Into the Unknown

Sophomore Nika Zyryanova best chance at playing college basketball and getting a degree came in a place far from her home.

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Into the Unknown

Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Ryan Lynch, Sports Editor

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Nika Zyryanova had a choice to make: While playing with her hometown team in 2013, the 18-year-old guard thought she had to make a decision between playing professional basketball and a college education.

There are no college athletics in Zyryanova’s native country of Russia; joining a professional team meant she’d forego her chance at a college education.

But during a summer camp she attended in Serbia, coaches told her of a third option: Traveling to America — a country she’d never been to — would mean she could hit the books and play the sport she loved.

“I know basketball is not going to be forever, and I have to do something after my athletic career,” Zyryanova said. “The combination of being able to play basketball at a high level and get my education was a big reason I came.”

Born in Yekaterinburg, Russia, basketball was not the sophomore’s first priority. Zyryanova rode horses competitively for six years in various competitions in her home country, from as early as 8 years old.

“I really wanted my own horse,” she said. “But when I started playing basketball, I had to choose which one would be my hobby and which I would do seriously.”

At the age of 14, she joined UMMC, the Ekaterinburg youth academy. Playing just below the professional level, Zyryanova frequently saw players she admired from the States when they came over to play for Ekaterinburg’s first team during the WNBA offseason, including Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi.

“When I first saw Candace Parker, I was like ‘Oh my god, she’s so big,’” she said. “After practice, my coaches came up and asked me if I wanted to shoot with her because she was hurt and couldn’t practice with her teammates. I said ‘Of course I’ll do it, let me do it!’”

While improving her game at home, Zyryanova was selected to play for the Russian 18 and under national team in 2013. That led her to play with the best Russian players in her age group: her team finished fifth at the FIBA junior championships that year. “I really liked it a lot,” Zyryanova said. “It was really fun because we got to travel a lot. We went to Germany for a tournament, we went to France for a tournament. I loved France.”

Despite having played for her country and being on the cusp of reaching the professional ranks, she still had a dream of playing college basketball in America.

Women's basketball head coach Kellie Lewis-Jay (left) and sophomore guard Nika Zyryanova (right) pose for a photo after a 79-64 win against Barry University. Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Women’s basketball head coach Kellie Lewis-Jay (left) and sophomore guard Nika Zyryanova (right) pose for a photo after a 79-64 win against Barry University. Mohammed F. Emran | Asst. Creative Director

Heeding the advice she got from her coaches, she came to the United States for the first time.

After being contacted by Dwight Gunnare, Casper College’s head basketball coach, Zyryanova made the trip to Casper, Wyoming.

Gunnare said that current UTEP assistant coach Ewa Laskowska knew that he was looking for new players to fill his roster and told him of a friend who knew of Zyryanova’s desire to play overseas. Through Laskowska, the player and team were brought together.

The change in scenery introduced her to a new culture, one completely different from the city she grew up in.

“For me, it was a boring place, because I’m not used to their traditions,” she said of Wyoming. “They hunt and fish for fun, which is not for me.”

Zyryanova’s first year ended just five games in: An injury to her ACL ended her season. Unable to play, she traveled back to her family for the first time in months, spending Christmas break with them.

After returning, she immediately put herself into a rehab routine. “Nika was incredible during rehab. She’s got a huge work ethic,” Gunnare said.

“It was hard coming back, but at the same time my assistant coach [Sarah McNamee] helped me a lot mentally,” she said. “My desire was that I had to prepare for the next season and be better than I was before.”

Zyryanova played in 30 games in her next season, registering an average of 5.3 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. She contacted teams to see if they were interested in her, including Florida Atlantic, North Dakota and Illinois-Chicago.

“She filled out our online questionnaire, and we thought she was a year younger than she actually was,” Florida Atlantic women’s basketball head coach Kellie Lewis-Jay said. “I started doing a little research and found she would be immediately eligible to play.”

As the lone foreign player on the roster, her teammates made sure to make her comfortable.

“Sometimes I don’t understand what they say, and then they’ll say it again so I understand better,” Zyryanova said. “I love their attitudes, all of them try to cheer me up and always are patient about the language barrier.”

Lewis-Jay thinks Zyryanova will play a sizable role in her first year. “She’s someone with a great jump shot, one of the best on our team,” the coach said. “She’s a lot of fun to be around and watch on the court.”

Zyryanova’s goal is still to play professionally. She did not rule out possibly returning to UMMC Ekaterinburg.

“I’d like to play overseas, because a majority of women’s players play over in China, in Russia and in Europe,” she said.

It’s a wonder all this movement has come from a girl who no longer enjoys to travel by plane.

“I hate flying, even though when I was little I was like ‘I love flying and want to see all the countries.’ Now I just think ‘OK, here we go again. Now I have to travel eight or 10 hours.’”