December 20, 2022
Early success and a family away from home: Laura Ziegler’s journey from Denmark to Saint Joseph’s
How the freshman is making her mark on Hawk Hill
Saint Joseph’s freshman Laura Ziegler grew up in the gym. Her parents both played basketball and for that reason, she resisted playing herself. But, when she was 10, her father signed her up for practice at a local club and she soon fell in love with the sport.
Though basketball came easily to her and she naturally understood the game, she was always playing and practicing her shot. Ziegler recalled that her shot came along the fastest of any other skill, especially after many hours in the gym with her dad.
Ziegler is still getting used to playing around the basket. Despite being 6’2, she only started playing in the post about four years ago, playing the point guard position when she was younger.
She is third on the team in made threes, something that’s always been a part of her game as she grew up primarily playing behind the three-point line. It was her post game that needed to be developed further.
While Ziegler was growing up in Denmark, every player did the drills in practice for every position, from ball handling to finishing around the rim and post moves.
“I think I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to get that understanding … [and just] playing the game from so many different perspectives,” Ziegler told The Next.
She has always been taller than her peers, but as she continued growing as a teenager, she started shifting from playing on the perimeter to playing more in the interior.
“She really didn’t play back to the basket until she came to St. Joe’s; she was always on the perimeter,” Saint Joseph’s assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Katie Kuester said. “So to have those guards skills, in a 6’2, 6’3 frame, really, really stood out to me.”
Head coach Cindy Griffin knew that Ziegler fit the team’s need for a “versatile post player who can come in and help us win games and win championships,” she told The Next.
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Ziegler believes she’s lucky to have grown up and trained in such a versatile way and had coaches that helped her learn various skills. She knows first-hand how guards like to handle the ball, how they move and what it’s like to take a screen and, as a post, where to move to most effectively help a guard.
What initially stood out to Kuester was Ziegler’s basketball IQ, which was evident in how she passed the ball, cut and moved off the ball. The most notable thing for Kuester was how Ziegler acted as a teammate. During the recruiting process, Kuester saw how Ziegler always celebrated her teammates, whether it was a chest bump, slapping their hands, or a high five, which also stood out to her.
Griffin also noted Ziegler’s signature celebration; whether Ziegler is the one that makes a basket or one of her teammates, she raises her fist in the air, just one example of Ziegler’s selflessness as a player.
The day after Ziegler arrived at Hawk Hill, she reached out to Kuester to ask when she could get in the gym because she was ready to work out. Kuester noted that the urgency Ziegler exhibited over the summer has shown through her work ethic and early season success.
When Ziegler first walked around the campus of Saint Joseph’s on her visit, she knew it was the place for her. She enjoyed her time with the people that became her teammates and coaches and how Griffin views the game. She runs a more European-style system that appealed to Ziegler.
Despite being in her first year, Ziegler has already noticed that college basketball in the U.S. is more structured and has more plays than European basketball. In Europe, there is more reading and reacting, similar to what is done at Saint Joseph’s.
On the campus visit with her dad, she was able to buy gear from the bookstore that her brother and mother wear when they watch games, representing her even thousands of miles away. Her brother will even call her after watching her games to advise her on what she needs to do to improve.
Though he’s only 15, Ziegler has gotten a lot of good advice from him.
“I think that he has a really good understanding of the game,” Ziegler said. “My dad used to coach me for a few years [and] he is now coaching my little brother. [We] grew up with just a lot of the same input. And I think we’ve had so many basketball conversations around the table at dinner. So he has a really good understanding. And he was right about all the stuff he said.… He’s 15 years old, but if you know basketball, you know basketball.”
Ziegler’s dad watches the stream of every game live, setting alarms for the games that can start as late as 1 or 2 a.m. in Denmark.
Her father has been the most influential person to her in basketball and she grew up constantly being at the gym with him. While he coached her for a few years, now that she’s about his height, they play against each other.
Ziegler holds her mother, father and brother close to her heart and she wears the number four to represent them. Wearing the number four makes her feel like she has her family with her, even though they aren’t in the stands watching in person.
When she cannot wear the number four, she wears 13 because it’s the number her father wore when he played.
She talks to her family almost every day and while she misses them, it means a lot that they support her as much as they do.
Though she deals with feelings of homesickness, she said many things about the transition have been made easier by her teammates.
Through her transition, there have also been a lot of culture shocks for Ziegler so far; two have stood out to her: food and school.
