(Courtesy photo) Kingston High School exchange student Marco Saenz de Lacuesta (squatting) poses for a picture with his family recently upon his return to Spain. de Lacuesta was a key part of the No. 2-ranked Cardinals basketball team. The winter sports season was cut short due to the COVID-19 coronavirus and de Lacuesta went back to Spain.

European exchange students enjoy basketball success in the Thumb

What was to be a year in the United States, soaking up American culture and showing classmates the ins and outs of European-style basketball was cut short recently for two local foreign exchange students.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to every continent except Antarctica and has halted normal day-to-day life worldwide. In March, the Michigan High School Athletic Association suspended winter tournaments.

The suspension was announced between the district semifinal and final rounds of the boys’ basketball tournament. It soon became apparent that the announcement meant an end to the exchange program for Marco Saenz de Lacuesta and Thom Rijshouwer.

de Lacuesta, from Spain, was spending the school year as a junior at Kingston High School. A 6-foot point guard, he was a key cog of a squad that was ranked as the No. 2 team in Division 2 heading into the postseason.

Rijshouwer, a senior from the Netherlands, helped Cass City to an upset over Unionville-Sebewaing Area in the district semifinals.

“Before I came to the U.S., I lived in Spain for two years on my own because I played (basketball) in the academy there,” Rijshouwer said. “When I was a little boy, it was my dream to play basketball in America. I wanted to improve my English and experience living in the United States. I got the opportunity, so I took it.”

The Red Hawks were gearing up for a district championship game against Bad Axe. The win over rival USA was one of Rijshouwer’s favorite memories during his time in America.

“The basketball season and being presented as a starter,” he said. “Also, beating USA on their homecourt for the first time in a very long time was amazing.”

Rijshouwer, 18, son of Roland Rijshouwer and Jenneke Appel made his way to Cass City from s’-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, in the province of North Brabant, with dreams of playing basketball. But he got his first taste of American high school sports on the gridiron as the kicker and punter for the Red Hawks, who had the best football season in program history last fall.

“Soccer is the biggest sport by far in Europe. I played soccer for eight years before I even started playing basketball, so the coordination with my feet is really good,” Rijshouwer said. “The first thing coach (Scott Cuthrell) asked me was if I could kick a ball, I told him, ‘I thought I could.’ I went on the field and kicked the ball and apparently it was pretty good because he told me I was the new kicker. It was very exciting.”

Cass City coach Aaron Fernald couldn’t wait to get Rijshouwer on the court for the Red Hawks. Although it took a while for the team to get rolling (a 1-5 start to the season), they finished  the regular season by winning 11 of their final 14 games.

“It took Thom a little while to get used to the game. The physical factor of the game and the structure was different. Those two things took him a while to adapt and figure out,“ Fernald said. “As the year went on, he really figured that out. I think he mastered some of those by the end of the year. He was very coachable.”

The 6-foot-4 Rijshouwer averaged 10 points per game for Cass City.

The same love and passion for basketball brought de Lacuesta to America. “It was so upsetting to leave and not finish out basketball. We worked hard all season,” de Lacuesta said. “I really enjoyed playing basketball. I would like to play with those guys a couple more years, but I can’t.”

de Lacuesta, a native of Seville, Spain, was a starting guard, playing alongside 1,000-career-point-scorer Evan Neff, forming one of the best backcourts in the Thumb.

He averaged 10.5 points per game for the 21-1 North Central Thumb League Stars Division champs, who were preparing for a Division 4 district title game against league foe Mayville.

Kingston coach Dave Lester, while impressed with de Lacuesta on the hardwood, was even more in awe of his everyday demeanor.

“I can’t even tell you how well he got along with everyone. He made so many good friends, I think it made it harder for him to leave,” Lester said. “Marco had four or five guys that he got along with so well. He was devastated and they were devastated he was leaving. All the kids, including my son Jack looked up to him. He was such a likable kid.”

Lester looks forward to one day seeing de Lacuesta in person again.

“I plan to stay in touch with him. Absolutely,” Lester said. 

Fernald had the same response about Rijshouwer. 

“Absolutely. I’ll stay in touch,” Fernald said. “I told him how happy I was our paths crossed and how much I enjoyed him as a player and as a person. I learned a lot from him.” 

Rijshouwer and de Lacuesta both enjoyed playing American high school basketball. In most European countries, basketball is a club sport and not associated with schools.

“I really like basketball in America and how the teams play against each other,” de Lacuesta said. “I like how the system is and the structure of the season and teams.” 

“School in the Netherlands is just school, and basketball is just basketball. It’s 100 percent separate,” Rijshouwer said. “School is about the same hours as here, but it’s no extra-curricular activities, you’re just learning. You go to elementary until you’re 11, then you go to high school from 11-14, depending on how smart you are. I went to a medium high school in Holland. I did four years. I graduated when I was 15 and you choose your major. It’s very different than here.” 

Both students knew their time in America was coming to an end, but thought they had a few more months in front of them. 

“I found out three days before I left,” de Lacuesta said. “Things aren’t great since I got home. I’m in quarantine for two weeks and can’t see my family.” 

Rijshouwer’s time may have ended earlier than expected regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic as he received some unfortunate news. 

“My grandma passed away recently,” Rijshouwer said. “That’s why we decided for me to come home early even without the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The two gained knowledge to use as they continue their basketball careers, but gained much more personally. 

“I really enjoyed the friendships I gained, “Rijshouwer said. “I really enjoyed my time with the teams and the culture associated with it, like the bon fires and sleepovers after the football games and being on the teams were amazing. It was a really cool thing to experience.” 

“I grew up as a person in America. I became a better person,” de Lacuesta said. “I really am so thankful and really appreciate how nice everyone was with me. I’ll miss them a lot. I’ve been so comfortable being with them.” 

Rijshouwer’s host parents were Jacob and Emily Boynton, while de Lacuesta was hosted by Jay and Lisa Green.

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