By K.D. Norris
West Michigan Lutheran, a very small high school in Wyoming, had five players available for its girls basketball team this season — what you call a really thin bench. But that was before an unlikely import from Southeast Asia joined girls basketball Coach Aaron Cochrill’s team.
For Riley Nguyen, a 17-year-old exchange student from Vietnam, playing on the team was just another way for her to fit in at her school and with her West Michigan host family — Darian Blanchard, the junior co-captain of the team, is her “home sister” in America.
For Cochrill, getting Riley to join was part being a basketball coach and part just being a teacher and mentor to students.
“What Riley brings to our team, first, is a bench — she is the sixth player,” Cochrill said. “But she is so intelligent, and she has a willingness, a ‘Whatever you want me to do coach, I’ll do it.’ So, against Aviation Academy, one of our starting point guards got in foul trouble early and we needed big minutes of her. I just said ‘Riley, it is your turn. Get in there.’ That is what she does, I ask her do something and she does it.”
Thing is, though, Riley really does not play basketball much back in Viet Nam, let along play at the level of American players, even at a small high school.
“I really like basketball, but I am a newbie,” she said. “So its takes a while to catch up with them. They are really good. The challenge is the skills I have to learn. That’s a lot. But the thing I enjoy the most is when I am out on the basketball court. I just go for it. Just do it.”
Just going for it is also an apt way to describe what brought Riley to Western Michigan.
She is in America as part of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). Her real home is Tan An City, outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, with a four-member family including a father who works as an account/auditor. This is her family’s first experience in America.
“I enjoy the new experiences here, the food, the people here,” she said. “I get to know so many people. There lifestyles is not like ours. I also (get to) know so many things about their cultures, too. I really enjoyed Christmas break here. You have Christmas break and spring break and summer break — actually, I think there are a lot of breaks here. … But I like it.”
There were also some challenges off the basketball court. “Sometimes I miss the food in my country. I am so used to Vietnamese food that, sometimes, I have belly ache. … But that is a minor problem.”
Her new “home sister” has been helping her, though, on and off the court. And they have developed quite a friendship, both say.
“I told Riley it is kind of like having a sleepover with your best friend everyday and I really enjoy it,” Darian said. “We really connected. Even before she came here, we were Skyping back and forth, and we found we had a lot in common, a lot of interests together.
“Back home, Riley had a dance group that she was in, so we play games on the Wii, like ‘Just Dance’, a lot. … One of the fun parts about this is showing her everything. A different perspective, a different life. It has been really fun to see her go ‘This is so cool.’ … the look on her face when she sees food that is new, the look on her face is ‘Oh, my God. I cannot believe I have lived without this.’”
And then there is that Michigan State connection.
“I was so surprised, the first time I came here, and I talked to them,” Riley said. “ My dream college is Michigan State, and they are big fans of Michigan State. I was like ‘Ohhh. Yep, we were meant to be.’ We get along really well. They care about me a lot, little things like food, my sleep and stuff like that. Darian, my home sister, she takes care of me.”
And the relationship might not end with the end of this school year. Riley has applied for acceptance at Michigan State and should hear before the end of this school year.
Her American basketball career most assuredly ends with coming off the bench for the Mustangs, however. But coach Cochrill’s favorite story about Riley does show she has at least a little game.
“Our first game. She got fouled. She got to go to the line,” he said. “She made a free throw and she turns around and looks at me, a kind of look that says ‘Is that for real? Did that just happen?’ She kind of gets this grin on her face. … That is her personality to a tee.”