December 30, 2021
International recruiting in the Ivy League is taking flight
Columbia’s Kitty Henderson, Penn’s Nikola Kovacikova lead 12 international players on Ancient Eight rosters this season
When current Columbia head coach Megan Griffith played for the Lions in the mid-2000s, she doesn’t remember facing many international players. “There were like two international players at Harvard,” she told The Next. “… I don’t remember anybody else. It was very domestic oriented.”
This season, Griffith has three international players on her roster alone, and she said that Ivy League women’s basketball overall has “definitely, definitely” become more international over the past several years.
Yale head coach Allison Guth agreed: “Over my seven years here, yeah, I think it’s gotten a little more [international] … Now that I think about it, it has.”
In particular, Ivy League recruiting has become more international with the past two freshman classes: In the eight seasons between 2012-13 and 2019-20, 10 international freshmen dotted the eight Ivy rosters, representing 3.6% of the league’s freshmen women’s basketball players. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, there were nine, good for 13.6%. And this season’s share of international freshmen (16.2%) is easily the highest in the past decade, just eight years after the league didn’t enroll a single international freshman.
Before the surge in international recruits in the past two classes, Dartmouth tended to have the most international players, recruiting an average of 0.6 international freshmen per year from 2012-20. No other school got more than 0.3 per year, and three schools (Cornell, Penn and Princeton) had no international players in that span.
“When I was at Dartmouth, I think at a time, we maybe had three, max,” said former Dartmouth point guard and current Columbia assistant coach Cy Lippold. “So pretty similar [to Columbia now]. I do think that a lot of other teams don’t have as many, and it’s really awesome to get one, just [to have] that cultural difference in the team.”
Dartmouth has continued to recruit internationally, with two international freshmen in its past two classes, but Columbia, Penn and Yale have also landed at least that many. (Penn also added an international transfer, current senior Nikola Kovacikova, before the 2020-21 season.)
For Griffith and Columbia, international recruiting became a priority in her second season in 2017-18. Previously an assistant coach for Ivy powerhouse Princeton, Griffith knew she didn’t want to recruit against Princeton and other top programs head-to-head, so she “decided to be different,” targeting the southern United States and then expanding internationally.
“It became something important to us because of New York City,” she said. “And I thought that that was one of the things that we could really use, being a global city that [international players] would feel at home.”
The Columbia staff has successfully recruited players from Australia and Spain to date and is making inroads in Eastern Europe. Yale tends to prioritize English-speaking countries because of the Ivy League’s high academic requirements, which include a very high score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, for non-native English speakers. And Penn currently has three international players from Eastern Europe, though two of those players came to Penn from U.S. schools.
“I’m not going to say it’s a priority. I’m just going to say it’s an option,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told The Next. “… This just opens up our recruiting a little bit. And we’re in a very competitive recruiting environment in general, let alone in our league, [so] the wider we can branch out if we need to, it’s an option.”
“Our goal is to get the best kids here, bottom line,” added Penn assistant coach Ashley Robinson. “So wherever they come from, I think if we can get them, we get them here.”
Several coaches, including Lippold and Guth, mentioned the benefits of having a team that is geographically and culturally diverse. Even Carla Berube, who hasn’t had an international player in her three years at Princeton, told The Next, “We’re certainly looking at [international] players … It’s great bringing some more diversity to the league, student-athletes from all over the world. We haven’t gotten one yet under my tenure, but it’s still kind of early.”
The emphasis on recruiting the globe makes sense in the Ivy League, which has substantial name recognition and cachet worldwide. “The Ivy League’s a national and international brand, so everyone knows what the Ivy League is, even if you don’t know where the schools are located,” said Columbia assistant coach Tyler Cordell.
It also makes sense from another standpoint: Ivy League schools can only recruit a fraction of Division I-caliber players because of the academic requirements, so they are often recruiting from the same, relatively small pool of U.S. players. They overlap internationally, too, but there is literally and figuratively more room to spread out and discover talent.
In the past two years, the Ivy League as a whole has started to reap the rewards of the hard-won connections coaches have made in other countries. There are currently 12 players from outside the United States at five Ivy schools:
Based on the recent uptick in international recruiting, it’s not surprising that nine of the 12 current international players are freshmen and sophomores. All nine of those players plus Kovacikova, who spent her first two seasons at Georgetown, are in their first season of competition for their current teams because the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only Dartmouth’s Jimena Abejon, a senior from Spain, and Allie Harland, a junior from Australia, have played in a conference game.
According to McLaughlin, the international players who have played in the Ivy League over his 13 seasons generally haven’t made a huge impact on the court. The current international players aren’t dominating the Ivy League’s statistical leaderboard yet, either, but there have been several bright spots despite the group’s youth and inexperience.
