As an Eastern Washington freshman, Tatjana Sparavalo had the usual issues adjusting to Division I basketball.
From the sounds of it, life isn’t much easier for the 6-foot senior and it has nothing to do with being from Novi Sad, Serbia.
“School is keeping me busy,” she said before a recent practice. “Grad school is time consuming and I don’t have any time.”
That means business as usual for Sparavalo, who graduated with a finance degree in three years and is working on her MBA. The toughest part, she said, is refocusing because in her rush to graduate “I think I overworked myself.”
“She’s a jokester,” classmate and Big Sky Conference MVP Julie Piper said. “The funniest thing, there are times she’ll still ask you, ‘How would you say this?’ But really she knows how to say it. She just checks. She’s just a goofball.”
When Sparavalo arrived in Cheney, she wondered what she had done to herself.
“I cannot name a particular thing, but I was really struggling when I first got here,” she said, pointing to travel demands, some basketball rules and location. “Cheney was like a real culture shock. The city I’m from had more than a half-a-million people. In Europe, little towns like this are called villages because no one lives in them.
“I love it. I’m not going to lie. … I’m getting a real college experience compared to some of my friends. I feel safe.”
EWU coach Wendy Schuller didn’t notice her accidental recruit struggling.
“She would probably say it was tougher than I would think it was,” Schuller said. “Everybody would probably say European basketball is not known for its defense. That’s the biggest thing, getting her to buy in defensively, but she has a high basketball IQ. She really gets the game.
“The biggest difficulty I noticed was when I used slang; I have a lot of goofy expressions I brought from down south. She would just look at me.”
Sparavalo was a volleyball player and swimmer when she started going to her little brother’s practices. She grew to enjoy basketball and practiced with the boys until put on an elite team. As she improved, her interest in playing college ball grew and a friend sent out a video to many schools, including Eastern.
“We get a lot, but you know which ones to follow up,” Schuller said. “She put up good stats and she played with the junior national team a little bit. I know Serbia is a good basketball country.”
Shuller’s other European player, Julie Page, was a solid contributor and is captain of England’s national team with an Olympics in her future.
“I like basketball better here, because I feel like coaches here let you play,” said Sparavalo, who said she picked up on Schuller’s compassion in telephone conversations. “They’re not as conservative, not as strict as the coaches I had. You have more ability to express your ability.”
She started some games as a freshman point guard but requested a change because she didn’t like the responsibility. Now she is a guard-forward often playing out of position, considering her slight build, as the power forward, averaging more than 11 points a game.
“She’s a tough matchup,” Schuller said. “It’s a huge threat when you have someone who can handle it and shoot it. … It’s probably not her ideal position, but it’s worked out well for the team.
“‘T’ would start on almost any other team around, but she does such a wonderful job as our sixth man and she’s just valuable to us that way. I think she does a great job understanding her role.”
That’s all Sparavalo cares about.
“Everybody wants to start, but it’s more important who finishes,” she said. “I’ll do whatever coach wants. I just want our team to win.”
She remembers the four-win season as a freshman with Piper and Kyla Evans, a shock considering she probably didn’t lose 10 games in her whole career before that.
“I always believed in our talent, so it wasn’t surprising to me we won the conference championship,” she said of last season’s Big Sky Conference title.
Though the Eagles are just 5-8 and play all but one game on the road the rest of this month, Sparavalo is confident their best basketball is ahead of them.
“A lot of people look at our record and think Eastern was a fluke last year,” she said. “I think we’re playing at an even higher level. Our record doesn’t show that. We were 4-8 in preseason. We lost some close games. We could easily have been 8-4 instead.”
A chance to see the team that beat the team, fourth-ranked Stanford, which ended Connecticut’s 90-game winning streak, is at Washington State Sunday afternoon. Cal visits the Cougars on Friday (FSN). … Hawaii visits Idaho on Thursday. Eastern goes to Sacramento State on Thursday and Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Pac-10 schools are 76-32 (.704) against nonconference opponents, the best since going 67-27 (.713) five years ago when six teams made the NCAA tournament. … California is sixth in the nation in rebounding margin (11.0) and fourth in 3-point field-goal defense (22.4). … Kelly Graves can pick up his 100th WCC with Gonzaga at Pepperdine on Thursday. … Gonzaga has won 14 of its last 18 games with Pepperdine but still trails the all-time series 28-25. … Gonzaga senior guard Courtney Vandersloot and Tennessee senior guard/forward Angie Bjorklund (University High) have been named one of the top 20 candidates for the John R. Wooden Award, the nation’s most coveted college basketball honor. … GU’s Bulldogs lead the nation in assists (20.3) and are third in scoring (85.6), more than seven points better than last year at this time, thanks to 48.6 percent shooting, sixth in the nation. … Kyla Evans has 192 3-pointers, eighth in BSC history and three shy of matching the EWU school record. Teammate Chene Cooper is second in the conference and 24th in the nation with 5.6 assists per game. … Cooper is the only BSC player to reach 20 points, 10 rebounds or 10 assists at least once. … Sophomore Katie Baker (Lake City) had 30 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks as Montana split two home games to open Big Sky play. … Montana State, with the last three, has four BSC Players of the Week, including senior Lyndi Seidensticker (Lewis and Clark) twice, despite an 8-8 record, although the last six games are wins. … Junior Alysha Green (Mead) was the Frontier Conference Player of the Week after hitting 9 of 13 shots, including 6 of 9 3-pointers, for 29 points in Carroll’s conference opening win over Rocky Mountain.