Jan. 16, 2008
By Darren Shimp
The homemade t-shirt Kyla Evans was wearing under her warm-ups said it all.
She had on a plain white tee with a checklist, decorated with permanent marker, explaining exactly what jovial freshman Tatjana Sparavalo, or "Tanja," brings to the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team.
"Rim, Pull up J, 3 Ball."
"She's got it all, check, check, check," said Eagles freshman Evans. "She can get to the rim, she can pull up for the jumper, or she can shoot the three-ball."
Amid the team's seven-game losing skid, the 6-foot guard has now become a pivotal player on the squad with recent injuries depleting the Eagles' backcourt.
"Over the last couple of weeks Tanja has really adapted," Eagles head coach Wendy Schuller said. "It's such a different style of play coming from Europe and playing in America; some things she had to adapt to and learn. Socially, things are different."
Learn she has, as the Novi Sad, Serbia, native has seen not only a hike in her playing time, starting the last three games for the Eagles, but her scoring average has gone up as well. Sparavalo has tripled her points per game from 2.7 to 8.2 over the last month, leading the team in scoring over that seven-game span (15.3).
She also leads the team in field goal percentage (46.2) for the season.
"I was waiting for the opportunity," said Sparavalo. "It's a huge transition for me from playing European basketball to American basketball. I've had problems with traveling and turning it over a lot in the first part (of the season)."
Sparavalo's transitions have extended beyond the Reese Court walls.
"Once that first (academic) quarter ended, she changed and grew up quite a bit," said Schuller. "I think the same transformation happened for her on the basketball floor."
After putting up a career-high 12 points at San Francisco on Dec. 15, Sparavalo checked into the second half at Pacific (Dec. 18) having missed her only shot in the first half. She then scorched the Tigers' nets with 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the 82-74 loss.
"We were down like 20, and I thought `I've got nothing to lose' and the shots went in," said Sparavalo. "I got lucky. I could have missed all the shots."
"We pretty much jumped on her back and rode her the whole second half," said Evans.
Upon returning to Washington, the favor was returned as Sparavalo and the two Serbians on the men's team, freshman Petar Milasinovic and junior Milan Stanojevic, rode with Evans for a three-day Winter Break getaway to Kyla's hometown, Brewster, Wash.
The stay at Evans' house included home-cooked meals from Kyla's mother, who had a Serbian surprise for the trio.
"They have this thing in Serbia during the holidays they eat called `Russian Salad,'" said Evans. "My mom Googled the recipe and made it for them. It was really cool."
"It was a surprise and it was delicious," Sparavalo said.
Among the fine dining was relaxation in the Evans' hot tub, where Pacific Northwest scenery was at its finest with snowy mountain-top views.
"It was amazing. I live in a remote area, really snowy," said Evans. "They couldn't believe it."
The secluded escape was a nice reprieve from the rigors of the long basketball season.
"It was great. Kyla's family is nice, and Kyla is my best friend here," Sparavalo said. "We had a great time."
Now back in Cheney, Sparavalo can be seen in pre-game warm-ups with a smile, showing teammates street-ball style, contortionist dribbling skills, as well as shooting no-look threes that hit nothing but net.
"She has the sickest pull-up jumper I've ever seen," said Evans.
With junior Katy Baker's knee injury ending her season and Evans now out 4-6 weeks with an injured left foot, the southpaw Sparavalo's contributions in the backcourt will continue to be heavily relied upon.
"I'll probably be playing 30 or more (minutes)," Sparavalo said. "It's going to be hard every game, giving 100 percent, playing hard in practice. There's a lot of pressure on all of us."
With the team now down to eight dressed players, the Eagles will be facing adversity for the remainder of the Big Sky slate.
"With Baker and Kyla out, we're looking at her as one of our main perimeter threats, her and Amy Bratvold," said Schuller.
Coach Schuller also mentioned Tanja as compassionate and popular among her teammates.
"She's just a nice kid, and her teammates understand that she really cares about them and cares about the team," Schuller said.
Evans' sentiments were the same.
"She's my best friend," said Evans. "She's just awesome."