A second home

Lithuanians Ernesta Griciunaite and Sandra Liegute conquer homesickness and thrive at Mount Carmel - with a little help from friend Briana Grap

Girls basketball

January 31, 2007|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun reporter

Ernesta Griciunaite and Sandra Liegute had met only briefly before they boarded a plane in Lithuania in September 2005. By the time they landed at Dulles Airport 15 hours later, each was the other's closest friend.

The Lithuanian exchange students, both 6 feet 3 and experienced club basketball players, had arrived in the United States to study and play ball for two years at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a small Catholic school in Essex. Not knowing anyone here, they were thankful to have each other - not just on the plane but whenever they felt homesick during the early months of their visit.

"We didn't know each other, but at the same time, it was much, much easier," Liegute said. "We can talk in the same language. We can talk about our friends, family. We were both missing the same things."

At first, the homesickness was overwhelming. Even though the girls kept in touch with their families through Internet connections that let them see and talk to each other, that wasn't enough.

"We used to sit and cry together," Liegute said. "Last year, I was like, `[I'm] not coming back. I don't want this. It's too hard.' "

A year and a half later, Griciunaite and Liegute are acclimated to life in America and happy to be back for their senior year.

Cougars coach and athletic director Mike Naunton said he began getting e-mails from the girls in the middle of their 2 1/2 -month trip home last summer, telling him they couldn't wait to come back.

"The second time, we knew all the people," said Liegute, who is much more talkative than Griciunaite. "We knew what it was going to be like here. We were excited about basketball and we missed it over the summer, especially friends."

Now, their English is much better. They fit in with their host families. They like hip-hop music and American Eagle fashions. They've even learned to like cheeseburgers.

Mostly, they like to play basketball.

Once they got on the court the first time, they began to feel more at home. They also developed a strong friendship with Cougars point guard Briana Grap, who became their guide to all things American.

"They look to her," Naunton said. "If she trusts someone, then they know they can trust that person. And she's experienced here, so she knows all the places to go."

Griciunaite moved in with Grap's family in December 2005. Neither girl connected with her original host family, and Liegute now lives with Grap's friend Sarah Gossman, a Mount Carmel student who is not a basketball player. The four seniors spend a lot of time together.

That connection with Grap carries over to the basketball court, where she is the glue to a team that won the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland C Conference championship last season. Grap, who scored her 1,000th career point this season, was thrilled with the new additions.

"Before they came, we had a lot of inexperienced players and we weren't really together. They filled that spot. Before, I felt like it was all on me, but now I can pass it to someone and have confidence," said Grap, who averages 16.9 points and 5.0 assists.

The girls have not upset the Cougars' chemistry. They've actually made it better, fitting in perfectly with Grap, the other starters - this season, Janese Washington and Meghan Hartnett - and the rest of the team.

"A lot of girls on our team aren't basketball players 24-7," Naunton said, "and this lets them relax and enjoy the game more, because they can do what they do best - contribute and feel successful - and that's really important."

This season, the Cougars are 16-3, with the best record in the C Conference at 12-1.

Although several other C Conference teams have tall post players, none has a versatile duo like Griciunaite and Liegute, who played Amateur Athletic Union basketball with Grap last spring and have been combining for 27.9 points and 23.2 rebounds per game this season.

Though they might seem alike on the court at first, each has different strengths. The combination is what makes them hard to beat. Griciunaite is dominating in the post, while Liegute can play the post or the perimeter.

"One of them is hard to guard. Two of them is impossible," said St. Timothy's coach Mike Buchanan, whose team cut a Mount Carmel lead to five points two weeks ago before Griciunaite hit three inside shots and two free throws to ensure a 52-38 Cougars win.

"There's a lot of good post players in the C Conference ... but she is the cream of the crop as far as spin moves and being able to do it offensively and defensively. She is in the C what [Asya] Bussie of Seton Keough is in the A," Buchanan said.

Liegute, who had a last-second block to seal the title last season, moves in and out depending on the possession, Naunton said.

"We can spot her up in the post or put her in the perimeter because she can shoot the three effectively," he said. "She helps us create mismatches."

What Griciunaite and Liegute have brought to Grap and the rest of the Cougars, however, runs much deeper than their basketball ability.

"Now the girls just see the world a little bit differently from a social perspective and they think it's cool to have friends from another country," said Naunton, whose school had previously hosted a few boys basketball players from Lithuania.

The trio, all of whom are A/B students, would like to play college basketball together in the United States. Grap wants to be a teacher and a coach; Liegute an international businesswoman; and Griciunaite isn't sure yet.

Even if they don't attend college together, they plan to keep in touch. In fact, Grap is planning a trip to Lithuania this summer.

"It's going to feel weird in a different country - the language, the environment, everything," Grap said. "I guess I'll know a little bit about how Ernesta and Sandra felt when they first got here."


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