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Marc Narducci: Exchange students find warm welcome

Ruta Vetra and Mariya Ruban enjoy America.

Ruta Vetra was at Lincoln Financial Field earlier this year, taking in her first Eagles game, and more than the athletic excellence of the athletes, she was struck by the fans.

"It's amazing how people can be so crazy about a team," she said. "We don't have football back home."

Back home is a long way for Vetra, a 16-year-old exchange student from Latvia who is attending Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a small, all-girls school in the southern tip of Gloucester County.

A 6-foot wing player out now with a knee injury, she wanted to come to America for an education both in the classroom and on the basketball court.

As fate has it, she is joined by fellow junior Mariya Ruban, a 6-5 exchange student from Ukraine.

The exchange students didn't know each other before this experience, but it's been beneficial that both are going through the situation together.

While Vetra was intrigued by the passion of the Eagles fans, she and Ruban have been heartened by how the school has embraced them.

"The girls have been so nice to us," Ruban said.

It's not unusual for youths to come from overseas to seek greener pastures. Both say they sought a quality education.

There are plenty of basketball powers in this country that could have lined them up. OLMA isn't one of them.

"I wanted to get a good education, and this looked to be a place for that," Vetra said.

Both should be recruited on the Division I level, but the girls said they have not heard much from colleges, even through the mail. That's probably because many don't know they are here. In time, however, the recruiting interest should be substantial, especially for Vetra.

She comes from strong basketball roots. Her father, Gundars Vetra, had a cup of coffee in the NBA, appearing in 13 games with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1992-93 season.

Two years ago Ruta Vetra came in contact with the Philadelphia Belles, among the nation's premiere AAU programs.

She was a guest player for one of the teams during the summer and went on a typical high-level AAU schedule, playing in places such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Texas.

"It was crazy, but it was a great experience," said Vetra, who has soaked up the U.S. basketball culture.

"I'm looked on as a two or a three," she said, referring to the shooting guard and small forward positions.

It must be noted that none of the interviews was done with an interpreter. Both youngsters have done well with the language, and Vetra is actually a linguistic wiz.

She speaks four languages. In addition to her native Latvian and English, she also speaks Russian and German.

At times she helps in translation with Ruban, who speaks Ukrainian and has continued to do a good job in speaking English.

Ruban was in the United States a few years ago playing in a tournament in Washington and she became familiar with the East Coast. According to Ruban, who is an only child, last spring she and her father began researching American schools.

"We wanted a small school where you would get a good education, and we found OLMA," Ruban said.

Both girls live with host families in Vineland.

Vetra lives with the Dandrea family. Ali Dandrea is a classmate and basketball teammate.

"It's been an amazing experience," Dandrea said. "It's like she is my own sister and we couldn't be any luckier."

Ruban lives with the Covella family, where Caitlyn is a junior on the team and her father, Jerry, is an assistant coach.

"She is such a great kid, very respectful," Jerry Covella said.

Imagine being first-year coach Chip Reitano. He said he took the job before knowing about his two new players.

"I take this job and these two transfers come here," Reitano said. "How fortunate can you be?"

The news isn't all good on the basketball front.

A few days ago Reitano learned that Vetra will miss the season after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament tear. The knee injury occurred in a scrimmage.

"It's a major adjustment because we were counting on her because she is such a versatile player. But from a personal standpoint she is such a good kid, so fun and so smart, and her personality just glows," Reitano said. "She wants to be out there."

Vetra has taken a practical approach to the injury.

"It's disappointment, but there is nothing I can do about it," she said. "I just hope to come back as strong as ever."

As for Ruban, she is adapting well each game. OLMA is 3-0 and Ruban is averaging 11 points, seven rebounds, and three blocked shots per game.

"I am learning so much," she said.

While the two youngsters have done well adapting to their surroundings, this will be a different holiday season, spent so far from their families.

Vetra has a sister, Laura, a 6-2 junior who plays for Fairfield University in Connecticut, and said there were plans to get together over the holiday.

"You miss your family, especially this time of the year, but things are good here," Vetra said.

Ruban said, "Christmas is a family holiday, but I am around so many nice people."

It's been quite an experience for both exchange students, and of all the things they have learned one lesson clearly sticks out: Good people can be found everywhere.

These two youths are finding that out on a daily basis, with so many in the South Jersey community doing their best to make the exchange students truly feel at home.