She was surprised by the plethora of fried foods in the U.S., including fried Oreos.
In Denmark, Ziegler’s schooling was more focused on the process of learning and understanding what she’s being taught instead of testing.
Ziegler has known for many years she wanted to play college basketball in the United States. It started when someone she knew who played at Miami and Villanova returned to Denmark and shared her experience.
Though Ziegler became more unsure in the last couple of years, playing in Sweden last year gave her more insight and she decided to pursue her dream of playing college basketball in the United States.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to play basketball in the U.S. again,” Ziegler said. “So, for me, it’s just something I had to do because I was going to regret it if I didn’t.”
She believes that playing in Sweden prepared her for playing in the U.S. in college and she’s glad she chose to do it.
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While playing for IK Eos Lund in Svenska Basketligan Dam (the highest division in Sweden), she commuted two hours each way from her home in Denmark. Ziegler averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game.
She also played in Denmark for BMS Herlev in the Kvindebasketligaen, the highest league in the country during the 2020-21 season and averaged 15.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.1 steals and 1.3 assists per game.
Playing in Sweden was a higher level of play and more physical than she’d played against before and she learned to always keep her head high no matter the ability she faced.
The injuries she suffered last year helped motivate her to get stronger, so it wouldn’t be an issue this season. Ziegler said this season is the least injured she’s ever been and being able to be on the court has helped her continue to improve.
At just 20 years old, Ziegler has been to around 14 different countries, something she knows her father is jealous of.
“It’s fun. I love getting to meet new people and just get around and see so many different things and create relationships,” she said. “I think that’s the best part of it.”
She believes that playing professionally, both in Sweden and Denmark, has helped her gain more experience both in basketball and in life.
Kuester believes that the international playing experience, including playing against adult women from an earlier age than in the U.S., allows players to mature as a person and as players.
The experience Ziegler and other international players at Saint Joseph’s playing against older players has helped them because with the COVID-19 year of eligibility, college teams have more 23 and 24-year-olds than in the past.
Griffin believes that Ziegler’s professional experience has helped her adjust to the pace of college basketball and pick things up quickly on both ends of the court.
“Sometimes with freshmen, they’re able to get the first action but [not] the second or third action and just playing basketball and understanding angles and rotations and hedging on ball screens or just ball screen defense based on personnel,” Griffin said. “She’s been able to pick those things up because she studies the game. I mean, she watches a lot of film. She studies the game and she wants to improve. And she’s a great teammate.”
To the team, Ziegler brings shooting, rebounding, energy and basketball IQ. In addition, she provides a complement to returning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year Talya Brugler.
“Each of them can give each other space because they can shoot the three, stretch out the floor and it just opens up the floor for everybody else to drive, driving lanes, passing lanes,” Griffin said. “And just her ability to knock it down… she’s been shooting at a pretty high clip, I think there’s a level that she can increase on. I think that’s going to come just with experience with just the flow of the game.”
Ziegler’s teammates have taken her in and have had an enormous impact on her. Brugler has taken Ziegler under her wing and taught her everything she learned last year.
Ziegler always knew she wanted to go to school somewhere where they had experience with international players and where there were some currently on the team. Saint Joseph’s checked off both of those boxes.
“For me, it has been great just having a lot of people who know what you’re going through and understand it,” Ziegler said. “And just having a lot of people who check up on you all the time. I think we try to really be there for each other.”
Sixth-year senior Katie Jekot knows freshman year is an adjustment for every player, especially international students, so she and the rest of the team try their best to make them feel comfortable and be there for them, whether it’s a chat or a trip to Jekot’s apartment. She noted that Ziegler had made it a point to build relationships with her teammates.
Griffin said that the team has tried to “make it as a family as possible,” and part of that was hosting the international players for Thanksgiving. Ziegler and her brother, who is traveling from Denmark to Philadelphia for Christmas, will be spending the holiday at Griffin’s house.
Ziegler is very grateful for the warm welcome she has received.
“I’m a big family person and how St. Joe’s and this team has become my family away from home just means a lot,” Ziegler said.
In the same way, Ziegler and the team have stuck together; the Hawks and the win column have become one and the same.
Saint Joseph’s got off to a hot start this season, starting 9-0 for the first time since the 1984-85 season. The team now sits at 10-1, with its lone loss coming to Villanova.
With many key pieces still there from last season, Griffin believes the work ethic and buy-in were there going into this season.