Columbia freshman Kitty Henderson won the season’s first Ivy League Rookie of the Week award after she helped the Lions start 3-0, including an upset of Clemson. The Australian point guard leads all Ivy internationals and ranks 17th in the conference overall in scoring at 9.7 points per game. She also ranks in the top 25 in rebounding (3.9 per game, 22nd in the conference) and assists (2.2, 11th).
“She’s the kind of player, if you need something done, you put her in the game. Like, you need a rebound, you need a stop … just put her in the game. She’ll figure it out,” Griffith said. “That’s the kind of player she was when we were recruiting her. It’s what I loved about her.”
The latest in Dartmouth’s line of international players is Doreen Ariik, a 6’4 forward from Kenya who attended prep school in Massachusetts. The freshman leads all Ivy internationals and ranks 14th in the conference overall in rebounding (4.9 per game), and her 0.7 blocks per game rank ninth. Among international players, only Penn freshman Sima Visockaite—who hasn’t played enough games to qualify for the Ivy leaderboard—averages more, at 1.3 per game.
Kovacikova is similarly absent from the leaderboard, but she is making a team-high 48.1% of her threes and adding 2.6 assists per game. The Slovakian guard would rank fifth in the league in assists, sixth in 3-pointers made per game (1.9) and 22nd in minutes (28.1) if she qualified.
Adjusting to college basketball can be tough for any freshman, but it can be doubly hard for international players, who are often far from home, dealing with culture shock and, in some cases, taking classes and learning plays in a foreign language. “Every single day I’m surprised with something, and I’m a senior,” Kovacikova told The Next.
Columbia’s Noa Comesaña, a freshman from Spain, has had the same feeling in her first year stateside.
“Everything is different,” she told The Next. “It’s so different. Even the format of college, like the classes and the major you choose and stuff, is different from Spain, so it’s like everything is new for me. So I’m trying to adapt all the time. And it has been hard, but it’s getting better.”
On the basketball side, there can be major differences, too, from the rules of the game and the officiating to the style of play. Kovacikova said that her European teams ran more set plays, whereas American basketball is “more open play.” But international players are sometimes uniquely prepared for collegiate competition because they have played for their national teams or professional teams in their home countries.
The current group of international players could also have an easier transition than their predecessors because they have peers who are making the same academic, athletic and social adjustments. Comesaña and Henderson have quickly become best friends, and Kovacikova said that international teammates have been crucial to her success at both Georgetown and Penn.
“At Georgetown, I had one international teammate and we become probably as [close as] sisters. She’s one of my best friends ever, and I don’t call her a friend but a sister,” Kovacikova said. “So she helped me tremendously with the transition. … And similarly here, even though the two internationals are freshmen, they’re … my best friends on the team for sure and I cannot even see the age difference. And I think that it just makes a different feel for me. It makes me feel more like [at] home [to] have someone who is from a similar background.”
Despite the swell of international players in the past two recruiting classes, the pandemic could make it challenging to sustain in the near term. Guth believes that the impacts could be most severe for recruits who will enroll in 2023 and 2024 because their entire recruitment has been during the pandemic. In contrast, recruiting for current freshmen and sophomores started before the pandemic, so there were opportunities to evaluate them in person and, in some cases, have them visit campus.
At Columbia, the staff always relies heavily on virtual communication with international recruits, so the pandemic didn’t impact that, but campus visits are key. “I think our campus is the best-kept secret in the Ivy League,” Cordell said. “So once recruits get there, it’s really hard for them to imagine going anywhere else.”
For some international players, the pandemic also made getting a visa to study in the United States challenging. Penn freshman Stina Almqvist, a native of Sweden, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the American embassy in Sweden was closed during the pandemic, so she had to fly and then drive to the embassy in Poland to interview for her visa. She interviewed just a week before that embassy closed and was one of the few Swedish students to secure a visa.
Not every Ivy League school recruits internationally, and each one’s emphasis on it could change as coaches turn over and staffs continually look for new ways to elevate their programs. But despite the pandemic and the sometimes difficult adjustments for international players to U.S. colleges, recruiting internationally seems more like a long-term trend in the Ivy League than a temporary spike. The coaches are seeing how overseas talent can contribute this season, and many of them are laying the foundation to continue or expand that recruiting.
“I think one thing that’s very common in all international recruiting is they’re competitors and they want to compete,” Cordell said. “They’ve done that from a very young age within their own clubs. And so now they come here and they’ve been able to compete within our program and they compete with whoever we’re playing against.”
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.