The University of Idaho won three Big Sky conference championships in seven days late last month — and the Vandals filled their trophy case thanks in large part to athletes who left their home countries to pursue their dreams in remote Moscow, Idaho.
The top three women's golfers, all six men's tennis singles starters and every women's tennis player are international athletes. Those three championship teams have brought 16 international athletes to U of I; the rest of the athletic department has a combined 18.
The tennis teams, in fact, are coached by brothers from Pakistan. Men's coach Abid Akbar is a former Vandals player who was part of the international wave that has made Idaho tennis a multiyear success across both genders.
"I'm so happy for my players," Akbar said. "They've got best friends on three different continents. It's just such a beautiful thing, so good for diversity, so good for people to learn how everyone is really the same. ... It makes me a better person, a better coach."
Akbar's program has won three of the past four men's tennis titles in the Big Sky, finishing second the other year. His older brother, Babar Akbar, leads a women's program that has won five straight conference titles, including all four since rejoining the Big Sky. And Lisa Johnson's women's golf program has delivered two championships in the past four years, plus medalist honors in 2018 and 2016 for junior Sophie Hausmann of Germany.
Hausmann landed at Idaho after Johnson decided she needed to make an effort to recruit in Europe, where girls golf is played internationally and at a high level. Players such as Hausmann, who had the swing and game to succeed but hadn't quite put together the elite scores, are a boon for a program like Idaho's, which faces stiff competition for top American players.
Johnson first met Hausmann at a British girls golf tournament, about two weeks before the German was due to arrive in Moscow and after she signed with the Vandals.
"I had all these college coaches joking with me, 'Oh, when Sophie gets really good and wants to transfer, she can come play for me,' " said Johnson, who previously coached at Boise State as Lisa Wasinger. "... We have the luxury of looking at what we think the potential of a player will be."
The Vandals' lineup also includes players from Canada and Panama. Two Taiwanese players join the program in the fall. Three players from Washington and one from Utah round out the roster.
Girls golf in the Northwest, Johnson said, hasn't produced as many college-level players in recent years.
"The Northwest kids just weren't strong enough to get us to where I thought we needed to be," she said. "I definitely have the philosophy that we need Americans on our team ... it's going to be a mix. But at the end of the day, I'm going to try to get the best player I can get to Idaho."
The Vandals will compete in an NCAA regional beginning Monday in Madison, Wis. They're long shots to advance but Hausmann could be a factor on the individual side. She's dealing with a back injury — she didn't even finish her practice round at the Big Sky tournament — and is trying to take a low-key approach to regionals. She finished second at the Big Sky event last year after she put too much pressure on herself and struggled in the first round.
"That was one of my goals for the (Big Sky tournament this year), that I stay pretty relaxed and not put any pressure on it," she said. "I knew that what I did last year didn't work out really well."
The men's tennis team will face No. 2 UCLA on May 12 in the NCAA tournament. The Vandals put up a fight last year against Stanford and hope to match that effort this year.
"A realistic goal is to push them and win a few sets from them," senior Mark Kovacs said. "To do anything more than that would be really tough and require all of us to have really good days and our opponents to have not so good days."
Kovacs is from Hungary, recruited in part with help from another Hungarian who was on the team at the time. He has four teammates from Brazil and one from Mexico. He also has played with Vandals from Australia, Spain and Ukraine during his career.
"It's fun," he said. "It's nice to see how people from different continents and cultures can come to play on the same team for the same goal."
The women's tennis team opens NCAA play May 11 against No. 13 Pepperdine. The seven-player roster represents Spain, Taiwan, Portugal (two), Italy (two) and Australia. Marianna Petrei of Italy also has qualified for the NCAA singles tournament.
Petrei signed with Idaho without visiting Moscow. She learned about the college tennis option as older friends made the journey to the U.S., and she was contacted by Idaho through Facebook.
"I like the environment. I like the school," said Petrei, who is from northeastern Italy. "I was looking for a place kind of similar to home."
Abid Akbar made a similar choice in 2009, going straight from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Moscow. His father was a tennis player and coach who taught his sons how to play, explained to them why they needed to play in America and found them teams.
"I, myself, had nothing to do with me getting to Idaho," Akbar said. "My dad taught me tennis, he made me fall in love with the sport and then he helped me get here. Not helped me — basically single-handedly got me here."
Akbar spent time as an Idaho assistant after college while playing professionally, including on the Pakistan Davis Cup team. He won a Pakistan national doubles championship with his brother. He was 24 years old when the Idaho men's tennis head coach position became available in 2014-15, and he took "a shot in the dark" by pursuing it.
"I give it my heart and soul," he said. "I'm very grateful and very lucky. I'm still here, still loving it."
There were seven international players on the team his freshman season, and that international flavor has continued under his leadership. The U.S. doesn't have enough college-level talent to stock the nation's programs, Akbar said.
"It's such a great system that you just don't find anywhere else in the world," he said. "It's incredible. ... Professional sports in most countries in the world don't get the treatment you get as a college athlete here. Kids all around the world are just dreaming of coming here, and we welcome them."