They come from Austria, England, Spain, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, South Africa, Colombia, and other countries throughout the world. With skills that could take them to many colleges, these student-athletes choose Wilmington University.
WilmU may not offer the typical campus environment, with dorms, sororities, and fraternities, but it has excellent academics, supportive coaches and faculty, and teams that have achieved success in Division II athletics. And over the last couple of decades, that winning ethos has earned a worldwide reputation.
International student-athletes are particularly prominent on the men’s and women’s soccer teams, the women’s tennis team, and the men’s golf team. Those coaches have found that athletes from foreign countries make unique and valuable contributions to their squads as they compete in the demanding Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC).
Nick Papanicolas started coaching at WilmU in 2003 and recruited his first player from a foreign country two years later. A first generation Greek-American, Papanicolas says he “always wanted a team full of student-athletes from different parts of the globe.”
Mission accomplished. His current team has athletes from 15 countries, and his coaching staff hails from six countries.
Papanicolas says international student-athletes had an almost immediate impact, and not just on the soccer pitch. “When I started bringing in more international athletes, my team GPA went way up,” he says. “All our Academic All-Americans are international student-athletes. They have made a positive impression on the campus community and staff, they’ve been a pleasure to have on my team, and the diversity is essential to our success.”
“Coach Nick” says WilmU’s size is not a deterrent to recruiting. “The University may be ‘small’ in some ways, but we have many things that other universities don’t. For example, low tuition and low cost of living in Delaware. Also, in the last 10 years my program has been nationally ranked, which definitely attracts athletes.”
Before COVID, Papanicolas sometimes traveled to countries like Colombia, Jamaica, Canada and England, and complemented his in-person recruiting with YouTube videos. “COVID brought on the use of Zoom in order to communicate with the athletes, which was a huge help,” he says.
Athlete placement agencies, particularly active in Europe, are another recruiting tool, and they are well aware of the University’s prowess in soccer. When Ellis McSharry, a junior from England, was contacted by Papanicolas, he had never heard of WilmU. “But my agency explained to me the success and high standards that it has been competing at for many seasons,” says McSharry.
The Business Management major had multiple offers from U.S. schools and originally committed to a college in Florida. “But once I heard from Coach Nick and learned about Wilmington, I couldn’t turn down such a good opportunity,” he says.
McSharry, who also competed for the University’s track and field team, arrived in Wilmington in 2018. He acknowledges that there was a period of adjustment, both socially and academically.
“I think without dorms on campus it’s a lot harder for international student athletes coming into the country, as they have to move into a house,” he says, adding that Coach Nick prepares international athletes in advance for everything they might need to move to a new country.
The classroom also initially was a challenge. “The way they grade and use APA in America was very difficult,” McSharry says. “But WilmU helped me endlessly with this, and every question I had was answered very quickly.”
Goalkeeper Konstantinos Parisis, from Greece, did extensive research on the University after Papanicolas contacted him. “The school’s program had one of the best records in 2019, and was located in a very nice area close to major cities, and that immediately grabbed my interest,” Parisis says.
He got plenty of playing time in the fall of 2021 as a redshirt freshman, and he’s also doing well in his Sports Management major.
“The fact that Wil-mington offers such small classes is one of my favorite things,” says Konstantinos. “In the four classes I’m taking I’m averaging 14 classmates, something that gives us the opportunity to interact and get to know each other. Same thing applies for our professor; we’re able to address him directly whenever we need to discuss something.”
Troy Donato, the 2021 CACC Women’s Tennis Coach of the Year, has athletes from Spain, the United Kingdom, Austria, The Netherlands, and South Africa on his team. He evaluated all of them through video.
“Many people think I travel all over the world in search of the athletes,” he says, “but in fact I have never been outside the United States in my entire life.”
He says WilmU has been successful in attracting international student-athletes for many reasons. “One of the big ones is our safety and commitment to the students. Another would be how successful the various sports programs are. And lastly, we’re in an ideal location. Being halfway between two major cities is a huge draw for people that want to come to the States.”
He’s another coach who eschews the “small” label when it comes to the University. “I always call our school a family that the students join,” he says. “I’ve even had other coaches come up to me and say that the way my team supports each other is very rare. And I still hear from past athletes. Even after they graduate, they know they’re welcome back. Once a Wildcat always a Wildcat!”
Valentina Ivankovic definitely sensed that family vibe when she joined the tennis team. A junior majoring in Business Management, Ivankovic is Croatian but was born and raised in Austria. She says she immediately felt welcome when she arrived at WilmU in January of 2020.
“Everyone is so supportive, and whenever there is an issue you get immediate help,” she says. “Also, the professors are super kind and understanding. The classes are very interesting. I love it.”
She says Donato “always tries his best to make us feel comfortable. I can get a little bit homesick every now and then, but he is such a good support. And he always tries to bring the best out of us on the court.”
Donato has obviously succeeded in that effort, as demonstrated by the team’s 2021 season, when the Wildcats won the conference championship.
A key member of the team is Jessica Purdy, from England, who transferred from Emporia State University in Kansas to pursue a degree in Liberal Studies.
She is excelling on the court, where she plays number 1 or 2 singles and number 2 doubles, and in the classroom, where she’s close to a 4.0 GPA.
“I’ve been happy at WilmU so far because everyone is welcoming and friendly,” says Purdy. “The classes, either online or face-to-face, are manageable, and the professors have been helpful.”
A senior academically but a sophomore athletically, she says she may use her two remaining years of eligibility to pursue an MBA. “If not,” she says, “I’ll return to England and either complete a master’s degree there or coach.”
