Hoop Dreams: Fisher Athlete Represents Latvia on European Stage
This summer, Liga Astra Kalnina ’20, a rising junior at St. John Fisher College, had the opportunity of a lifetime when she represented her home country of Latvia in the U20 FIBA Women’s European Basketball Championship.
A center for Fisher’s women’s basketball team, she was one of just 12 players selected to Latvia’s final roster, which went into the tournament ranked No. 24 in the world according to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA).
The Latvian team has participated in the Women’s European Championship 11 times since 2000 and finished third three times overall. A few injuries kept Kalnina from trying out for the U16 team four years ago, and as a 20-year-old, this was her last shot at representing her country in the tournament.
“After having a decent sophomore season [at Fisher], I sent my film to the coach and got invited to try out,” she explained. “I was extremely happy, because when I got invited I thought I had no chance of making the team. I thought, at best I would just get to practice with some great players and get better for the upcoming season. Making the team has been a dream come true.”
The tournament, which was held in Sopron, Hungary, featured 16 teams playing in four groups. Kalnina, along with her teammates, played in Group C along with Poland, Hungary, and Croatia. Group A was comprised of Germany, Russia, Serbia, and Slovenia while Group B consisted of France, Italy, Slovakia, and Sweden. Group D contained Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, who would eventually win the championship.
While Latvia was knocked out in the first round of single-elimination play, Kalnina called the experience unforgettable.
“Putting on a jersey or a shirt everyday with the three stars and name Latvia on our chests is a privilege,” she said. “And, living, breathing, and thinking basketball for 10 days—with no other responsibilities—is all a basketball player could want.”
Kalnina, who is an honor student studying biology at Fisher, is the only Division III player on the Latvian roster. She had a breakout season for the Cardinals in 2018 after producing 3.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in 14.5 minutes of action on average. In 26 appearances, she pulled down 11 rebounds or more in a game seven times including a career-high 15 boards in a win over Utica College.
“Playing as a center allows me to be close to the basket, to the action,” she said. “I love the physical, as well as the smart, game that post players have to play in order to get rebounds and score points.”
With such an elevating experience under Kalnina’s belt, Fisher’s head coach Melissa Kuberka looks forward to seeing what the rising junior can bring to the floor.
“The opportunity to play for her country in the European Championships has been a huge confidence boost for Liga. She has been forced to practice with some outstanding athletes and she has seen that she can compete with them,” said Kuberka. “It was not easy at first but she found ways to contribute and I think she sees that she can compete at a high level. That confidence is going to be huge for us because we have a very young roster next season with only one senior. She’s going to be looked upon to have a presence on the floor and as a leader, and that confidence will be important for our success.”
That’s just the type of challenge Liga is ready to take on.
“I think that playing with Team Latvia has made me realize that we have to push each other more in practices because we cannot get better if we go easy on each other. To play against the best, with the best. That is the ultimate goal of an athlete, right?” she said. “I was able to be a part of it and I hope I can transfer some of this to Fisher. I am extremely excited for the upcoming season as I believe we have strong returners, as well as fresh talent coming in as freshmen and transfers, with some great coaching staff. I cannot wait to get back to Fisher to work with and push these girls to a great season!”