Florida International, the Most Eclectic of Sporting Families
The numbers are first. Then the curse words. Such is the unofficial curriculum of college athletes teaching each other their native languages.
Frederica Frasca and Margherita Bianchin, Florida International’s court one pair of Italians, can’t, off the top of their head, name every language spoken by the Panthers — Norwegian, Portuguese, Italian, German, Spanish. “Sometimes,” Bianchin joked, “even English.”
“The Americans, of course, teach them English words they shouldn’t, probably,” FIU coach Rita Buck-Crockett said, laughing and sighing in the way parents do when their kids are up to no good. She’s a bit of a surrogate parent to them, Buck-Crockett. No different than any of the other American parents on the team, of which there really aren’t that many. Of the 19 players on the Panthers’ roster, 12 hail from countries outside of the United States.
“With Florida International,” UCLA coach Stein Metzger said at the beginning of the year, “you never know what you’re going to get.”
Along that same vein, though, how could Buck-Crockett know, either?
One could suppose that it’s made easier by the coach’s vast international experience. A two-time Olympian, she’s been around the world enough to know all about the fun that international relationships can bring. She knows the fascinating mishmashes of language and culture and tradition, and what a joy it can be to put together an eclectic roster from who knows where. It’s why, more than any other school in the country, FIU thrives on the talent of individuals outside of the States.
“They come over, they want to be great and they want to play,” Buck-Crockett said. “They want to compete.”
All that said, it could be difficult to predict what might happen when assembling a roster that ranges so far and wide that Ohio seems like such a misfit of a hometown. All those cultures, languages, traditions – how can all of that possibly be blended together into one cohesive unit?
The Panthers wonder the opposite: How could it not?
“Somebody might think that we fight a lot but actually that’s what brings us together,” Frasca said. “It’s pretty cool. We’re super far from home so we’re like sisters.”
It’s not uncommon for sports teams to liken themselves as families, though with FIU, it’s quite literally what becomes the case. The majority of the players don’t see their parents for a year, two years, making the parents of Miami natives Brooke McDermott and Sheyanne Sullivan now the mom and dad to 17 other teammates.
“The American kids that live in Florida, they have their parents and that’s our parents,” Buck-Crockett said. “We never have a lot of parents cheering for us because their parents are so far away. They’re doing a big thing right now. Some of them haven’t been home in a year and they’re here, doing their thing. They take care of each other.”
They do this both on the court and off of it.
On the court, FIU is 6-5, though those five losses have come to teams ranked in the top five in the country, all of which were close – 2-3 to USC, 1-4 to UCLA, 2-3 to Hawai’i, 2-3 to Pepperdine, 1-4 to USC again.
There isn’t a single unwarranted blemish on the record, despite injuries and youth and a lineup that includes a tour of the globe.
“Hawai’i was a heartbreaker. USC was a heartbreaker. We hate those heartbreakers,” Buck-Crockett said. “We gotta – we’re at the hill. We gotta get over the hill. We gotta get on top of the hill. Once we do it then we know what it’s like. We know how to get there, but we haven’t figured out how to get over it.”
There is just one more West Coast matchup left in the regular season, a March 30 date with the No. 1 Bruins. Aside from that, “we gotta beat the East Coast teams,” Buck-Crockett said, “so that we get a shot at the end of the day.”
The shot in question is a bid to the NCAA Tournament, held in Gulf Shores during the first weekend of May. There is no doubt FIU can get there. Bianchin and Frasca are one of the top pairs in the country. Currently 9-2, their only losses are to USC’s Tina Graudina and Abril Bustamante and Terese Cannon and Sammy Slater.
“We’re there,” Frasca said. “We just need the something more that they have. We are there.”
They are there in every aspect of the word. As a team, they’re on the cusp, perpetually challenging the top teams in the nation, sweeping all but one of their six wins, the lone non-sweep being a 4-1 victory over Florida Atlantic.
And they are there as a family. Buck-Crockett doesn’t need ice-breakers or team building activities to inspire her girls. She just brings them together and allows them to mesh on their own, trading languages and cultures, occasionally heading out to take salsa lessons in Miami, a city nearly as diverse as their own lineup.
“We’re open to our differences,” Frasca said. “We learn how to deal with that. So, we’re more straightforward. If I were to tell you something, I’m just going to tell you and sometimes, people in America, they get offended but our teammates don’t. They know how to take us and we know how to take them. It’s super cool because you get to learn new cultures every year.”
You get to build a new family. Every year.
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