Another tennis player, Larize Nel, is proud of the team’s academic excellence. “We had the best GPA among all the sports,” says the Accounting major, who hails from South Africa.
She says her WilmU experience “has been nothing but the best. Everyone on the tennis team gets along well, and we’re a big family away from our homes. The teachers are helpful, and classmates are always prepared to help when it’s needed.”
The men’s golf team has a long-standing stellar reputation that comes from taking on — and beating — the top schools in Division II. That reputation has aided Coach Mark Hall in attracting athletes from around the world. Five of the eight men on the 2021 team came from foreign lands.
“Our schedule definitely helps,” says Hall. “Almost everybody on it is in the top 30 in Division II.”
Academics also is a factor, he says. “Athletes can choose from a lot of academic degrees, and international student-athletes seem to like that. Several of them are working on their master’s.”
The whole package brought Jan Lekes here from the Czech Republic.
A sophomore majoring in Biology, Lekes says he had many scholarship offers. “But after reviewing all of them and comparing them from a golf, academic, and price point of view, Wilmington was a clear choice,” he says. “Over the years, it has stayed close to the top of the golf rankings, and the Biology program it offers is also very good.”
Lekes says Hall has shepherded him through the transition that confronts every foreign student. When he arrived here last August, Lekes says, “Coach helped me handle all the important things I needed to do to become a student and golf player at WilmU. He goes out of his way to ensure that our stay here is pleasant, and we are doing good.”
Lekes hopes to earn a Ph.D. in Microbiology, find a job in the U.S. initially, then return to his home country and start a microbiology lab.
In the meantime, he says, “I’m living the dream of many Czech kids and I’m enjoying it to the fullest. The teachers are always there to help, and the classes are interesting and fun to attend. I’ve made a lot of friends, and everyone has been really nice and supportive.”
Lekes lives with Pablo Quintero, from Colombia, and other inter-national teammates in a Newark apartment complex. Hall recruited Quintero after seeing him in action on videotape.
A freshman Business Management major, Quintero was unfamiliar with WilmU until Hall contacted him, but he’s happy he made the 2,430-mile journey from his hometown of Bogota.
“I really like WilmU,” he says, “and I’ve done really good in class.”
On the golf course, he admits, “I haven’t played very good — but we still won conferences!”
During the COVID crisis, Head Coach Jeff Zoyac says he “put a lot more time into recruiting overseas. I did it all by video — highlight tape and game footage.”
His success is reflected in the 2021 roster, which included seven international athletes.
Zoyac has found that cost is a major factor in attracting them. “Tuition here is very reasonable, and that helps a lot,” he says.
Now in his eighth year as head coach of the women’s team, Zoyac says the athletes reflect the rest of the world’s passion for soccer, or as it’s known in other countries, football. “They take it way more seriously, and they play all day long,” he says.
As a result, their game is well-developed when they arrive here, Zoyac says. “They’re a little more advanced technically than Americans. They’re more polished, like with foot skills sets and receiving. Plus, they arrive at practice early and they stay afterward.”
Jimena García Risoto is one international athlete who was already familiar with WilmU when she arrived here because she played against the Wildcats two years ago as a member of the Concordia College squad. When the New York school announced it would close its doors with the fall semester of 2021, Risoto, who is from Spain, began looking for a place where she could earn her master’s in Business Administration and use her two remaining years of athletic eligibility.
She entered the transfer portal, and received several offers. But after a couple of meetings with Zoyac and Assistant Coach Doug Cunningham, she says, “I decided that Wilmington University was a good program, and I committed.”
Risoto earned playing time almost immediately, but it wasn’t easy. “I knew from the very beginning that I needed to work even harder to get a spot here,” she says, “not only because I was new and came from another team, but also because we have 31 athletes on the roster, which makes everything harder as well as exciting.”
“I’m so thankful and happy for the spot I’m in now,” says Risoto. Zoyac made sure she was prepared from the beginning, something for which Risoto is grateful. “Being away from home, any help means a lot.”
After she earns her master’s, her plans are uncertain. “As of right now, I have no idea what I want to do when I graduate, either staying in America or going back to Spain,” says Risoto. “The only thing I know for sure is that I am living this experience, which for me is not only an opportunity, but also a privilege, to the maximum. I’m excited to be here and ready to keep gathering good memories.”
Manuela Restrepo Ramirez took a proactive approach to the recruiting game when she graduated from high school in Medellin, Colombia, last year. “I recorded some games of me playing with my club and state team and sent them out,” she says. She received many offers, “but Wilmington was the one I liked and felt more comfortable with,” she says.
Although Restrepo Ramirez was totally unfamiliar with Wilmington, she says she “instantly felt comfortable, and I knew it was going to be an incredible experience.”
A Business Management major, Restrepo Ramirez says, “Academic-ally it has been great, I have always been a good student so adapting to the University wasn’t difficult for me.”
On the field, she earned a starting position and has seen action in every game as a freshman.
“We still have many things to improve together as a team, but the journey we are going through right now is awesome,” she says. “We keep growing every day.”
Director of Athletics Dr. Stefanie Whitby says she is pleased that the University has attracted so many international student-athletes.
“We hope that our commitment to creating a competitive athletic environment for them and providing a hands-on academic experience will not only result in a university degree, but a lifetime of memories,” says Dr. Whitby. “These student-athletes bring not only an incredible amount of athletic excellence, but they share their culture and traditions with us as well. We are all continuing to learn from each other.”
By Bob Yearick