EDON — As Edon girls basketball coach Caela Walker smiled and stepped onto the floor to clap her encouragement, Edon’s fans cheered louder than they had all afternoon. The Bombers bench jumped up and yelled, too, laughing all the while.
Edon had just broken a 17-17 tie in an early February game against Edgerton with a Marie Haegland layup, as the crowd roared its approval.
But Haegland was perhaps the only person in the gym who didn’t want the crowd to cheer loudly.
She let out a quick smile as she ran down the floor and tried to get back on defense, as encouragement rained down around her. She just wanted to play.
In the moment, sure, it seemed like a normal basket in a typical February game. But for everyone in attendance, and for Haegland, each basket meant just a little more.
Haegland is a foreign exchange student from Norway, who up until August, had never played volleyball, basketball or softball. In just a few weeks, she’ll have played all three for Edon.
The sweet, quiet girl from Oslo, which has a population of nearly 700,000 people, didn’t know what to expect when she came to a place as small as Edon.
“I was worried about going to a tiny place, where there’s nothing to do,” Haegland admitted. “But the people here are amazing. I get to be a part of a community that I’ve never been a part of before.”
And just as Haegland embraced Edon, the community embraced her too.
Nothing seems off to the naked eye, because Haegland has fit in seamlessly at Edon this year. But for the girl nearly 4,000 miles from home, it’s been a journey that neither she nor Edon will forget.
Wes Maier knew Haegland was tall. He just didn’t know how tall.
As he and Jennifer, his wife, anxiously waited for their new host daughter at Fort Wayne International Airport, they knew Haegland had played sports in Norway, and was only a year older than their youngest daughter, Zoe. The Maiers had been a host family before, two years ago when they hosted an Italian girl, Marta.
This time would be a different experience. They knew Haegland played handball and came from a good home in Norway, so as the two looked through applications, Haegland’s name stuck out the most.
That’s what brought Wes and Jennifer to pick up Haegland in late July, and as the 5-foot-11 Haegland left the plane — she was the last one off — Wes thought, ‘Wow, she is tall.’
The Maiers gave their introductions to Haegland with ‘Welcome to the U.S.’ signs in their hands before they turned and headed toward Haegland’s new home on a cattle farm in Edon, a place with less people than her school in Norway.
“That’s not what you imagine, you imagine coming to see the big cities and how America is pictured on TV,” Haegland said. “This is a big part of the American life as well, because very many people live like this.”
Everything was new to her. The lifestyles, the culture, the people.
“We live on a cattle farm and we raise cattle, and we eat our cattle,” Wes said. “They don’t have easy access to beef, where we eat meat with about every meal. She was near-vegetarian for every meal with the exception of some fish, so that was a big transition for her.”
Haegland did find comfort, though, in Pop-Tarts and Oreos. She loves the different flavors of Oreos and has tried more than 20 flavors, Wes said.
But food wasn’t the only big transition for her. She still had to get accustomed to living in an area where everyone knows each other.
“Somebody from Fairview even said something to her during (a football scrimmage), and she’s like, ‘It’s like they knew I was Norwegian,’” Jennifer recalled. “I told her, ‘They do.’ With Snapchat or Instagram, they know you’re a foreign exchange student. They’re excited for you.”
Another task for Haegland to overcome has been translating. Scandinavian countries teach English as a second language, but certain words and lingo has been sometimes difficult to understand, as she’ll have to translate everything said to her, and everything she’s about to say.
Haegland’s English is strong, but there will still be a few words or phrases that trip her up from time to time. She’s gotten better as the year has gone on. School is different, too,
Throughout the entire process, Haegland has remained the quiet, funny person that she’s always been. She still finds it unique and overwhelming when people compliment her.
“When someone says, ‘You’re really great at basketball,’ she’ll say ‘Oh, I’m not,” but that’s a Norwegian thing, they’re humble,” Wes said. “Interaction with the public and everything else, she gets totally embarrassed. It embarrasses her totally and she wishes that nobody would cheer.”
Haegland is set to graduate this June, even though she’ll have one more year of school left to complete in Norway. She’ll head back to Norway shortly after graduation.
“It’s kind of funny, one of her goals would be just to blend in, but she’s a Norwegian in Edon,” Jennifer said. “My kids went to daycare with half of the kids in her class, so they’ve known each other since they were toddlers. And Marie is new, and she’s exciting, and people are so excited to meet her.”
One of Haegland’s first questions about basketball was if she was allowed to tackle.
A handball player in Norway, Haegland had never played organized basketball before. After a season on the volleyball team, she was set to try basketball, too. And before she even started, Haegland had a key attribute on her side — she’s tall.
At 5-foot-11, Haegland had the natural size to play at forward. With her footwork she learned in Norway, she became one of Edon’s better defenders this season.
“She makes our girls better in practice, you have to go up against her and she’s strong, she’s quick and she’s long,” Walker, who was also Marie’s volleyball coach, said. “It’s allowed our girls to get better going up bigger, faster, quicker girls. We’re not a very big team, so it’s nice to be able to throw Marie in and be able to contest shots.”
Haegland, the girl who was watching YouTube videos of basketball before the season, was sometimes tasked with covering the opponent’s best player this season, too.
With a good base of footwork and coordination from her time as a handball player, she improved rapidly as the volleyball and basketball seasons progressed.
“I didn’t know anything about either volleyball or basketball before I got here, so she’s taught me everything,” Haegland said of Walker. “She’s been very helpful and encouraging and patient. She’s been amazing and I couldn’t ask for any other coach.
During that time, she fit in nicely with her new teammates, where she was just one of two seniors on this year’s team.
“The girls have really taken her under their wing and make her feel like this is home,” Walker said.
Next up for Haegland is softball, where she’ll try a completely new sport with new coaches and teammates. But judging by the past, there won’t be a problem at all with the transition.
“There’s no reason why you wouldn’t love this girl,” Walker said. “She’s the sweetest, most kind-hearted person I think you’ll ever come across. She’s so sweet, I can’t even describe it. She’s been a joy to have in an addition to our team and the community.”
Haegland didn’t want to have a senior night.
She was self-conscious about walking out onto the floor in front of her teammates and community, so she told Jennifer, ‘We don’t have to do this, I’m not really a senior.’
Jennifer replied, ‘Of course you are. We’re doing this.’ So Haegland went through with her senior night for volleyball, unsure of what to expect.
She was then given gifts by her teammates and host parents, as she and four other seniors took center stage for the night’s match. What happened, though, shocked Haegland.
“The gifts, she was just overwhelmed by the community support that the small town, community does,” Jennifer said. “She took it home, sat it on the table and said, ‘I can’t believe it.’
For the people Haegland’s met, they’ll remember the bubbly, shy Norwegian girl as family.
“Now we’ve got family in other places,” Jennifer said. “We’ve got an Italian daughter, now we’ve got a Norwegian daughter. Their parents have become part of our lives, and it’s really neat to have those relationships that are more.”
Haegland’s journey into small-town Ohio has been one she’ll never forget. The lifestyle is something she said she never would’ve known existed if not for this experience.
She might not have been comfortable with the cheering or the compliments directed her way, but the memories she’ll take away are the people who directed those cheers, the people who welcomed her into the tight-knit community and the people who gave her Pop-Tarts and Oreos.
“The people,” Haegland said of what she’ll miss most. “The friends that I’ve got here, they’re kind of everything I have here because I had to start all over. It means a lot to me with how nice they’ve been, and how welcoming. Oh, and some of the food, of course. Like Pop-Tarts.”