Morris: Down under the radar

rmorris@ thestate.comFebruary 13, 2014 

— SAMANTHA CREED AND Haylee Lepaio continue to adapt. For Creed, that means learning to greet a teammate with a “What’s up?” instead of a “Right-o!” For Lepaio, that means acquiring a taste for fried chicken, although learning to like grits might take a couple more years.

Creed and Lepaio are part of the “Down Under brigade” on the Newberry College women’s basketball team, including its coach, Sean Page. Six of the 13 players on Newberry’s roster list Australia as their hometown, and two others are serving redshirt years.

Page admits to having a keen interest in recruiting players from his homeland. But it goes beyond that.

“We are able to recruit internationally, because if they are Americans, they wouldn’t come here,” Page explains. “You know what I mean? All that’s getting harder, too, because Australia is so over-recruited now.”

Page has experienced a modicum of success in his six seasons at Newberry, posting a couple 20-plus win seasons and a 105-59 record that includes a 63-39 mark in South Atlantic Conference play. His Wolves are 13-7 this season.

The experience of playing in the United States goes beyond wins and losses on the basketball court. Matt Finley, Newberry’s athletics director, says all of Page’s Australian players are excellent students. It is comforting to know, he says, that “they’re here to get their degrees.”

Bec Matijevic might be typical of the Australian young woman who longs to extend her basketball playing days and continue her studies by going across the Pacific Ocean. She graduated in December and now is a fifth-grade teacher at Whitmire Community School outside Newberry.

She grew up in the beachfront community of Queensland on Australia’s Gold Coast. Page noticed her in the recreation leagues of Australia, where both male and female players hone their skills because high schools and colleges do not field high-level competitive teams as is done in this country.

“I didn’t know what Newberry was,” Matijevic says. “I was just wanting to come to America and play college basketball. Location didn’t matter. (Page) told me it was an NCAA school, Division II, but he didn’t need to. I was just excited for the opportunity.”

That opportunity meant having to live through winter year-round. Round-trip airfare to Australia is in the $1,800 range, so trips home are limited to the summer months here, which is winter Down Under. Sweat suits and training gear distributed by the athletics department have helped serve as winter apparel for the Aussies in Newberry.

In addition to playing three seasons of basketball and earning her degree, Matijevic met and began dating her current boyfriend, Reid Dickert. The two live in Newberry, where Matijevic works under a visa permit. The next step is to gain a working visa and eventually citizenship.

Of course, every Australian who plays college ball in the United States dreams of extending her playing career to the WNBA. They all want to be the next Lauren Jackson, the Australian who is a three-time WNBA most valuable player for the Seattle Storm. Twenty-seven Australians have played in the WNBA, including seven on current rosters.

“When we bring these foreign kids in, we usually find that their skill set is fantastic,” Page says. “They have a fantastic IQ and understanding of the game, but physically, they struggle to compete. America has the best athletes and the strongest kids, which is different.”

Page recognized the differences at an early age in Australia. His father, who played in the country’s National Rugby League, was a firefighter by trade and helped Page’s mother own and operate a basketball club. These clubs field teams for youngsters at age 6 and continue at every level into adulthood.

So, Page grew up in the family’s gymnasium and on playing fields. The family often housed foreign players, mostly from the United States, who played on club teams that would be considered professional in this country.

Page longed to play in the United States, so he took his game to California where he attended Quartz Hill High outside Los Angeles. When no college offers came, Page returned to Australia to coach several of his parents’ club teams, all the while longing to return to the United States.

He got that wish and, after one season as an assistant coach at Boise State and four more at Troy in Alabama, Page accepted a pay cut from $50,000 annually to $25,000 to be the coach at Brescia University in Kentucky. He also pledged to himself not to recruit Australians just to prove a point, and he brought in one.

At Brescia, Page inherited a team that went 3-30 the previous season and produced a 20-14 record. The following season, Brescia was 18-13 and advanced to the NAIA national tournament for the second consecutive year. Newberry took notice and hired Page in 2008.

“The old boy network over here is pretty hard to crack into,” Page says. “I didn’t play college basketball in order to make that jump. ... Not everyone is going to hire me, especially back then. Why would I hire an Australian? Why would I do that?”

For Newberry, hiring an Australian meant finding a different way to win.

“When I got the job here, I was like, the door is back open again,” he says as he claps his hands. He began bringing in Australians, mostly because the better players in the Southeast are going to play Division I basketball. That leaves Newberry with few options in recruiting.

“You get a kid around here who is any good, they are probably being recruited by USC Upstate, Gardner-Webb, Furman, Winthrop,” Page says. “It’s hard to talk that kid into coming to Newberry. I understand that. I get that.”

With the Australians, Page believes he is getting Division I talent. Lepaio, a 6-foot-2 center, leads Newberry in scoring (18 ppg.) and rebounding (10 ppg.). Creed was averaging 15 points per game before being sidelined with an injury, and guard Zara Pearson is averaging 10 points.

Page also gets a group of young women who, once they overcome homesickness as freshmen, learn to love life in Newberry. They are an affable group who all seem to possess a subtle sense of humor. That comes through on the bio sheets they are required to fill out prior to each season.

Lepaio and Creed laughed when told that fellow Australian Ellie Gleeson listed that she was a “certified boomerang instructor,” and that another Australian teammate listed “Fifty Shades of Grey” as her favorite book. This one did not make it into the media guide, but Zara Pearson boldly listed under her awards won: “South Atlantic Conference prettiest girl two years in a row.”

Page says the Australians immediately take to the college campus life because Australian colleges are mostly commuter schools without sororities or football Saturdays.

“You can’t get anything like this where we’re from,” Creed says. “We’re lucky.”

Right-o, mate.

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