International players find a home in FHSU basketball

By Randy Gonzales

FHSU University Relations and Marketing

HAYS, Kan. — Tiger athletic teams are accustomed to long road trips. The Fort Hays State University men’s and women’s basketball teams will be making another long one this week when the Tigers travel to Kansas City, Mo., for the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association postseason tournament.

But the road to Kansas City pales in comparison to the journey to Hays made by four Tiger players.

The FHSU men’s basketball team has three international players on its roster in senior forward Dom Samac, freshman guard Emir Sabac and freshman forward Stefan Krsmanovic. Samac and Sabic are from Croatia, while Krsmanovic is from Serbia. The Tiger women also have an international player in junior guard Nikola Kacperska, who is from Poland.

“Playing in the United States was one of my main dreams in my career,” said Kacperska, who is from Tuszyn, Poland.

The players all agree they like their home away from home.

“It’s a small community, and therefore it’s a family,” said Samac, who is from Zagreb, Croatia. “Every time we play on the home court it feels like a family event. My real family’s not here, but I feel like a part of something bigger when I play on the court and I see all the fans cheering.”

Samac arrived in the United States when he was 16, playing his final two years of high school basketball in Florida. He then signed with NCAA Division I University of Denver. Samac was there two years before transferring to FHSU. Samac didn’t choose Fort Hays State blindly; he knew Tomislav Gabric — also from Croatia — who was on the Tiger squad the previous two seasons.

“He told me all about the school, how good it was here,” said Samac, an International Studies major who hopes to continue playing basketball in his native Croatia after FHSU. “I came here for my visit. I loved it.”

The other players got on the FHSU coaches’ radar by sending video of themselves in action to basketball programs across the country. Kacperska also had an agent helping place her with a U.S. team.

Men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson has developed connections with certain parts of the United States in his 18 seasons at FHSU. Now he has a connection with international players from another continent. Sabac and Krsmanovic are his first two international players in the program as freshmen.

“It’s always an adjustment going from high school to college,” Johnson said. “I can only imagine going to another continent. They’ve seemed to make a pretty good adjustment.”

“Probably the size of the city,” has been the biggest adjustment, said Sabic, who is from Zagreb, Croatia. “My city back home is like a million people.

“I think the first year is the toughest one,” he added. “I can’t wait to go back home and see everybody. I Skype with friends. If this was 20 years before — without technology —  this would be tough.”

Samac is a starter and the team’s second-leading scorer, and while Sabic isn’t playing much his freshman year he at least is suiting up. Krsmanovic can only sit and wait his turn; he is redshirting this season.

Hays, America, has helped ease the transition.

“I’m in the Hays community, and Fort Hays State is an amazing place with amazing people,” said Krsmanovic, who is from Gomji Milanovac, Serbia. “Everybody around me makes sure it feels like home.”

Language was the biggest obstacle for Kacperska. She studied English for two years back home before FHSU offered her a scholarship prior to the 2013-14 season.

“I was learning it before, but to start talking it, being comfortable with it is the most challenging part,” Kacperska said. “I think I had the greatest barriers. I think it took me one year to communicate without being shy or being scared of talking to people.”

Women’s basketball coach Tony Hobson has had international players at previous colleges he has coached, but Kacperska is his first foreign-born player at FHSU.

“As a rule, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with international kids,” Hobson said. “Not only is it a great experience for (Kacperska), but I think it’s a great experience for the kids on our team to have her on the team, so they can learn. They learn a lot about what’s going on in the world from Niki and things they’ve never seen. I think it’s a good experience for everybody involved.”

All the players said they missed food from back home — there’s nothing like mom’s cooking.

“My mom, we have rolls with cabbage and meat inside,” Kacperska said.

The other players mentioned homemade soups.

“Her soup, I love her soups,”  Samac said of his mother. “It’s a chicken soup we eat every lunch. It’s a tradition back home. We start our lunch with a soup and a salad.”

While the other players said they haven’t developed a taste for American food, Samac was the exception.

“I love steak,” he said. “I will tell you that a medium rare steak is what got me here, which I’ve never had before back home.”

Since the international players don’t go home for the holidays, they can spend that time with teammates or friends they have made at FHSU. Both Johnson and Hobson have had players over for holiday dinners.

It’s all part of making Hays — and Fort Hays State — feel like family.

“The type of community Hays is, people really embrace and take these guys in, make it an easier adjustment,” Johnson said. “We’re fortunate to have what we have and be where we’re at, with the community we’re in, the people in our community.”

That was evident on Senior Day, when Samac was honored along with the other Tiger seniors. Fans gave him a standing ovation when his name was announced.

“It was a great experience. I was not expecting that,” Samac said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see all these people standing, clapping for me, for a kid from another country. I was delighted.”

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