At 6-foot-7, Vlad Cobzaru is a quick and uptempo power forward who is also a member of Romania’s 18-and-under men’s basketball team. Jake Grinbergs, a tall shooting guard, hails from Latvia, located in the Baltic Region of Europe.
Guards Tristen Ross and Taeshon Best are best friends from Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces.
The foursome has found a common bond here in Vermont as starters on the high school boys basketball team at St. Johnsbury Academy, an independent institution founded in 1842.
Blending the international newcomers with the returning players, the Hilltoppers have gone from a 7-14 record a year ago to Division I title contenders this winter.
And they are off to a good start: The Hilltoppers rallied past D-I contender Rutland with a strong fourth quarter in last week’s opener before seizing a big win over BFA-St. Albans on Tuesday.
“They have a bunch of shooters, they can handle the ball and they are big inside,” BFA-St. Albans coach Ken Fairchild said. “They are certainly a good enough ball club to compete with anybody. I think they are legitimate — they have to be in the mix.”
Ross, a member of last year’s team as a freshman, has witnessed a dynamic change.
“It was rough last year,” Ross said of a season that ended with a strong run but, ultimately, a down-to-the-wire, first-round playoff defeat to Rice. “We are clicking and we are getting the chemistry thing going. I think we are going to be one of the best teams in the state.”
After stepping down from a 13-year coaching career at St. Michael’s College in 2010, Tom O’Shea enters his second year at the helm in St. Johnsbury, where he’s also an assistant athletic director. O’Shea views the international flavor of his team as “reflective of the student body” at the school.
The statistics back up the claim: Nearly 200 international students from 27 countries are enrolled and live on campus at the Northeast Kingdom school, or about 22 percent of the overall student population. Included in SJA’s enrollment are about 70 boarding students from various places in the United States.
“You have this international population on campus and I think that’s really neat,” O’Shea said. “I think that’s the reason why the kids were attracted to our school.”
Grinbergs received a tour of the school from O’Shea in 2011, when he was on campus with the New England Colonials International team, a club of 11 players from 11 European countries that tours and plays games in the United States during a three-week summer tour.
Grinbergs was blown away by the school.
“I thought, ‘this looks good, this could be a place for me,'” said Grinbergs, a senior who hopes to remain in the United States, possibly the Boston area, for college. “I have certain goals I came here to achieve. That’s my motivation. I want to set up my life, get the education and bring it back to my country, that’s probably why I’m here.”
While participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities at St. Johnsbury are commonplace and mandated, this year’s basketball team has generated chatter in town, said Tom Lovett, the school’s headmaster.
“We haven’t had a home game yet, but there’s certainly a different buzz in town,” said Lovett, whose son, Patrick, is a key bench player along with former starters Drew Hovey and Griffin Comerci. “Once they start playing at home, then more people will see them play.”
Their fanbase won’t have to wait long: The Hilltoppers play host to Rutland on Saturday.