A Costa Rican's 'family' matters Boys basketball: Andres Conejo was supposed to visit the Centennial area for a couple weeks, but his stay has become two years with people he feels he can never repay.

January 22, 1998|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

A chance to play with the best. That's what fed 18-year-old Andres Conejo's dream of coming to America, playing high school basketball and earning a college athletic scholarship.

Unlike his Costa Rican basketball buddies, Conejo is living his dream, thanks to a sports-minded Centennial High School family's unusual generosity.

That generosity has meant battling with school and immigration officials, spending at least $15,000 for tuition and other expenses, and supporting him through emergency surgery and a rough transition to American schooling.

Despite the chaos his stay has sometimes caused, Cindy and Fred Ryland of Ellicott City and their three children, Caitlin, 17, Charlie, 15, and Eddie, 13, enjoy Conejo and his zest for life, sense of humor and role as a big brother.

And Conejo, homesick and still unrecruited for basketball although one college is interested in him for soccer, lives out his dream despite a disappointing start. Last season, difficulty with English, combined with a talented, established Centennial starting team, limited his playing time. He was frustrated coming off the bench.

"I asked myself what I was doing here, because I scored 38 in a playoff game in Costa Rica, averaged more than 17 points and made the under-17 national team," said Conejo. "But just playing basketball here in the United States is so good. The basketball is better than anywhere in the world."

The Costa Rican national team invited him back to compete in the national championships this month, all expenses paid. Though tempted, he passed because he figures heavily in the Eagles' hopes to repeat as Howard County basketball champions. The Eagles are 5-3 in league play, two games out of first place, with Conejo averaging seven points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

Although college basketball recruiters haven't noticed him, Goucher College is interested in the first-team All-Howard County soccer player for that sport.

Conejo's father, mother, brother and two sisters live a middle-class life in Cartago, Costa Rica's third-largest city. Food and transportation are cheap -- 13 cents for a bus ride to school, 50 cents for a loaf of bread. Soccer and basketball are passions. And everyone who thinks he can play basketball looks to America.

Conejo's dream took shape in summer 1995, when he met Caitlin Ryland, who was in Cartago on a four-week trip at the end of her freshman year.

Ryland, now a 6-foot-2 senior being recruited by NCAA Division I colleges for basketball, wandered into a school gymnasium and watched boys playing basketball. That's where she met Conejo.

He spoke broken English. She spoke broken Spanish. But they (( communicated. An infatuation led to a year of letters and phone calls, then an invitation to Conejo for a two-week stay. He arrived in the United States Sept. 26, 1996.

After two weeks, when Conejo asked if he could stay longer, the Rylands agreed.

"His request caught us by surprise," said Fred Ryland, a state deputy attorney general in Baltimore. "But we talked it over as a family, and everyone was enthusiastic."

Conejo had some trouble adjusting academically because he was still learning English. Centennial, considered one of Maryland's more academically challenging schools, did not offer English for Speakers of Other Languages, and he did not want to go to a school with the course.

"This school would be like a college in Costa Rica," Conejo said. "In Costa Rica, they don't care if you go to class. They pass you if you are an athlete. So I never cared much about school until I came here."

The Rylands cracked down on him to perform academically.

"We've had to mother and father him and kick him into gear to do his homework, go to sleep, and maximize his athletic talent. It's been real stressful at times, and we've struggled with ourselves to make sure this is what we want," said Fred Ryland.

Visa problems at one point, compounded oddly by problems from a teacher who took medical leave, got Conejo and the family into a tussle with school officials. After Conejo passed out five times last fall, they also dealt with bills from emergency surgery for suspected appendicitis, although his problem turned out to be muscle torn while playing soccer.

Said Centennial principal Lynda Mitic: "I've known people who took in foreign students but not in the way the Rylands have. This is a lovely, generous gesture on the Rylands' part, and it must be rewarding when they see him smile."

Conejo is one of two Centennial students and seven in Howard County on student visas. Centennial also has eight exchange students.

Finances quickly became a hurdle, too, for the Rylands, who at first expected that Conejo would be allowed to attend school free after his 18th birthday in December 1996. But a tightening of immigration laws that November eliminated the 18th-birthday loophole and saddled them with an unexpected $6,400 tuition bill.

"If we had known the law was changing, I'm not sure we'd have done it," Fred Ryland said.

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