|Ignas Masiulionis shooting a fallaway jumper from his freshman year. With an extra year in the States under his belt, Masiulionis is adjusting well.
Case Western Reserve athletics file photo
By Ryan Scott
It’s a dream for many Division III basketball players: flying across the ocean to continue their playing career. The opportunity doesn’t present itself often or to everyone, but when it does, most jump at the chance.
Overseas basketball after college may be a far-off hope for some student-athletes, but others are already living the dream right now at Division III schools.
“From the time I was 12,” says McDaniel junior Liv Storer, “whenever anyone asked me what I was going to do when I grew up, I always said, ‘I’m going to go to college in America and play basketball.’ ”
Storer hails from the town of Wangaratta in Victoria, Australia, and is one of an increasing number of international students taking the floor for Division III basketball teams. The U.S. is one of, if not the only, option for students wishing to play high-level basketball and continue their education.
“In Europe we don’t really tie sports with academics as well as you do in the United States,” says Case Western Reserve sophomore Ignas Masiulionis, whose family lives in Lithuania, “They have college basketball in Europe, but it’s more like a club sport; it’s not the same level of competition.”
Masiulionis, like many aspiring college athletes, came to the U.S. for high school, with the hopes of securing an athletic scholarship. It also gave him more time to adjust to the culture and learn the language.
“I wasn’t speaking English well, I had a heavy accent,” says Masiulionis. “It took the whole first semester struggling, sitting in my room doing homework, before I broke through that barrier.”
You wouldn’t think Storer would have the same problem, but she found the transition a bit challenging, too. “When I came over,” she says, “my accent was a lot thicker than it is now and people had a hard time understanding me, which got frustrating after a while. I now have a bit of an American twang, so I’m much easier to understand.”
Storer claims her friends and family tease her about “sounding like a Yank” when she goes home, but this Yank would never be able to tell; she’s still sounds quite noticeably Australian.
Another unlikely place that’s sounding quite Australian these days is Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Iowa Wesleyan boasts nine players from Down Under between the men’s and women’s basketball teams, along with two from Spain and one from Guatemala.
Many major U.S. universities have increased recruiting of international students, regardless of athletic interest, because they’re more likely to pay full tuition and help the bottom line. Smaller, private colleges have struggled just to fill out an incoming class and are increasingly looking to expand the geographical diversity of the student body.
“I didn’t purposely try to build a roster of international students,” says Iowa Wesleyan men’s coach, Alex Huisman. “The institution as a whole shifted our enrollment strategy a few years ago in order to diversify our campus. We’ve had great success getting international kids here, not just in basketball, but across all programs.”
This approach has not only helped bolster the institution, which has had some public financial struggles recently, but also enhances the educational experience for everyone. “A lot of my guys are small-town Iowa kids,” says Huisman, “I’m the same way. I grew up in a town of 2,000 people, went to college in a town of 2,000 people, so being able to get to know these kids and experience more of basketball around the world has been really valuable.”
For Huisman, there’s been no one path to finding international players. Some simply indicate an interest in basketball on their admissions forms; others send video and make contact like many domestic prospects do. Getting noticed, especially by small schools with small recruiting budgets can be difficult enough in the U.S., it’s even tougher when you add thousands of miles, an ocean, and sometimes a language barrier.
“It’s becoming a much bigger thing for Australian athletes to come [to the U.S.],” says Storer, “A lot of time if you’re not going to a Division I school there’s not a lot of support and you’re on your own in terms of working out SATs and all that stuff.”
|It's difficult to play basketball and attend school tens of thousands of miles from home, but McDaniel's Liv Storer has a support system to make it happen.
McDaniel athletics photo by David Sinclair
Storer worked with an organization that specializes in helping Australian athletes connect with U.S. schools. “They helped me find a place to take my SATs, they explained the NCAA stuff and all the rules, they took a look at my highlights package and made some changes to that, but the biggest thing they did was send that package to all their contacts in America.”
Masiulionis had a similar experience. He connected with some older Lithuanian players who made the same journey and now help facilitate U.S. opportunities for others. “One lives in the U.S. and one lives in Lithuania,” says Masiulionis, “They look for good basketball players who have good academics. They helped a lot in the process of finding a good school, finding the right school.”
After all, if it were just about basketball, there is literally a world of opportunities available to young athletes, but the allure of also getting a top-notch education is really important. Says Storer, “Honestly, as I got more realistic, the basketball side of things was less important to me – that’s why Division III has been a perfect fit, because there’s such a balance between being an athlete and being a student.”
Storer gets time to explore her other passion. “Every four years McDaniel takes a trip to France and another European country,” she says. “I’m really passionate about travel and seeing the rest of the world, so Coach Martin (Becky Martin, currently on medical leave) talking about that was a big deciding factor.”
Schools recognizing the unique situation of international students and prioritizing basketball as part of the whole college experience is another advantage for Division III programs. Case draws students from all over the world, so dorms and services are usually available over breaks, but there are other considerations that go into supporting students one might not always consider.
“I have a host family,” says Storer. “I call them my angels; they’ve been a part of McDaniel for a long time. They come to all of my games and I can stay with them during breaks if I need to. I cannot be grateful enough for them and everything they do for me.”
“I get to go home twice a year,” says Masiulionis, “My winter break is usually shorter than for other students, because of basketball. My coach is really supportive. This year for winter break I could save $300 flying in a day late and he’s really understanding.”
Storer’s family lives even farther away, but they were able to spend a Christmas in the U.S. one year, taking in a few basketball games and enjoying the holiday in New York City. Modern technology makes keeping in touch a lot easier, too. “I get to see their faces, which is awesome,” says Storer. “I’m really close to my family and being away from them has probably been the most difficult thing. The time difference can be tricky, but we’re used to it now.”
Australia’s a big country and Storer was used to driving hours and hours to play basketball. For Masiulionis, the sheer size of the country was a big adjustment. “Lithuania is smaller than Ohio,” he says, “There two hours is a long trip; here traveling two hours for a basketball game is normal, it’s nothing.”
Of course every international basketball player has come a long way just to get to Division III and in every case I explored, they were grateful and enthusiastic about the benefits outweighing the effort and risk involved.
Storer agrees, “My little sister’s thinking of coming over here; I told her ‘just do it.’ Once you get over here it doesn’t seem as scary as it might at home, when you think you’re going to leave all your family and friends. You can make new ones here and they’ll take care of you.”
Over and over, the most common stereotype about the U.S. broken by the experience of international students was that everyone they encountered was welcoming and helpful. Storer spoke of a random family at LAX, the airport she landed at in Los Angeles, giving her their contact information and telling her to call if she needed anything. Masiulionis talked affectionately about the small Indiana town that welcomed him in high school and helped him acclimate to a new country. Huisman noted the incredible impact international students have had on the Iowa Wesleyan community and the world expanding importance of that diversity.
The relationship between the U.S. and foreigners is, let’s say complicated, at the moment. But it’s encouraging to see where Division III can counter that narrative and reach out to basketball players around the world.
When asked what advice he’d give to those athletes looking to follow in his footsteps, Masiulionis said: “Don’t be afraid to look for help. People here are very willing to give help. If you look for help, you will definitely receive it.
“If you keep trying, your dreams will come true.”