By David HeinA quintet of Spanish stars at the U20 European Championship for Women are spending their time in Latvia regaining the form which brought Spain the silver medal at the 2009 FIBA U19 World Championship.
Leonor Rodriguez, Mireia Vila, Vega Gimeno and Amaya Gastaminza all spent the 2009-10 season at universities in the United States while Marta Xargay played a minor role with EuroLeague Women side Perfumerias Halcon Avenida Salamanca. Now in Liepaja they are hoping to lead Spain to the gold medal.
"We have a problem that four players were in the United States and Xargay at Salamanca and did not receive a lot of playing time," said Spanish coach Lucas Mondelo.
"We are trying to win games right now but also use them as practice and try to improve the level of the team as soon as possible."
The coach sees the team getting back to the level which took second place at the U19 Worlds in Thailand last summer. Spain beat the United States 90-86 in the tournament opener but then lost to the Americans 87-71 in the final.
"Thailand was unbelievable. It was unexpected. When we beat the USA at the beginning of the championship it was like a dream. It was like wow, we can do things here," said Rodriguez.
"From that day, we started believing in ourselves and grew together as a team. We know each other from that championship. Thailand made us better and the team we are today."
A common bond for four of the Spaniards is the experience of being a foreign student in the United States.
Vila played 12 games at St. Joseph's and scored 0.9 points a game in 3.5 minutes a game.
Gastaminza was at Oregon State but missed the season due to a knee injury.
Gimeno attended Robert Morris and was the second-leading scorer with 10.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 steals.
Rodriguez played in 15 of 35 games for Florida State and collected 2.7 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.7 minutes a contest.
And Xargay averaged 2.0 points in 13 EuroLeague Women games and 3.2 points with Salamanca in the Spanish LFB.
"We had a tough year. Every player had a different situation. But as soon as we got together the coaches told us to just play and enjoy and do the best we can," said Rodriguez.
The guard said all four of the players who went to U.S. gained invaluable experience - though only Rodriguez and Vila will return to their colleges for next season.
"Leaving the country and meeting new people makes you grow as a person," said Rodriguez, who is majoring in dietetics at Florida State.
Rodriguez and Florida State went to the NCAA Tournament and reached the Elite Eight, losing to eventual champions Connecticut in the regional final. And UConn left a major impression on Rodriguez.
"I learned to be more tough and use more of my body and be more physical," said Rodriguez.
"Everything is so important. Every basket and every pass has to be perfect. Because if not they are going to take advantage of it."
Playing at a U.S. university is full of advantages that any Spaniard could learn from, according to Rodriguez.
"From being in America the first thing you learn is to be competitive, to never give up and to keep fighting and trust in yourself. If you're confident in yourself no one will be in you."
That confidence and a return of form have Spain as a top contender for gold in Latvia.