By KAYLA LOMBARDO and DJ SIXSMITH
College Contributor Network
Like a pirate searching the sea for hidden treasure, Fordham Women's Basketball head coach Stephanie Gaitley looks high and low to find talented recruits. Unlike a pirate, however, Fordham's fourth-year coach doesn't find her treasure in the sea, but rather on hardwood courts overseas.
"It's an untapped market," Gaitley, the winningest active coach in the Atlantic 10 Conference, said. "We hit heads with every school in the conference for certain kids when we go out recruiting, but when we go overseas, some coaches know nothing about those kids, so they are like hidden gems that you might steal."
Last season, Gaitley's gems certainly helped her discover the treasure that she so earnestly sought after: Fordham's first Atlantic 10 championship and diamond-studded championship rings, to boot.
Gaitley's championship squad involved three international players, including 2014 graduate and First Team All-Conference selection Erin Rooney (17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg & 5.2 apg) from Christchurch, New Zealand.
"Erin, who was the best young player in New Zealand, took us to a title, but not a lot of coaches even knew about her," Gaitley said. "She looked at some west coast schools, but the difference for us was that we went over there and took the time to meet her family."
With just 18 total international players in the 13-team Atlantic 10 Conference this season –- four of which attend Fordham -– Gaitley has set a precedent for the rest of the conference to follow by attracting and developing overseas talent.
Gaitley and her coaching mates believe their ability to cultivate bonds with international recruits and their families ultimately aids in their eventual arrivals, and subsequent successes, at Rose Hill.
"For most of the international kids, it's about relationships," the 1982 Villanova graduate said. "They want to know that people will care about them, and that if they come over here, they are going to be in good hands."
While Gaitley and her staff take the time to establish relationships with international recruits during the summer, they have another invaluable element helping their efforts during the recruiting process: New York City.
"I think for the international player, New York is a huge market," Gaitley stated. "The number one American city they know is New York. So, not only do you have a great city, but you have a beautiful school, with a great academic reputation, and a great basketball conference. And now that we've won, we've kind of put the whole package together."
This package that Gaitley speaks of is what lured Latvian freshman guard Asnate Fomina to Fordham.
"The most important thing was the education," Fomina said. "Fordham is a good school and the basketball team was conference champions last year, and I liked coach and my teammates, so it was a good decision for me."
Fomina, a member of the 2013 Latvian National Team at the European Championship, chose the American college experience because it allowed her to pursue both an athletic and academic focus.
"It's different from Europe to study here because you can be an athlete and a student," the graduate of Riga Secondary School No. 49 said. "The schools in my country separate athletes and students, so I chose America to be able to do both things."
Similarly, Slovenian sophomore Alina Gjerkes, a contributing member of Gaitley's championship squad last season as a freshman (2.5 ppg), saw Fordham as an opportunity to pursue her passions both on the court and in the classroom.
"What attracted me to Fordham was the possibility that I would be able to merge basketball and great academics," the guard said. "If I stayed back home and wanted to play at a high level, I wouldn't be able to go to the type of academic school I would want to go to."
For both Fomina and Gjerkes, the biggest adjustment to life at Fordham wasn't the language barrier or feeling of homesickness, but rather, the style of play on the basketball court.
"Here, there is more aggressive basketball," Fomina asserted. "Individually, girls are more aggressive and physically stronger."
"The American game is way more structured than back home, where we have less plays and the details are not as important," Gjerkes said. "Everything is way more competitive here because everyone is on scholarship and fighting for positions, so practices are way more intense than what we have back home."
For Gjerkes, however, a year of college basketball in America has paid dividends athletically, by both increasing her level of play and basketball maturity.
"I think I've learned to take instructions better and become a more complete player," Gjerkes claimed. "I've also learned that when you think you can't go any further, you have to just keep going. I didn't know that concept before Fordham."
Gjerkes learned these invaluable lessons in maturity and hard work from Fordham's aforementioned former-star, Erin Rooney.
"Last year in the summer, Erin would say, 'I know your legs hurt, but they're not going to fall off and you're not going to die,'" Gjerkes said. "It made me better."
Although Gaitley's international players often encounter a learning curve when they first arrive at Fordham due to the physicality of the American game, they also present more inclusive skill sets than first-year American college players usually possess.
"The style of play is more physical over here, but I think skill-wise, they come in more versatile because they get taught everything at a young age," Gaitley said. "Sometimes over here, if you're big, you stay in the post, if you're little, you're a guard. There, they teach them a little of every skill."
While Gaitley's quest for international treasure is somewhat uncommon and perhaps even unconventional by women's college basketball standards today, it has proven to be as edifying for Fordham's program on the court, as it is off of it.
"Just having that diversity on the team and that cultural experience I think broadens the horizons of everyone," Gaitley said. "It brings a completely different element to our program."
For Fordham Women's Basketball, the international treasure chest has proven to house the riches that money can't buy. And, with Gaitley continuing to steer Fordham's recruiting ship in the direction of undiscovered players and Atlantic 10 championships, more hidden gems are surely on their way to the Bronx.
Kayla Lombardo is a senior at Fordham University. She plays third base for Fordham's softball team and is a passionate New York Yankees fan. Follow her on Twitter: @KaylaLombardo11
DJ Sixsmith is a senior at Fordham University. He broadcasts Fordham football and basketball games on the school's radio station, WFUV, and hosts his own podcast called Game Time. Follow him on Twitter: @DJ_Sixsmith