nine rebounds.
“I was very happy with how everyone played,” coach Joe Legerski said. “I thought Marta demonstrated that one, she shoots the ball, but for her to come up with nine rebounds was a positive she hasn’t shown in practice.”
The coaching staff played a major influence in getting the three players to commit to Wyoming. Raca initially committed to Oral Roberts, but switched after hearing a pitch from the Cowgirls staff.
“I didn’t really want to come to the United States,” Raca said. “I think I really wanted to come here when coaches told me everything about fans, basketball, people. It became our dream to play with this court.”
Kujala shares similar sentiments: “The coaching staff, they are so good and they care about you and want to know what’s going on with you.”
Sunday, they’ll play their first regular season game in the Arena-Auditorium. They're looking forward to playing in front of the Wyoming faithful.
“You felt like ‘Yeah, Wyoming is the best,’” Gomez said. “The people and the campus are beautiful … and the fans, I’ve never played with so many fans.”