The New Zealand connection with BYU Women’s Basketball
The BYU women’s basketball team has established various recruiting pipelines for international players, but none has been stronger in recent years than New Zealand, with two New Zealanders currently on the roster and several more over the last decade.
New Zealand is an island country in the southeastern Pacific Ocean that is home to 5 million people. The country is known for its scenic views, sheep and Manuka honey.
The team has had a string of players who call New Zealand home, including alumni Kalani Purcell, Shalae Salmon and Kaedin Taito. The Cougars also signed Arielle Williams-Mackey from Hamilton, New Zealand for the 2021-2022 season. The two Kiwis currently on the team are graduate transfer Tegan Graham and sophomore Kaylee Smiler.
Graham was raised in Wellington, New Zealand and has always had a passion for basketball. She took her talents to Hamilton, New York where she played basketball at Colgate University from 2016-2020. She decided to continue her career by attending graduate school at BYU, studying mass communications.
“While I was being recruited, I felt everyone at BYU was very genuine,” Graham said. “This year has been weird because of COVID and I couldn’t take any official visits but the coaches put in so much effort and made me feel wanted. I knew it would be a great fit for me.”
Roughly 300 miles north of Wellington is Temple View, Smiler’s hometown. The redshirt sophomore is majoring in human resources management. Her recruitment story is unconventional and further shows the connection between BYU and New Zealand.
“Kalani Purcell is a really big role model in my eyes,” Smiler said. “She is a really good family friend and she offered to show my highlight video to the assistant coach, Ray Stewart. One thing led to another and I was offered a scholarship.”
Smiler’s recruitment process displays the unique circumstances that come with an international perspective. Athletes that are native to the United States have a structured recruitment process that includes ACT/SAT scores, coach scouting trips and an official visit to the university. International players have to think outside the box to get noticed by large state-side schools.
Graham echoed Smiler’s experience and said she was noticed by BYU through word of mouth.
“New Zealand is a small place but networking with people is really powerful,” Graham said.
Graham also looked up to former BYU women’s basketball player Shalae Salmon who is from Porirua, just 13 miles north of Wellington. Salmon shared her BYU experiences with Graham when they were both home during the summers.
“Hearing about Shalae’s experiences made me excited when BYU started showing interest in me. I felt like I had the inside scoop on the program,” Graham said. “I was comfortable attending the school and I knew it was a good fit.”
Graham and Smiler’s recruitment experiences are great insights into international recruiting. However, recruitment is only one step in an international athlete’s journey. Adjusting to life in a new country can be overwhelming.
“I love this country and I love being here but sometimes I miss my (home) culture,” BYU point guard Maria Albiero said. “It’s so nice to have people from other places on the team because they understand that things are a little different and I appreciate that.”
Albiero is from Brazil and one of four international players currently on the BYU women’s basketball roster, with the others being Smiler, Graham, and Signe Glantz from Sweden.
“I think adding diversity is a good thing,” Albiero said. “Diversity is really valuable these days. I think it is especially important for us here at BYU.”
In a recent interview, Smiler mentioned her fellow Kiwi players being there for her when she was homesick. She said having a diverse team enables a sense of unity and understanding.
The Cougars’ diversity does not just include demographics, but abilities and accomplishments as well.
“This team has great chemistry,” sophomore Shaylee Gonzales said in a recent press conference.
Head coach Jeff Judkins also mentioned in that press conference that, “the players have great team effort.”
BYU was predicted to finish second in the 2020-21 West Coast Conference Preseason Poll following a tie for second place in the WCC regular-season standings last season. The Cougars are currently sitting at 8-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play.
“We use our diverse dynamic to our advantage because other teams can’t stop us, we have a presence,” Smiler said. “We like each other on and off the court and nobody on this team is selfish.”