Lazerus: VU's foreign players improvise on Christmas
By Mark Lazerus 648-3140 or firstname.lastname@example.org December 24, 2011 8:04PM
Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Mark Lazerus Post-Tribune sports editor
Updated: May 9, 2012 10:08AM
VALPARAISO — In the corner of the Valparaiso house that Kevin Van Wijk rents, there’s a plastic Christmas tree. Underneath it are some presents that his parents bought when they were in town over Thanksgiving break.
On Christmas morning, he’ll fire up his laptop, Skype his parents in the Netherlands and open the gifts.
“Surprise!” Van Wijk said he’ll say, laughing. “Oh wait, I was with you when you bought these.”
That will be the extent of Van Wijk’s Christmas festivities today.
And, frankly, that’s fine by him.
“I’ll just be at home,” he said. “It’s time for myself. I’ll relax, put my feet up and not think about basketball. For me, it’s just two days off. And (during basketball season), that’s a real holiday.”
Fourteen players were on the bus down to Indianapolis for Friday’s game against IUPUI. Only four — Van Wijk, Ryan Broekhoff, Ben Boggs and Nathan Stegelmann — made the trip back, as everyone rushed to make the most of their two-day Christmas break before preparation begins for Thursday’s home game against Horizon League contender Milwaukee.
For Matt Kenney, it’s a quick 20-minute drive to Mooresville. For Tommy Kurth, it’s an easy drive up to Osceola. For Jay Harris, it’s a few hours to Aurora, Ill.
But for Valparaiso’s contingent of international players, Christmas is a little more complicated. Van Wijk’s family is 5,000 miles away in Hoofddorp. Hrvoje Vucic’s family is 5,000 miles away in Croatia. Broekhoff’s family is 10,000 miles away in Australia.
There’s no quick jaunt home for Christmas for these guys.
“It’s a sacrifice,” said freshman Vashil Fernandez, who can’t make it home to Jamaica for the holiday. “But I’m here for basketball — to get better and hopefully be able to provide for my family.”
In other words, there’ll be other Christmases. You only get four years of college basketball.
While Van Wijk just enjoys the peace and quiet, most international players wind up enjoying Christmas with their friends’ families. Fernandez’s girlfriend gets a real Christmas break, so she went home to Austin, Texas. Fortunately, Fernandez was invited to soccer player Tara Ellis’ home in Portage. He spent Thanksgiving there, too.
“Her family’s real nice,” he said.
Broekhoff is headed to a friend’s place in Wisconsin. Vucic will spend the holiday with his girlfriend, volleyball player Kelsey Victor, and her family. Victor went to the IUPUI game, and the two planned to drive up to her family’s house in Logansport together.
“Lucky for me, I have a lovely girlfriend who lives about one and a half hours away from here and from Indy,” Vucic said. “We’ll spend Christmas with her parents, brother and sister. It’ll be fun.”
Of course, in an ideal world, the players would have more than two days off. Northern Illinois, for example, played Valparaiso last Tuesday and doesn’t play again until Jan. 2. That’s enough time to go home, no matter where home is. After all, Van Wijk — who stayed in Valparaiso all summer, too — finally will be going home to the Netherlands next summer for his sister’s wedding.
For four days.
“I’ll fly out there, get over my jetlag, party at the wedding, and fly back a day later,” he said “That way I only miss two days of workouts.”
But scheduling an extended Christmas break is extremely difficult. When VU and IUPUI scheduled this game, Dec. 23 was the only date they both could make work.
“It’s kind of a necessary evil,” coach Bryce Drew said. “You don’t want to do it, but you kind of have to. Christmas is my favorite time of the year, and as a coach you wish you could have the whole week off where you could go home and enjoy your family. Unfortunately, basketball is a winter sport, and fitting all your games in is hard without playing close to Christmas, before or after.”
Even for the American players, two days sometimes isn’t enough. Rather than go home to Roanoke, Va., Ben Boggs is heading to his girlfriend’s house in Elmhurst, Ill., for Christmas. His family flew out for his Valparaiso debut on Dec. 10 against Oakland, so they just had their Christmas a couple weeks early.
“My parents came up with my grandma and my sister,” he said. “They brought all their presents with them, so we got to have a little Christmas party here.”
So even with the impossible logistics, even with the narrow time frame, everybody still gets a Christmas.
Well, almost everyone.
“I’m used to it,” Van Wijk said, not a hint of disappointment in his voice. “I’ve been away from home for five or six years now, with a couple years in Spain, so it’s normal for me. It’s not like, ‘Wow, I need to have my parents around.’ They come out here two or three times a year, so it’s not like I don’t see them. It’s almost weirder having them around than not having them around.”
So don’t cry for Kevin Van Wijk. While everyone else is dealing with the stresses of holidays with family — even somebody else’s family — Van Wijk will be perfectly content to just rest his back and his mind for Horizon League play, thank you very much.
“I kind of like it, actually,” he said. “It’s like a real vacation.”