Last fall, Jaroslav Ruta was among the international students to enroll at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.
Building relationships among students from far-away places and diverse backgrounds can be challenging, but it often proves beneficial for all involved.
Ruta, a senior from Brno, Czech Republic, proved that he is fitting in quite nicely on the basketball court at MCI. The rugged 6-foot-4 forward powered his way to a game-high 22 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday morning to help the No. 5 Huskies grind out a 58-52 victory over No. 4 Oceanside of Rockland in a Class B North boys quarterfinal at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
‚ÄúIt was one of the best atmospheres I‚Äôve ever had in my life. I was just amazed,‚ÄĚ said Ruta, who has worked his way back from an ankle injury that has hampered him for the last several games.
Coach Josh Tardy‚Äôs Huskies (15-4) advance to play the winner of Saturday afternoon‚Äôs Hermon-Presque Isle game. The Mariners finished the season at 13-6 and endured the program‚Äôs fourth loss in as many quarterfinal appearances at the Cross Center.
MCI won the only regular-season meeting between the two teams, 58-54, on Feb. 1.
Ruta feels fortunate to be able to study and play basketball in the U.S., especially with a group of teammates with which he has bonded.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm trying to get to college. This is my dream, so I‚Äôm working for it,‚ÄĚ Ruta said.
‚ÄúOur team and coaches are just awesome, so I [could] perfectly fit in with the team. They welcomed me.‚ÄĚ
Tardy said inheriting the talented Ruta was a blessing that his team embraced.
‚ÄúSome of these [international] kids are talented and this year they have bonded as a team and that‚Äôs the key,‚ÄĚ he said.
Ruta helped set a confident and physical tone for MCI against a longer, more finesse-style Oceanside ballclub. He also was part of the Huskies‚Äô aggressive defense, which implemented a triangle-and-two look in the hope of slowing down seniors Cooper Wirkala (18 points, 5 rebounds) and Trevor Reed (7 points, 13 rebounds).
‚ÄúI told them I wanted to have a brawl and if a basketball game broke out, that might not be good for us,‚ÄĚ Tardy said with a chuckle.
The Mariners led by as many as nine points (22-13) late in the first half, but the Huskies hung close with a balanced lineup that also featured senior Joe Cloutier (10 points, 5 rebounds), sophomore Gavin McArthur (8 points, 8 rebounds), and seniors Hayden Caldwell (8 points), Daniel Garamvolgyi (7 points) and Jose Ignacio Montes-Valverde (4 rebounds).
‚ÄúThese guys, they‚Äôve got that experience, that leadership, that commitment to each other,‚ÄĚ Tardy said.
MCI grabbed the momentum midway through the fourth quarter as Ruta‚Äôs conventional three-point play and Garamvolgyi‚Äôs fast-break layup trimmed Oceanside‚Äôs lead to 39-38 with 3:34 left.
The Huskies regained the lead with 49 seconds to play on a Caldwell layup, but Wirkala made a shot from the lane with 28 seconds left to force overtime at 43-43.
‚ÄúThey got down 8, 10 points, [but] they kept believing,‚ÄĚ Tardy said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs about getting stops and doing the little things.‚ÄĚ
The Huskies controlled the extra period as Cloutier scored from the paint, Caldwell sank two free throws and McArthur converted a low-post move to forge a six-point advantage with 2:13 to play.
Wirkala sandwiched a 3-pointer and two foul shots around a basket by McArthur, but Ruta‚Äôs fast-break layup restored the lead to 53-48 and the Mariners never got closer than four the rest of the way.