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T-More basketball team has an international flavor

Montville — When Taku Youngblood arrived at St Thomas More for the first time, he looked around his new school and basketball home.

Youngblood was 6,750 miles away from his family and friends in Yokohama, Japan.

"I'm in the middle of nowhere," Youngblood said of his first impression. "I didn't know what to do at first. What am I going to do here? There's nothing to do here."

Some of Youngblood's teammates this season understand what he's experiencing.

Achile Spadone (Conches, Switzerland), Elias Rodl (Berlin, Germany) and Noah Williamson (Riga, Latvia) also are international players on a similar journey as Youngblood.

They're all making an impact, on and off the court.

Youngblood, Rodl and Spadone started against Putnam Science Academy on Friday night and Williamson saw significant action off the bench.

"I've always liked to have an eclectic group," Chancellors coach Jere Quinn said. "We've always made an effort to bring in different people from different parts of the country and different parts of the world. That being said, we haven't had four in awhile. We normally have two.

"... They're all international kids that want to play in the United States, so they're using this as an introduction to our culture and to our basketball."

All four players share a similar passion for basketball and goal of playing on the Division I college level.

They also excel in the classroom, can speak a few languages and enjoy introducing their American teammates to their world.

"It makes our team a better team and makes our school a better school and makes the whole experience a better experience," Quinn said. "I think every aspect of it is positive. ... They're wonderful students, they're wonderful kids and they all come from wonderful families."

They all have a different story to tell.

Youngblood, a 6-foot-1 guard, is the sixth Japanese player to ever play for the Chancellors. He's on a scholarship provided by Takehiko Inoue, a famous Japanese comic artist known for his basketball series called Slam Dunk.

Born and raised in Japan, Youngblood began playing basketball at the age of 10. He hopes to be a professional one day. Former STM player Yuta Watanabe took a similar path, leaving Japan to attend STM. He went to George Washington and now is on the Toronto Raptors roster.

"My biggest dream is to go to the NBA," Youngblood said. "For that, I've got to sacrifice what I've got to sacrifice."

A 6-6 forward, Rodl comes from a basketball family.

His father, Henrik, played for Dean Smith at North Carolina and won a national championship with the Tar Heels in 1993, and now coaches in Europe.

Elias, whose mother is American, arrived at St. Thomas More after playing semi-pro basketball in Germany last year.

"I finished school and I was looking at what I wanted to do in the future," Elias said. "I wanted to combine studies with athletics. I thought it was a good opportunity to go to college. I wanted to go to prep school. I reached out to St. Thomas More to come here."

Williamson, a 6-11 forward, heard about STM through Tom Parrotta, an assistant at Hofstra. His father lives in Florida.

He says he misses home.

"It's still an adjustment," Williamson said. "I grew up with my mother and I haven't been able to see her for a long time. I went back for Christmas. I'm kind of homesick. I miss the food. The food back home is what I grew up with. It's going to take some time to get adjusted fully."

This is Spadone's second school in the United States. He previously attended Hoosac School in New York.

St. Thomas More was recommended to Spadone by one of Quinn's former players now working as an agent in Switzerland. Spadone started out playing soccer before switching to basketball, which he now calls "his passion."

Spadone, a 6-4 guard, has become particularly close with Rodl.

"Germany borders Switzerland, so I'm probably going to visit him later on," Spadone said. "It's nice to have different cultures, even learn some words in other languages and learn some other cultures. It's good.''

The transition on the court has been challenging.

Quinn says it usually takes at least a year for international players to adjust to the American game.

"We're having some growing pains trying to pull this off with these kids," Quinn said. "They're just not ready for the intensity of the game. We were speaking (Thursday) night and I asked them, 'What games did you guys watch last week?'

They said, 'EuroLeague.' I said, 'No, you have to ingrain yourself in American basketball. It's different. It's an athletic game. You're cerebral, so you need to become more of a student of the game and have to become tougher.' "

Take Friday night's battle with Putnam Science Academy, which is loaded with talented and athletic players.

Youngblood, a point guard, committed numerous turnovers under pressure.

When asked how the American game is different, Youngblood responded: "Everybody is bigger than me. In Japan, I'm pretty tall. Over here, I'm tiny. I've got to figure out what I can do on the court."

All four players are enjoying their St. Thomas More experience. They're making friends and learning from their teammates and coaches.

"I miss my family, but I'm very happy here," Rodl said. "I like the guys."

Youngblood, who's in his second year at STM, is not concerned about being in the "middle of nowhere" anymore.

"I'm focusing on basketball instead of thinking about what I'm going to do after practice," Youngblood said. "I go to practice, go to dinner, stretch out and think about what I'm going to do tomorrow, at the next game. I focus on what I'm supposed to focus on instead of getting distracted by other things. That's the best part about this place."

g.keefe@theday.com

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