“Did we think that we were going to be 9-0? Nobody thinks they’re gonna be 9-0,” Griffin said. “I mean, I don’t think that’s something that you think, but you think that you’re going to have, certainly have, a winning nonconference record based on who we have coming back.”
Ziegler has enjoyed being a part of the historic start, but at the end of the day enjoys her teammates, playing with them and having fun with them.
“More than anything, I’m just really happy to be a part of a team who has this much fun, to be honest and just enjoys playing basketball, loves basketball,” Ziegler said. “You have more fun when you win games, I’m not going to lie, but I think it’s been really great and it’s been really big to be a part of too. And I’m glad that people are starting to notice us too. Because I think we’ve been playing really well together.”
For Griffin and Jekot, the team’s success so far this season has felt like a continuation of the momentum from last season when the team made a run to the semifinals of the conference tournament for the first time since the 2017-18 season.
Looking ahead to conference play, Jekot and the team are looking to play with the same intensity they started the nonconference season with. The Hawks were picked to finish 6th in the A-10 preseason poll.
Throughout the rest of the season, Ziegler knows she needs to keep being herself and keep bringing positive energy every day.
“I think just bringing the good energy and celebrating everybody and just trying to keep the mood high no matter how the games go,” she said. “I think… that’ll be an important part of my role.”
Griffin has seen Ziegler’s confidence already, noting she carries herself as an older and more experienced player.
In addition, Ziegler has both an understanding of the offensive and defensive schemes, but she also asks questions. Griffin called her a “buy-in kid.”
Ziegler and her team are looking to win an A-10 championship. She and the team discussed what it would mean for the team to make it to the postseason for the first time since the 2018 WNIT.
“I just want to try to be better at just playing well every game and being the go-to player, who’s stable that we can count on so it doesn’t go too much up and down,” Ziegler said.
She hopes to remain consistent throughout the season and Griffin would like to see her be more consistent with her shooting percentage. Griffin knows that is coming because Ziegler is putting in the time and understanding what the team wants out of the offense. She would also like to see Ziegler continue to grow her game defensively and in the areas that opponents are beginning to take away.
The first thing Jekot noticed about Ziegler is the energy she brings to the team, including how much she communicates.
“That’s really big on the basketball court just to have good communication from all positions,” Jekot told The Next. “And then just her ability to be able to shoot the three but also be able to post up in the paint, it really allows us to spread our offense and then it allows the guard to drive and kick out to her as well.”
Jekot knew Ziegler would make an impact on the team as soon as she joined over the summer.
So far this season, Ziegler has averaged 10.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
Ziegler has received four A-10 Rookie of the Week honors, something she didn’t expect to start her career.
During the recruiting process, she was looking for the opportunity to earn her playing time, believing that it’s an important part of developing as a basketball player.
“You just got to go in that day and prove who you are as a player,” Ziegler said. “And trying to figure out where you can make an impact and how you can help the team go win games. I’ve just been lucky that I have a lot of teammates and coaches who trust me and put me in positions where I can compete.”
One word Jekot would use to describe Ziegler is determined.
“She’s determined to win games, she’s determined to play well, and as you can see with her 4-4 rookie of the weeks, she’s doing a good job with it,” Jekot said on Dec. 9.
Griffin described Ziegler as “relentless,” noting she always wants to watch film of practice and film of the team’s upcoming opponents prior to the team’s official scouting report session.
“She has a great basketball IQ,” Griffin said. “I think she sees the game — I think the saying is that the great players see and play the game in slow motion and I think she’s one of those players.”
Individual and team success aside, Ziegler’s favorite part of the season so far has been having a good time with her team anytime they step into the gym or onto the court.
Ziegler has also had some time to look back and reflect on her career thus far.
When asked about the advice she’d give her younger self, she first jokingly answered more stretching. Her more serious answer was to always bet on and believe in herself, something she’s still working on.
“[I] should be a little bit better at just believing in myself,” Ziegler said. “And yeah, I always support my teammates and I always believe in them and know how great they can be, but I think sometimes I need to think the same way about myself too.”
Ziegler started playing basketball as a shy young girl who used to hide behind her parents’ legs. Through basketball, she became more extroverted and outgoing and she appreciates the sport giving back to her.
“I love to goof around, and I love trying to put a smile on everybody’s faces,” she said. “And I’m not sure if I would be this way if it wasn’t because of basketball.”