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Seeing basketball through a beginner’s eyes

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WENDELL — The joy on Chiara Bettaglio’s face bubbles over when she plays basketball.

“Everything is so fast,” she said with a grin after practice on Thursday.

The game is still unfamiliar to her and the newness of it might be the most exciting part — the part that lights up her eyes in the midst of chaos on the court.

This season, Bettaglio isn’t expected to step into a big role for the Corinth Holders varsity girls basketball team. She probably won’t be asked to play all that much. But just being there has brought something different to the Pirates.

Every time Bettaglio is on the court, a smile is on her face. When she makes a basket, or knows the right place to be, a look of surprise initially appears, then it’s replaced with happiness and a high five. Her joy is infectious and infiltrates into her teammates too.

This year, Bettaglio is 4,408 miles from home — Milan, Italy — in an unfamiliar place trying something totally foreign to her. 

When Bettaglio made it clear to the exchange program that she wanted to spend a year studying in the United States, many of the detailed decisions that followed were not her own. The program narrowed her destination down to three southern states — North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — and from there, her host family selected her to make the trip to come live with them in Wendell. 

This decision, however — which landed her on a basketball court for the first time earlier this month — is one she made on her own.

“I like trying new things and new experiences,” Bettaglio said. “Now that volleyball season is over, why not? Why not try basketball?”

‘I didn’t even know how to dribble’

Back home, athletes typically devote their time to just one sport, which is played outside of school in clubs. Bettaglio’s sport was volleyball, so before coming to America, she’d hardly ever picked up a basketball and she knew very litle else about the sport.

That fact was hard to hide on her first day of basketball tryouts, in a performance she described as nothing more than “embarrassing.” She showed up early and teammates coached her through what to expect, but that didn’t help much.

“I have never played basketball in my life, so I didn’t know any drills,” Bettaglio explained. “I didn’t even know how to dribble the ball. But my teammates, of course, helped me out.”

Bettaglio was invited to play this season by head coach Shannon Lee, even though she will head back to Italy at the end of the season. Why? She could see the potential.

“You can look at Chiara in volleyball and tell really easily that girl is an athlete,” Lee said. “I needed some post players, somebody that would come in and challenge and could jump for some rebounds, stuff like that and she stepped in. We were all kind of surprised when she said that she wanted to give it a try and I have been so impressed with her — her willingness to learn and how well she picks up.”

Her presence has added something new to the program that wasn’t there before. 

Teaching moments

Having someone new to the sport on the team hasn’t been a burden for Corinth Holders. Far from it.

“We still have to teach her, but we can play our game,” senior teammate Abbie Byrd said. “We can still get better with her. She’s not a distraction. She’s actually helping us because we’re teaching her. It’s like we’re having teaching moments, so it’s not bad at all.”

From the first day Bettaglio stepped on the court, her teammates have gone out of their way to help her. It’s given some of the more seasoned players an opportunity to lead.

The teachable moments present themselves everywhere. During practice, a teammate calls out for Bettaglio to move because she’s out of position, and she listens. While helping her out, the whole team is constantly reinforcing what to do and how to do it. That makes everyone more confident when it comes time to stop thinking and just play.

Now, with a beginner’s eye and curiosity, the game is broken down much more for the Pirates than it used to be. After all, for most of the rest of the roster, it’s been almost 10 years since they themselves picked up a basketball for the first time. 

Having a teammate who just started has taken them back to their own beginnings, back to a simpler time when they were children learning how to dribble and becoming more confident as they played.

Adding in the eyes of a beginner has been nothing but a positive for the Pirates.

“She’s constantly been a bright spot and watching her progress, as a coach, is exciting,” Lee said.

Lunchtime vocabulary lessons

During lunch on most days, a squad of more than a dozen volleyball and girls basketball players gathers in head coach Shannon Lee’s classroom to hang out. Here lately, the classroom has remained in session during that period — albeit with more laughs — while teammates quiz Bettaglio on basketball vocabulary written on the whiteboard.

Layup. Block. Foul. Travel. The words and their definitions roll right off the tongue if you’re an American entrenched in the game. But if you aren’t, then the task is much more challenging. 

So far, the terms Bettaglio knows the best are layup and block. She gets plenty wrong, but she’s memorizing more every day.

“She’s so much fun,” Lee said. “She brings a lot of joy and as she’s trying to figure things out, you just have some funny moments that come with learning that new culture and how that integrates in that system.”

Bettaglio has become more confident since she started, she said. In practice, Lee asks a question and she is the first to answer — giving the right answer abot where to be on defense before others could respond. 

“She’s getting the hang of it pretty quickly,” senior Abbie Byrd says. “She’s doing good.”

New season, new players

Bettaglio isn’t the only Johnston County player picking up basketball for the first time this season. Over in Smithfield, the Neuse Charter girls basketball team has three players out of a roster of 10 who have never played before joining the program this season. 

The challenge of trying something new appealed to those players, too, as they step in to contribute.

“I’ve always been dominant in other sports,” freshman Olivia Malzahn said. “It’s nice to not have to carry a team or anything, so it’s nice to get better as I go.”

Junior Mia Manning got involved for a different reason. Primarily a volleyball player, she felt like she was missing something by not branching out.

“I play volleyball and basketball is a contact sport,”Manning said. “I’ve always wanted to play a contact sport because I’m a little bit more aggressive, so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to play.”

All three players — Manning, Malzahn and Bettaglio — give voice to the same conclusion, that stepping out of their comfort zone has been a positive decision.

For the Cougars, the extra players has helped the team to a 4-0 start to the season, as freshman Anna Taylor and Dargan Harris have taken a leadership role that allows others to focus on filling in the gaps everywhere else. 

Back in Wendell, Bettaglio probably won’t have a breakout year as a new star for the program. In most games, she might not play, but her teammates are certainly glad to have her smile and her presence.  

“It’s been fun,” Byrd said. “She’s hilarious and it’s fun to teach people who don’t know the game of basketball what to do and how to execute the game.”