Bendigo basketballer makes the grade at West Texas A&M
FORGET the Spanish tradition of running with the bulls. The small US university town of Canyon boasts a living, breathing buffalo named Thunder to trot out as its college mascot.
It is one of the more unusual aspects of daily life that Bendigo teenager Maddison Wild has come to terms with since landing at West Texas A&M University last year and signing on with its basketball team, the Lady Buffs.
"There are people at the college (known as Herdsmen) who feed and care for it and run it through the streets during parades," says Wild, who has returned home during college break.
Buffalo fans had plenty to cheer about during the 2013-14 season, as the Lady Buffs stampeded all the way to the national college basketball championship final.
They finished top of the Lone Star Conference and won their regional final in front of a 5000 parochial home-town fans, progressing to the NCAA division two Elite Eight and Final Four.
Though they lost the grand final play-off in a heartbreaker to Bentley University, the experience was a dream introduction for Wild to the elite US student sporting system.
"I always aspired to go to college and play basketball - it was my dream since I was about 14.
"It was unfortunate to end the season with that loss, but just to get there was phenomenal.
"Everyone wants to play in the national championships but no one thinks it's going to happen. Our team didn't even make the regional tournament last year, so nobody was expecting it.
"We were up by eight points with three minutes to go and everyone was excited, thinking maybe we were actually going to win. Then Bentley scored six points in 13 seconds and it was a ball game again. It went downhill from there and we lost by nine...
"But it has just made us hungry to go back again and win it next time."
Wild grew up in Epsom with parents Ray and Carolyn and older brother Jackson, who she followed into the sport of basketball.
She played domestic competition for Generals, made Junior Braves and Lady Braves development squads, and was selected to line up for Victoria Country at under-16 and under-18 level, as well as Victoria's under-20 team.
Standing 183cm by the time she was 14, Wild's height was a big advantage on the court but led to two early shoulder reconstructions caused by growing too quickly for her own body.
During her final year of high school at Girton Grammar in 2012, she began eyeing a possible future college career.
"I made a five-minute highlight video - including games for Vic Country, the Braves, and just me playing around - and put together a resume including my height, build, strengths and weaknesses," the 19-year-old says.
"A family friend from Albury-Wodonga went to junior college at North West Missouri and I asked her to give my recruiting stuff to her coach to pass on to whoever might be interested.
"He liked what he saw, and asked me over for an official visit."
Wild travelled to the US to meet coach Mark Kellogg at NWM but he ended up resigning and taking a job at West Texas A&M, later offering her a spot on the roster there.
That's how she ended up in the tiny cotton-growing, cattle-farming community of Canyon, population 13,000 including 8000 uni students, six hours north-west of Dallas.
"The first three months were the hardest," she says. "I was homesick every day, calling mum and dad crying. Eventually I came to the realisation that my parents were coming over for Christmas, home was always going to be there for me, and I needed to push myself a bit.
"I'd always dreamed of doing it so I couldn't just give up so early - I did think about quitting, but I am so glad I didn't."
I was homesick every day... (but) I'd always dreamed of doing it so I couldn't just give up so early. I did think about quitting, but I am so glad I didn't.
Not only did Wild eventually settle into the place she says she now considers "my home away from home", she made an immediate impression on her new basketball mentors.
Most college freshmen spend their first year sitting on the sidelines, but Wild averaged eight minutes a game and even made it onto the court - and the scoreboard - in the final play-off.
"I had been expecting to just sit on the bench and maybe play in games where we were up by 20 or 40 points," she says. "We had four freshmen and two were red-shirted, meaning they sit out the season and just train. The other one averaged one or two minutes, so I was very surprised at my court time."
Coach Kellogg told a Texan newspaper that Wild had made more progress in her first year than any player he had coached in his 15-year career. High praise indeed.
But there has been a lot of hard work along the way, as Wild is quick to point out to anyone who thinks that college life is one big party. Not for serious athletes, it isn't.
"It's actually a job, from 9am til 6pm or however late you finish training," she explains, "and we had a no-drinking policy during the season.
"I went from playing three games a week and training two or three times a week for two hours in Bendigo, to training every day, except Sundays.
"You get up, go to class, go to the gym and practice for three hours then go and lift weights. You go home after six o'clock so tired you just want to go to bed. Then you do exactly the same thing the next day, so it's such a big lifestyle change."
Wild says her fitness and body movement has improved dramatically under the tough regime.
"I've been working with bigger and better post players and they are telling me what to do so I'm learning so much off them," she explains.
"Little things, like how to move my body around someone else's.
"My role was more as a defensive player and a hustle player, diving on the loose ball and going up for rebounds, which is why we need strength and why we work so hard to be able to out-muscle other teams."
The full-on training schedule was not the only new challenge Wild had to get used to.
"When I first got there, they couldn't understand me because we talk so fast and drop letters in words," she laughs, "even though I speak very clear, proper English.
"I'd say 'Saturday', but it sounded like 'sad day' to them and they'd ask why was tomorrow a sad day? In the end I literally had to put on a Texan accent so they could understand me."
That included adopting the popular local phrase "Y'all", a contraction of "you all".
"I came home and said that at basketball training here and they couldn't believe I'd just said 'y'all' - I have to stop myself and say 'you guys' instead."
College food was also hard to stomach for someone used to mum's home cooking and a ready supply of fresh veggies from her family garden.
"There's so much takeaway and junk food. I'm meant to be an elite athlete having a balanced diet, but the food on campus was always hamburgers, fries and pizzas with only a small salad bar. No veggies or fruit," she says.
"In second semester, I ended up going to a team-mate’s house off campus a couple of times a week and we'd cook for ourselves there."
Wild plans to move in with several team-mates in a three-bedroom house when she returns for her sophomore college year in August.
Her goals include to keep developing as a player and step up to become more of a leader within the group, as well as studying subjects in the field of sport and exercise science.
In the meantime, Wild is enjoying being back in Bendigo and catching up with friends.
She has a job detailing cars at Bendigo Toyota, is playing with the Young Lady Braves in the Big V youth league, and is on court for Strathfieldsaye in Bendigo's women's championship.
Wild now dreams of perhaps one day shooting hoops professionally in Europe, but would also love to pull on Bendigo Spirit's blue and gold jersey and tread the boards in the WNBL.
If only we could come up with a live mascot to march through the Hargreaves Mall with the local ladies, she may feel even more at home.