By Carlos Toro
They say it’s a small world and Rider athletics’ melting pot of international student athletes proves that statement.
Across six different sports at Rider — men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, women’s tennis, golf and women’s basketball — there are a total of 31 different international players. That number is constantly growing; in 2013, there were only 14 international players.
These players come from many different walks of life and countries. Just as there are Rider student athletes coming from various states, like New York, Pennsylvania, California and Florida, there are student-athletes from different countries like England, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and several more.
For these athletes, adjusting to life in the United States can be tough, but the experience of living in what many describe as “the land of opportunity” far outweighs any feelings of homesickness or loneliness. Freshman women’s tennis player Cyd Melendez, who is from Puerto Rico, said being able to leave home and attend college in the United States has been nothing but good memories.
“In Puerto Rico and in tennis, a lot of people talk about how important and beneficial it is to study outside of our country,” Melendez said. “Despite all of us getting a little scared or anxious about leaving our homes when we are in college, my experience at Rider has been so enriching that it is impossible not to enjoy my time here. So far, I love it and I do not regret my decision. At first, it was not easy because everything was new and different. You’re leaving the comfort, stability and tranquility of studying close to home, but now it’s like an adventure being out of your comfort zone.”
As far as the coaches for these players are concerned, adjusting coaching philosophies and managing styles vary for each team. For field hockey Head Coach Lori Hussong, who is no stranger to having international players in her squad, having those players adjust to how she runs the team is one of the issues.
“I think the biggest challenge in coaching our international players is helping them acclimate to the intensity and frequency of practice sessions necessary for our team to be a success,” Hussong said. “There is also a difference in game strategies that they must adjust to as well. Those who are willing to be open to new ideas and are appreciative of all that our program has to offer flourish and experience unbelievable success, while others who are not open to new ideas and change never seem to achieve all that they are capable of.”
It would be easy to believe there are various challenges with managing players on the field, but for men’s soccer Head Coach Charlie Inverso, he doesn’t see the players as people from other countries, but rather athletes unified under one school.
“You know, there has not been much of an adjustment,” Inverso said. “Soccer is the language we speak and we never categorize the players as ‘Americans’ and ‘internationals.’ If anything, some of these players are accustomed to a more tactical way of playing the game. Still, all of these guys have great people on and off the field.”
Recruiting outside of the country can be different than recruiting inside the country, but coaches see Rider as a prime landing spot for several of these players, especially because of where it is.
“Rider is a relatively easy sell because of its location, and a lot of players respond well to that,” Inverso said.
The Broncs’ success in the past few years in several sports has been, in part, a result of these players. The success for Rider has since developed into a winning culture for several sports and, according to Hussong, helped shape the future of the program.
“Our first two players from Spain, Virginia Equsquiza and Sandra Penas, both earned All-American status by the end of their careers. They were huge impact players who helped raise the level of our program,” Hussong said. “Anyone who was fortunate enough to play alongside them was able to watch and learn as their level of play was head and shoulders above the rest. They were both humble and respectful toward their teammates and coaches and both willingly took on the responsibility of knowing that their team depended on them to lead them toward success. They both took great pride in their role and were exemplary role models both on and off the field.”
There are a few players who are given a leadership role on the team and it has done wonders for the program. Men’s soccer senior forward Christian Flath, who is from Germany, was the captain for this year’s squad. The team won its second-straight MAAC Tournament and has made the NCAA Tournament for the past two years.
The unfortunate part is that some student athletes do not reach the level of success that they may have wanted to achieve. Hussong said players are better when given a big role in the team and some players simply are not able to step up to the plate.
“Some players thrive in that role and some struggle with the pressure that comes with it and they do not reach their potential,” Hussong said.
But, the good times are plentiful, and the coaches at Rider fondly remember the years the international players spent at the school. Hussong warmly remembers the time spent coaching several of these athletes.
“Some of our most positive memories are of time spent on and off the field with them,” Hussong said. “We consider Sandra and Virginia family and when we look back on the time that we had with them, we can’t help but smile. The appreciation and pride that they show toward the university and our program is heartfelt and is as strong today as it was when they were with us.”
Rider sports that utilize international players, such as soccer and field hockey, have been extremely successful. Men’s soccer won the MAAC Tournament in 2015 and 2016, while women’s soccer won the 2014 MAAC Tournament. Field Hockey has enjoyed a run of consecutive conference postseason appearances for 17 straight seasons. Melendez helped guide the women’s tennis team to its first win streak since 2011 and a 4-4 record this past fall season.
Melendez said the experience of being able to come to the United States has been a wonderful one, and athletes and students alike are able to learn about various world cultures while studying at Rider.
“Learning from people all over the world is enriching,” Melendez said. “Not only do I get to learn different cultures, but I’m also able to learn from other people’s point of view in regards to a lot of different situations in life. Studying in another country and being alongside so many people from all over has been one of the best experiences of my life. ”