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Euro-Stepping

Albanian hooper turning into a star for the VCA Lady Lions
By: Nick Pecoraro
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ROSEVILLE– Bernada Rreshpja is enjoying many things during her senior year here in America, but two things in particular: basketball and toaster strudels.

For Rreshpja, a transfer student from Shkoder, a town on the Northern end of Albania, lying just south of Montenegro along the southern shores of Lake Skadar and about 20 miles east of the Adriatic Sea, basketball was expected in coming to America. The pastries have been a pleasant surprise.

“All the food is different,” laughs Rreshpja. “I’m just trying to do my best. I need to eat to play basketball, you know? It’s just so hard. Any food in Albania is not like it is here.”

After learning the game of basketball at the age of 12, Rreshpja’s natural athletic talents were on display while playing for the FIBA Women’s Under-16 Albanian National team, where she led her team in scoring and rebounding twice as a 15- and 16-year-old.

Her play caught the eye of Matt Rominger, a coach of the Sacramento Sting AAU All-Star team of local-area talent who asked Rreshpja if she’d like to come play in America – on the other side of the globe and away from her family.

Rreshpja landed at Valley Christian Academy in Roseville for her senior year of high school, where she has excelled in both volleyball and, more specifically, basketball. She’s led the Lady Lions to a 7-0 start as of Dec. 20, the program’s best start to a season since 2014.

“I lost eight seniors last year – five of them being in my starting lineup. I didn’t really know what I was going to be working with,” says VCA girls head coach Kim Contreras. “When Berni came, she was basically that missing piece. Obviously, she has the talent. She has the scoring, the defense and she works so well with the rest of the team.”

Much like her favorite American snack – the strawberry toaster strudel – Rreshpja’s game is sweet and she can get hot in a hurry. Over the first seven games, she’s averaging more than 25 points per game, which included a stretch of three straight games going for 30 or more.

“I could give her the ball and she could easily run it up and get 50 points,” said Contreras. “But she likes to share the ball. There are times when I’m like, ‘stop being so nice. You’re right there, just go ahead and take that shot.’ She’s definitely a team player. She gets everyone involved and pushes them to be their best.”

For a program which has won three Sac-Joaquin Section championships since 2014 – the Lions have also won 68 consecutive league games dating back to 2013 – Rreshpja has goals to continue the winning tradition at VCA.

“We have so much talent – more than they think,” says Rreshpja of her team. “It’s not just Berni, we are a team. We are VCA. We can win; it’s not because of me, it’s because of the team. We play like a team and that’s why we get the win.”

Rreshpja, who was also recently crowned Homecoming Queen, has gained the respect and admiration of her younger teammates as well.

“She’s funny,” says freshman Grace Williams, who Contreras says emulates what Rreshpja does on the court. “(Bernada’s) really good and she’s not selfish with the ball. She’s kind and a good leader.”

Even with some flashy play on the floor, Contreras has been impressed by Rreshpja’s selflessness toward her team.

“Her contributions are more than just scoring,” Contreras says. “She helps coach these kids on the floor. I don’t necessarily have basketball players. I have athletes who are students, and we try to turn them into basketball players. And for her to have the knowledge after only playing so many years; it surprises me.”

Before the season started, Rreshpja signed a letter of intent to play in college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, validating a wish from her parents to be able to pursue education and opportunity in America.

“Here is a lot of opportunities for my life. In Albania, you can’t play college ball. It doesn’t exist,” says Rreshpja. “I wanted to play basketball (after) high school. My mom and my dad were my support. They were like, ‘what’s basketball?’ But I started playing and was getting better and better and my mom and my dad was like, ‘Okay, you need to go… Start playing basketball hard and do your best.’

“Everything I do after a came here was just to make my family proud. That’s my goal. I didn’t have a goal to be the best player in the world. My best play was just to make them proud.”