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Watch: Malta players embrace opportunity as College season set to start

Sophie Abela (right) in action for the Otero Rattlers.

Zammit start delayed

While it is an ambition of many basketball players to follow the US college route towards becoming professional players, Malta internationals Kristy Galea and Sophie Abela are ‘living the dream’ as they head into their second year of play with the respective colleges.

Galea, who was named Sophomore captain this season for the Alderson Broaddus Battlers, told the Times of Malta she’s “nervous but looking forward” to the start of the new season as she prepares for the team’s first game against the Wheeling University Cardinals on Thursday. (Tip-off: 5.30PM USA/ 11.30PM Malta)

“I think that with all the changes happening, the season is going to be interesting because our coaching staff has changed completely and even most of our players,” Galea said.

“I’m interested to see what’s going to happen”.

Becoming captain, Galea explained was a tough task, especially with the responsibility it brings with it.

“It was quite hard to get (captaincy) – it was like a job interview. As a captain, you must show up for meetings, at practice and you have to take charge and get the team ready,” she explained.

“Even as a foreign student on a scholarship, you have pressure on you – you’re expected to get high grades and it’s no option. Coaches put that responsibility on you and it’s quite a big thing because next year, your scholarship can be taken away.”

Asked how it has changed her, Galea remarked that the experience and her double-major in business and marketing have forced her to grow and start taking decisions. However, she has found that balancing is not that hard for her with friends who have the same mindset.

In Otero Rattlers and former Hibs guard Abela’s case, this is not her first experience having been a student-athlete in Italy before. However, she insists that keeping her goal at the forefront is the most important thing.

“In Italy, I was trying to keep up with my studies, however, their system is more complicated, so unfortunately the team wasn’t helping me continue my studies. It was in my contract, but they never really did anything about it,” Abela admitted.

“When I came back to Malta, I knew I wanted to go abroad. Obviously, it wasn’t easy at all, but it’s been my dream since I was 12 years old and now, I’m living it. You have days when you’re missing your family of course, but you’re there for your future.”

Abela, majoring in sports management, referred to the fact that as a student-athlete, one has the responsibility of keeping up grades to avoid risking eligibility.

“The first thing your coach tells you is that you are a student-athlete – student comes first!”

In their second year, both players said they have adapted much better after their first year which was a shock.

Kristy Galea during her freshman year with the Alderson Broaddus Battlers.

“At first, there were a lot of changes both in my game and the role I had on the team. But now it’s clearer. We used to travel for five hours for games which was a lot for me in my first year. Now I know what to expect and I also know my role in the team,” Galea explained.

Abela said her role has not changed as she has remained a starter and referred to the added responsibility herself and the other two sophomores on the team have, as they have become role models to the freshmen.

Sophie Abela during her freshman year with the Otero Rattlers.

Having experienced the basketball atmosphere in the US, the pair agreed it is going to be collective effort that inspires change in the Maltese basketball scene.

“Here (in the US) it’s taken for granted that you practice every day and in Malta, I grew up having training three or four times maximum. Also, in Malta we’re not professionals – it’s a hobby and we’re set in that mentality,” Abela lamented.

“Over here, it’s a competition and everyone fights for his spot while in Malta we have the mentality of ‘I’ll go to training on Friday to be chosen for the game on Saturday’. That has to stop if we want to move forward.”

Similarly, Galea believes it’s very difficult to change an entire mentality and stressed it takes the effort of everybody involved as “there can’t be just two people on a team who work hard while the rest take it easy – that’s not going to work”.

In the men’s game, Jack Zammit, who committed to Division 3 Gustav Adolphus College back in May will be the third Maltese student-athlete playing basketball in the US. However due to COVID-19 complications, he has opted to take the option of postponing his start to next year.

Zammit, who is currently with Starlites but has been in the US before, in Virginia at Oak Hill Academy – home to NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Rajon Rondo, echoed Galea and Abela in saying sport and education are given equal importance in the US.

jack Zammit during his time at Oak Hill Academy.

“If you’re a basketball player, then the teachers will respect you as long as you respect them and do the work,” Zammit said.

“I lived in a dorm with all my team-mates, so we were close together and wanted to see each other succeed. Our dorm parent was also one of our coaches, so he used to keep us in check, making sure we weren’t lacking in our classes.”

Asked about the influence being in the US has, Zammit recalled how he used to be around people like Orlando Magic player Cole Anthony, who played for the same school.

“I saw them every day, so I got to get an understanding of what it takes to be on their level. I even played against them a few times. That way I could measure how close or how far I was from that level,” he said.

“I learned that I still have a long way to go but I didn’t get obliterated by them (other players) so knowing that, I know that I can get there – I just need to keep working as I am.”

Future plans

Playing in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA)’s Division Two, Galea insists she is very happy with the team and with the way new coach Summer Quesenberry operates.

Added to this, she explained that the NCAA is a trustworthy source of players for European teams, saying that teams “know what kind of players they’re getting”.

“It’s a humbling experience considering how many players want it and how many are ready to do extraordinary stuff to get here. So, it makes you realize you might actually be an average player and that you need to work ten times harder,” the former Starlites guard said.

Being at a Junior College (JUCO), Abela’s main aim would be getting to college.

“I only have two years here and I’ve done my freshman year, so I’ll be moving next year. This year is quite crucial for me because I have coaches talking to me, but I’ll have to maximize my potential to see where I’ll end up.”

Zammit will be looking to next year and explained how he was grateful to have received the scholarship from the Malta Sports Scholarship Scheme which he says was a big help.

“I would suggest local athletes who want to go abroad to look into this scheme as it is a great help,” he said.

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