Every time a Black Hills girls basketball player sinks a basket and the crowd roars or when the student section chants defense or the pep band fires up the school fight song, Liselotte Bal is reminded she is a long way from home.
The 5-foot-4 senior exchange student from Belgium never experienced anything like a packed American gymnasium while playing for the Kangoeroes Basket Willebroek club team.
“The energy here is really something I want to take home,” said Bal, a guard for the Wolves. “The crowd is bigger, there’s more support from kids our own age.”
She appreciates that the energy extends to practices, which typically end with the Wolves circling up, holding hands and listening to comments from coaches and captains.
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“I want to introduce those things to my club team,” she said. “Tell them, ‘See, you can clap and cheer for your teammates even when we’re dying from having run so much.’ ”
Bal has traveled to neighboring countries in Europe. Her family skis in Austria, they sometimes take a two-hour drive to Holland for a superior grocery shopping experience and she made a school trip to Italy. But the American high school experience was something she craved.
Introduced to the popular culture version through movies like “High School Musical,” she signed up for Program of Academic Exchange’s placement service.
High school in Belgium tends to be all academics all the time, with few arts classes or social activities. Except for elite government-funded sports academies designed to funnel the most talented athletes toward Belgium’s national teams, schools don’t sponsor sports teams.
“It’s surprising how much school here is involved with life in general,” Bal said. “There’s a career center where you can go and get a job. There’s the community service hours requirement. That’s really cool. The school does a food bank thing. That’s amazing.”
She’s taken full advantage of the differences, taking courses mandated by the PAX program in U.S. history and government as well as English, but also those that wouldn’t have been offered in Belgium, such as leadership and strength training. She plays flute in the Black Hills band.
Bal plans to attend medical school with a goal of becoming an oncologist. She’s fluent in three languages — Flemish, French and English.
According to coach Tanya Greenfield — who started exchange student Meeri Gummerus from Finland last season — Bal fit in easily.
“Lizzie’s funny, has a great sense of humor,” Greenfield said. “She’s always happy and always has something good to say. She always wants to get better.”
The transition from international rules provided a couple of challenges and a funny moment. European play still allows for defenders to hand check opponents, which forced Bal to adjust.
There are the more lenient substitution requirements. In Belgium, Bal merely needed to signal an official she was coming in, not check in at the scorer’s table.
Last week she entered a game against Fort Vancouver and tweeted afterward that it was the first technical foul she’d ever received.
Despite the adjustments, Greenfield appreciates what both Bal, and Gummerus a year ago, brought to Black Hills.
“They enhance our program,” Greenfield said. “Our kids can learn about other cultures, and since basketball plays through Christmas, we learn about different holiday traditions.”
Bal’s host parents, Dave and Karen Hall, have made sure she learns as much about the Northwest as she can. They spent Christmas Day at Snoqualmie so she could experience a white Christmas, and have driven to Oregon and to as many nature areas as they can fit in.
Not bad, considering Bal didn’t even know there was a Washington state before connecting with the Halls and Black Hills.
“When I first saw where I was going, I told my dad I was going to Washington, D.C.,” Bal said with a laugh. “I’m very happy I ended up here, though.”
In the fall, Bal ran on the Wolves’ cross country team. She’s played tennis in the past, but has another idea for a spring sport.
“I really want to try fastpitch,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it. I don’t own a glove. But we don’t have softball back home, and that’s the point of the exchange experience, doing new things.”