Two members of this year’s women’s basketball team, Brooke Blair and Freya Newton are 7,000 miles from home, away from the crashing blue surf, white sand beaches and clear blue skies and into single digit temperatures with sub-zero windchill.
The two hail from New Zealand and contribute to a basketball team that includes six international players.
Although Blair is lost to the season with an injury, Newton and the remaining four international players have helped ISU to a quick 2-1 start in conference play, including a 67-59 home victory over last season’s regular season champion, Montana State.
“Bringing in these different cultures to your team, learning about how other people live in the world and how they play basketball is really fun,” said head coach Seton Sobolewski. “We’ve always really loved it, I’ve always enjoyed it as a coach and I think it gives our team a broad perspective of the world.”
Blair and Newton took similar paths to Idaho State.
After growing up in the southern hemisphere, both played at junior colleges in the United States before transferring to ISU – Blair at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado and Newton at Gillette Community College in Gillette, Wyoming.
Pursuing basketball, a sport less popular in their home country, meant leaving the beaches and familiar food of New Zealand for snow and processed American cuisine.
Communicating with a former teammate, who was playing basketball in Wyoming, led Newton to Gillette Community College.
“I was kind of prepared for the worst. Everyone was kinda like ‘Wyoming? There’s nobody there,’” Newton said. “[But] Gillette was an awesome community … It kind of made the transition and the culture shock a lot easier.”
After Gillette, Newton came to Pocatello, but injuries prevented her from playing at first. This season, Newton is averaging 5 point per game while clocking 30 minutes per contest as she pursues a master’s degree in microbiology.
Blair’s journey to ISU began in 2012, when she met associate head coach Ryan Johnson while playing in China for the New Zealand junior team. Keeping in contact with Johnson, she attended Northeastern College for two years before following the coach to ISU.
“I came on my visit here and I really enjoyed it and just liked the whole atmosphere,” Blair said. “The people here are really nice and I thought it was a good fit for me. I enjoyed the teammates when I visited them.”
“Because of her injury, Blair will redshirt the 2016-17 season. She will finish her degree in family and consumer science with a minor in coaching this spring and will be back as a reshirt senior next season.”
For Blair, who had grown up next to the beach, living in the middle of the U.S. was a big adjustment.
Newton agreed that moving to a cold-wintered state presented a challenge at first.
Part of her culture shock, Newton said, involved meeting real-life cowboys and interacting with teammates from small towns. Mostly, though, she had trouble adjusting to American food.
“You always hear and see American food, like pizza and burgers and stuff, and obviously we have that stuff in New Zealand, but it’s like, it’s quite prominent. Especially when you’re eating in the dorms, there’s always burgers, there’s always pizza,” she said. “Everything tastes just a little bit different as well, like regular spaghetti bolognaise and stuff just tastes completely different.”
Both players said they miss their families, but occasional visits help, and technology keeps them in contact.
For Blair and Newton, their team acts as a defense against homesickness.
“You’re always with them, so you’re always feeling that love,” Blair said. “We’re always doing fun things together, so that kind of keeps it off my mind.”
While it’s been difficult at times to adjust to a new climate and surroundings and to miss their loved ones, the players know that playing basketball means leaving home.
Basketball isn’t widely supported in New Zealand. Games drew around 20 people, Newton said, and she wouldn’t have received a basketball scholarship there.
“Playing basketball has probably made it the easiest,” she said. “You come in here on a basketball team, you automatically have at least 12 friends, and 12 really close friends, because you live with them, play basketball with them, eat, sleep, do everything together.”