When Buffalo Lake-Hector students heard the school was getting a female foreign exchange student/athlete from Finland this year, they probably expected a hockey player. What they got was a 5-foot-11 point guard who handles the ball well and prefers passing over scoring.
"My favorite athlete is Steve Nash," said Maija Mikkola (pronounced (MY-uh MEE-Koh-luh) by telephone Tuesday afternoon. "We play the same position and he is really good at passing the ball. I love to pass, too."
Mikkola did follow the Finland men's hockey team in the recent Olympics. And she follows the Minnesota Wild on television when she can to watch Finnish-born players Mikko Koivu, Anti Miettinen and Nicklas Backstrom, all who played on the Olympic team that earned a bronze medal.
Mikkola has been an integral part of BLH enjoying its best season ever in girls basketball. The Mustangs head into today's Class A state quarterfinals with a 26-4 record, 11 more wins than the previous best finish for a BLH team in the 23 years since the two schools joined forces.
"It's been so much fun," she said. "When I first went to practice, everyone was telling me we were going to have such a good team. Everyone was really excited. Now, everyone is talking about our team. I really like the school spirit in American schools."
Mikkola has been playing basketball since she was seven years old. Finland doesn't have school teams; instead they participate on club teams, much like Junior Olympic volleyball here.
"I played on teams with girls older than me a lot of times," she explained in a distinct accent. "We had a couple of girls on our team that played for the national team."
Mikkola is from Tampere, a city with a population around 200,000. A little bit of a culture shock compared to Hector, a city of 1,100 residents where she currently lives with her host family, Jared and Heather Winkelman.
"I miss my parents and my little sister, but I enjoy it here a lot," she insists. "I'm so busy with basketball that there isn't that much time for anything anyway right now. I hang out with my friends here and we go to movies and things like that. But it's mostly schoolwork and basketball."
Mikkola has been a solid player all season for the upstart Mustangs. She averages 5.3 points, 4 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Although she isn't one to put up 15 shots a game, Mikkola has shown she can score when called upon. Against Class A top-ranked Cedar Mountain/Comfrey, she scored eight straight points to put the Mustangs ahead by 13 points en route to an upset win in the Section 2A-North championship. She finished with a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds in that game. In the 2A championship last Friday, Mikkola added 11 points and four assists. But her biggest asset is her ability to make others around her better.
"She can play so many positions for us that we can create mismatches with her," said BLH coach Josh Tjosaas. "She is very strong off the dribble and is a great passer. She does a lot of no-look passes. She's not a great outside shooter, but she can drive to the basket and is just a tough player to defend."
Mikkola, who turned 18 in January, said there are only a few differences in the rules between basketball in Finland and here. Among them, Finland uses a 24-second clock and only five players can be in the lane when someone is shooting free throws, three from the opposing team and two from the shooter's team.
"The biggest difference is the arenas are so much bigger here than I am used to playing in," said Mikkola. "Much bigger."
Now Mikkola, who isn't in any other sports here, will play in the biggest arena of her life when the Mustangs step on the court at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
"Everyone is telling me how big it is there," she laughed. "I'm not nervous ... yet. I might be Thursday morning, though."