Camas gets benefit of foreign aid

Jenka Stiasna of Slovakia helps Camas basketball reach round of 16

By Paul Valencia, Columbian High School Sports Reporter



CAMAS The pre-game warmups.

The player introductions.

And then, the national anthem of the United States of America.

Jenka Stiasna had seen this before, but now she was experiencing it, her first game for the Camas girls basketball team.

“Oh my gosh. This is like dream. I saw this in American movie once,” Stiasna recalled of her reaction a couple months back.

Today, Stiasna has one of the starring roles, yet this is no movie.

It does, perhaps, have a storybook ending.

The Camas Papermakers have reached the state round of 16 for the first time since 1978.

If they defeat Franklin of Seattle at regionals on Saturday in Bellevue, they will make it to the Tacoma Dome for the Class 3A state tournament.

“I was told we can get to Tacoma,” Stiasna said. “Tacoma. What is this?”

It’s a city in the Puget Sound area with a big dome arena where all the best Class 4A and 3A high schools get together every year to determine a champion.

Yet, even if it is the destination choice of high school basketball players, the dome likely will not be as impressive to Stiasna as Camas High School.

“I’m in heaven. I came into the gym. Oh my, such a nice gym,” she said. “And the weight room. Wow.”

Stiasna is a long way from her home in Zvolen, Slovakia, a city of about 40,000. She became a foreign exchange student to play basketball in the United States, with hopes of playing college basketball here.

At 6-foot-2, quick on her feet, and strong with her hands and body, she likely will get that chance. A junior, she will not, however, get a chance to play basketball for Camas next year. Washington rules allow for only one year of athletics for exchange students.

Instead, the plan is for her to go back home to Slovakia in the summer, then return to another state perhaps Michigan, where she has family to finish high school.

For now, she is grateful she found Camas.

In a way, Camas found her.

Scott and Michelle Preuninger are her host parents, the leaders of a bunch of basketball junkies. Kendra is Jenka’s host sister and also a junior with the Papermakers. An older brother, Drew, is finishing his senior season at Concordia University.

Kendra said they were given profiles of six possible students. The first one they looked at had an interest in drama.

“She would have been bored at our house,” Kendra said. “We go to Drew’s games as much as we can, and I watch a lot of NBA.”

Then they found Jenka, who loves the NBA, too.

She went to her first game in Portland when the Blazers took on the Clippers.

“I was shaking when I saw Blake Griffen,” Stiasna said.

The Preuninger family gave Jenka a West Coast welcome. The day after they picked her up at the airport, they all took off on a road trip. Los Angeles, Disneyland, San Diego, Sea World, even Las Vegas.

“I was like open-mouth the whole time,” Stiasna said.

She also used the trip to improve her English. She said she was shy, at first, because her English was not solid. By the end of the trip, she was one of the gang.

“Sitting in the car and trying to listen,” she said. “I know what I want to explain, but it no perfect English.”

Perfectly understandable English, though.

Of course, she knows the language of basketball. But even her first encounter with some of her teammates made her wonder. It was the day of her arrival to the Northwest, and she had very little sleep when Preuninger took her to a nearby park to meet up with other Papermakers.

Preuninger nailed a long trick shot. Stiasna struggled that day.

“I did not making nothing,” she said.

“It’s because you were tired,” Preuninger offered.

Still, Stiasna was concerned.

“Can I play here?” she asked herself.

She quickly answered that. Averaging better than 10 points per game and giving Camas a defensive presence inside, she was voted to the second-team all-Class 3A Greater St. Helens League squad.

Camas finished second in the league and then second at district, and ended up going 3-1 in the bi-district tournament to advance to regionals.

“I still don’t really get it,” Stiasna said of the playoff system.

“It’s the top 16 teams in the state,” Preuninger tells her. “They just call it the Sweet 16. Then the Elite Eight.”

Preuninger, also a junior, was a freshman on the Camas team that won the district title. That accomplishment hangs on the banner for the girls program. The only other thing on that banner is 1978, a state tournament participant.

That’s why the players wear No. 78 on their practice jerseys.

“Our banner only has (two) things on it,” Preuninger said. “We’re probably the worst athletic program in Camas.”

Historically speaking, that might be true. But the Papermakers are trying to change history. Under the most recent format, making it to the round of 16 would be considered going to state. But this year, the Papermakers have to make it to the final eight to be considered state participants.

No matter. This season has been a success, and the Papermakers believe they can make it to the dome.

“I’m so glad I could be a part of this program,” Stiansa said. “I helped, I hope.”

Yes, she did.

“She’s just got a passion for the game,” Camas coach Chuck Knight said. “She goes hard all the time. She’s a gym rat. And she probably is the strongest player I’ve coached at the high school level.”

The Papermakers have Jenka Stiasna for at least one more game, and perhaps a few more the following week.

Stiasna has seen enough of America to know she wants to return for her senior year somewhere.

“I don’t know how to explain it. Slovakia will still be in my heart,” she said. “I miss my family, friends, and everyone, but I don’t want to go home.”