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Schwab: African transfer students could make Mooseheart basketball hotbed

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT

Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng have to be somewhat bemused by all the fuss.

Sure, the newcomers to Mooseheart from South Sudan are tall – Nyang is 7-foot, Puou is 6-9 and Deng is 6-7. But where they're from, that kind of height is borderline pedestrian.

"Because of their age, I think that all of them have the potential to grow a little bit more," Mooseheart boys basketball coach Ron Ahrens said. "Just talking with them, I think they're all Dinka tribesmen. ... They talk about many tall relatives in their families. They talk about 7-4 kids they know, talk about a 7-7 kid. Makur, the 6-9 one, has a younger brother who's taller than him already. They don't see themselves as being tall, not from their culture. It seems like they talk about 6-10 ladies and stuff like that."

As the Mooseheart sophomores have found out since their spring arrivals, such towering physiques qualify as attention-grabbers in the U.S., especially when sports are involved.

Ahrens is in his 12th season in the Ramblers' basketball program, his fourth as varsity coach, and couldn't recall any previous player as tall as 6-6.

The prospect of seeing the African trio compete for Mooseheart, especially against small-school, Class 1A competition, is intoxicating, though patience will be required. Due to IHSA transfer rules, the South Sudanese youngsters will not be eligible to compete at the varsity level until the 2012-13 season. They can play for Mooseheart's junior varsity team this winter, although Deng – perhaps the most skilled of the three, Ahrens said – will likely miss the season while recovering from an ACL injury.

Still, Nyang and Puou promise to give Mooseheart's JV squad an immediate makeover, to put it mildly.

"I anticipate, oh boy, it's going to have to make our varsity a lot better [in practice] because our JV team will probably be kicking our tail a little bit this year," said Ahrens, who intends to add some larger, area opponents to the varsity schedule once the African transfers become eligible.

A fourth South Sudanese sophomore, Wal Khat, also transferred in. Khat is a long distance runner who already owns a second-place finish at the North Aurora 10K earlier this month.

The students, ranging in age from 14 to 16, came to Mooseheart via the A-HOPE program – African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education, the school announced Thursday.  Mooseheart staff are rightly emphasizing the educational context. The youngsters gaining a U.S. education to better their futures is tops on everyone's priority list.

"That's probably what I'm more excited about, and I'm being honest with you – I don't care if any of them step on the basketball floor for me, but I would be really disappointed if any of them left the Mooseheart campus," Ahrens said. "That's how much we like them, and how great of kids they are."

Still, Ahrens understands that Mooseheart's relatively low-profile basketball program could command unprecedented attention in the coming years, provided the relatively raw teenagers improve, as expected, with intense exposure to the sport. All have some degree of basketball background, and Puou was on track to be a prominent international volleyball player back home.

"I think, no doubt, there are going to be people who want to see a bunch of tall kids playing basketball," Ahrens said. "Any time you hear a 7-footer, even me, if Batavia had a 7-footer, I'd go and watch him play. That's the kind of interest it will draw. ... I hope it draws interest, and I hope people go see them, because they're the gosh-darn nicest kids in the world."

The four are already acclimating to life at Mooseheart, even feeding pigs, cleaning horse stalls and other chores at the school's farm, a traditional source of summer work for students who remain on campus. They will be living in separate residential houses at Mooseheart in order to expedite their mastery of the English language.

Learning English will serve them well in the coming years, and that figures to extend to the basketball court.

If all goes to plan, there should be quite a few interviews in their futures.

• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or jschwab@shawmedia.com.

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