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There are so many languages in the world, but there’s only one way to say Iona.
The Gaels’ women’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, and while they’ll be underdogs to Duke, they hope to end their banner year with a bang.
For the first time in Iona women’s basketball history, it captured both MAAC regular season and tournament titles in the same year. Iona was able to return to the top of the conference with a unique and diverse roster.
More than half of the team roster is composed of international students, with four players from Spain, and others from Iceland, Israel, Georgia and Slovakia.
“They play at a high level,” Iona coach Billi Chambers said. “It’s different. American basketball is a little more physical, more up pace and high tempo. Over (in Europe), they’re learning some of the cuts and reads we want to learn at an early age. Putting those two together just creates a beautiful brand of basketball — the style we like to play.”
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Uniting for a historic season
The Gaels’ unique blend of talent came together to bring Iona back on top of the MAAC, after five straight seasons where they finished below-.500.
Even at the start of the season, Iona wasn’t expected to do much and was tabbed fifth in preseason coaches’ polls.
Chambers built the roster over the years, assembling international and American-born talent. She was prepared for a breakthrough, and her players didn’t stray from their coach’s vision.
“We’re here for the same thing,” Iceland native Thoranna Hodge-Carr said. “We’re just willing to work for everything that we got and everything we won this year to get how far we are right now. It’s important to have a good group of people and staff and everything just gelled this year.”
Iona is 26-6 overall, which included 18 MAAC regular season wins, tying a program record.
Individually, the Gaels raked in awards and accolades, with Spain native Juana Camilion earning MAAC player and defensive player of the year awards.
New Yorkers Kate Mager and Ketsia Athias joined Camilion on the all-conference lists and the MAAC all-tournament team.
Chambers was also named MAAC coach of the year.
“We all are such a great team, our chemistry is so good on and off the court,” Camilion said. “We push each other hard, and we hold each other accountable. We love each other a lot, it’s very, very special and that’s how we got here.”
There are a total of six countries and four different states represented on the Gaels’ roster, which makes for an interesting mix of backgrounds and cultures in the locker room.
“I learn something new every day, having all these girls from different places and different cultures,” Brooklyn native Ketsia Athias said. “They’re speaking their different languages. I learn a new word almost every day, and just the different foods, different cultures and all that.”
Sometimes they’ll take turns to cook different meals for their teammates, or introduce others to some of their favorite dishes from back home, like paella – a Spanish dish – or kielbasa, a Polish sausage.
Hodge-Carr once tried to get her teammates to try hákarl, an Icelandic delicacy that consists of fermented shark, but not everyone was brave enough to get over the unique smell.
They’ve also gotten to learn different traditional customs, like getting used to their Spanish teammates eating dinner at 9 p.m., which is a typical time for supper in Spain. They also support their Georgian teammate, Natalia Otkhemezuri, through her twice-a-week fast for religious reasons.
“It’s all just through the game of basketball and that’s the most beautiful thing about it,” New City native and Albertus Magnus alumna Kate Mager said. “I probably would never meet people like them without the game. I think it’s really special that this game brought us together. I’ve learned a lot of things.”
Iona didn’t always have a lot of international flavor on its roster, but a pipeline started to open up after its previous MAAC championship run in 2016.
Back then, the Gaels only had two European players on that title-winning roster, including two-time All-MAAC first-team selection Marina Lizarazu of Spain.
According to Chambers, her success at a collegiate and professional level in Europe, put Iona on the international radar.
“I was nervous, but I always knew that I wanted to go to America,” Hodge-Carr said. “At home, it’s kind of a traditional living. You go to school, you go to work, get a family and a dog, and you go on vacation for two weeks every summer. I just wanted to explore the world a little bit and experience basketball in a different light. It’s a little more serious here, more hours go into it. I’m thankful I’m here at Iona.
“When I first came in, we didn’t have as many internationals. Now, it’s more than half. It’s amazing to me. I’ve never been able to meet people like this. At home, everybody’s just Icelandic, so just listening to different languages and others teaching me so much about their culture, it’s a beautiful thing.”
While the journey to go thousands of miles away from home to another country may be difficult for some, having plenty of teammates in a similar situation helps newcomers feel at ease.
“We help each other a lot,” Camilion said. “Some of us, our English might not be great, but the Americans put an effort to teach us how to say certain words, how to pronounce it or help us say what we’re trying to say. We all help each other and that’s what makes it so special.”
While they still have a NCAA Tournament game to prepare for, Chambers knows that what her team has is rare.
“Watching them learn the world through each other, the differences that they have from where they’ve grown up or what their experiences are, that’s one of the fun parts,” Chambers said. “Sometimes the different languages are always going, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on in practice or in the locker room, but they’re really a special group that celebrates each other.
“When you find out that they’re going to visit each other in Spain, or they’re going to Georgia with their teammates over the summer, it’s really exciting to see them have that opportunity. All the diversity on this team is super special, that’s something that’s really valuable to me and our staff, but to see them come together is a microcosm of what you want the world to be.”
Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay.