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International House of Blue Hose: PC roster changes with Euro additions

Presbyterian senior Bryanna Brady, center, with European additions Tilda Sjökvist (4), Mara Neira (10), Nuria Cunill (22) and Dagne Apsite (bottom right).

There are no names on the back of their jerseys, but the Presbyterian women’s basketball team might need them this season.

And a world atlas.

With 11 new players, including four from Europe and the NCAA transfer portal, keeping up with the new cast and a few new languages has presented its own challenges as the Blue Hose head into 2023 and the bulk of their Big South Conference schedule.

“I coached in junior college, so this is nothing new for me,” said PC head coach Alaura Sharp of the drastic roster makeover for this season. “This is how you did it.”

Fifth-year senior Bryanna Brady is one of two returning players along with sophomore Paige Kindseth from last year’s 12-18 PC squad, but said she has embraced all the changes that swirled around the team during the offseason.

“Change is good,”Brady said. “I think we were all really excited to just meet new people and have a new group of players who really want to be here. We all knew what it was going to be like, and it would take some time to get used to, but in all honesty, it’s been a wonderful time. . . We’re adjusting and learning to play together, but our relationships and our chemistry off the court is fine.”

The newly constructed roster includes a bevy of transfers from other Division I programs such as Vincennes, UTEP and Eastern Washington, a juco transfer from McCook Community College in Nebraska as well as a group of freshmen from Georgia, Connecticut and Kansas.

In today’s NCAA, all of that is par for the course as teams build and rebuild with the help of the transfer portal, but Sharp’s latest recruiting effort also included four European players — forward Dagne Apsite from Latvia, guard Tilda Sjokvist from Sweden and guard Mara Neira and forward Nuria Cunill, both from Spain.

Cunill, from Berga near Barcelona, and Neira from Galicia near the Atlantic coast, grew up about 10 hours apart in Spain. Cunill, who spent her freshman year at Eastern Washington, said being able to speak in their native language with fellow Spaniard Neira — sometimes to the frustration of teammates who may have persevered through high school Spanish classes — is a comfort while so far away from home.

“I miss my family. I miss my people,” Cunill said. “But I have a new family here – new people. So it’s good to have these two different families, and they both support me. That’s important.”

Apsite, a 6-2 junior spent her first two years in the U.S. at UTEP, a long flight and cultural far cry from her home in Saldus, Latvia, a town of less than 10,000 residents with a history dating back as far as the 13th century.

Early on, Apsite said she wanted her basketball career to take her across the Atlantic to play in the U.S.

“I always wanted to live in a bigger city, and El Paso is a pretty big city,” she said. “But here feels more like home.”

She said she had to adjust to a new culture in the far reaches of West Texas on the Mexican border and improve her English as a freshman at UTEP, but a disconnect with coaches there led her to PC and the reconstituted Blue Hose.

“I knew this was the place from talking to the coaches and (learning) what they were about,” Apsite said. “After I got here and met all the girls, I haven’t regretted the choice.”

Sharp’s coaching of this year’s team began long before the players were to begin official practices in October. 

There were team dinners and outings. Movie nights — little things that seem social and normal college-age activities on the surface, but were designed to build relationships and trust among a group of girls who didn’t know one another personally — and sometimes culturally.

The Blue Hose’s mettle has certainly been tested with games against Power 5 schools Minnesota, Florida and Florida State — all losses — in December. After an early season defeat at home to Jacksonville, Sharp said she wanted to see her team put a pair of good games together in a row. 

That is getting closer to happening.

The Blue Hose dominated Bluefield (Va.) University, an NAIA opponent in a record-setting 132-30 victory, and then got their first Big South win with a 78-65 home victory over Radford on New Year’s Eve.

Sandwiched in between was a 61-53 loss at old nemesis Campbell on Thursday (Dec. 29).

Sjokvist, already a two-time Big South Freshman of the Week award winner as PC’s starting point guard, said she believes the players — from whereabouts far and wide — are coming together even if the early season victories were not piling up quickly.

“Now, all we have to do is win,” said Sjokvist, who joined the Blue Hose from Huskvarna, Sweden and is averaging 18.3 points and 7 assists over her last three games.

PC (5-8 overall, 1-1 Big South) is set to return to the court for its first game of 2023 tonight (Wednesday) at home against Big South opponent Winthrop (2-9, 0-0).

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