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Winning sole focus at this point of career for Blazejewski

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Hailing from a small town in Northern Michigan and Maria Blazejewski is still pinching herself with the worldwide experiences basketball keeps bringing her, but winning is what matters and that’s what she hopes to help the Cockburn Cougars keep doing.

Having grown up in Beulah, a town of only 300 people, and then going on to graduate Benzie Country High School and ultimately Lake Superior State University, Blazejewski had no clue the wild ride international basketball would take her on.

Since her first stop in the Czech Republic in 2013, Blazejewski has played at 15 different teams across eight countries – Germany, Luxembourg, Puerto Rico, Portugal, France, Australia and Switzerland.

It’s been quite the journey and earlier in her career it was only natural for Blazejewski to be focused on putting up the best numbers she could to keep her career rolling. But now at 33 years of age, nothing matters more than being in a happy environment and part of a winning team.

Blazejewski is fresh off being part of French club Chartres winning a championship even if she didn’t see as much court time as she hoped as an injury replacement. Now it was the chance help the Cougars keep winning that brought her to Cockburn for the rest of the 2024 NBL1 West season.

Settling in already at the Cougars

Blazejewski has now been back in Perth for just over two weeks and couldn’t be happier to be enjoying her second stop living in WA, and the way she has already been embraced by the Cougar Family.

“It’s going really well already and it’s actually felt really nice to come back to a place somewhat familiar,” Blazejewski said.

“I really liked Perth from a couple of years ago so even though it’s a new club, it doesn’t feel like so much of a big change. I think I’ve played at five different teams since I was here two years so there has been a lot of starting over, but coming back to somewhere I’d played before was a bit of a sigh of relief.

“I at least kind of know where I’m going and there are familiar faces on this team and around the league. Everyone has been so nice already, the club is very welcoming and I’m getting to know my teammates better. It’s been really fun so far and I’m just looking forward to getting on the court more with everybody.”

Not the perfect start in first game

While Blazejewski’s start to her Cougars career didn’t get off to the ideal start with her hurting an ankle in the win against the Perry Lakes Hawks leading her to missing last week’s win over the Willetton Tigers, she’s fitting in well.

Blazejewski is confident she’ll be back for this weekend’s double-header as well starting on Saturday evening on the road to the Joondalup Wolves and then at home to the Goldfields Giants on Sunday.

“Things happen and at first I was so disappointed about hurting the ankle, but as far as injuries go it could be way worse and really I have nothing to complain,” she said.

“It’s just part of it so I just have to try to take care of myself doing the rehab, getting back into it and coming back to play as soon as I can, hopefully that is this weekend.”

Being accustomed to joining new teams

Since Blazejewski last played in the NBL1 West with East Perth back in 2022, she has played in Switzerland for Troistorrents, Germany for both Wings Leverkusen and Rheinland Lions, and then most recently in France where she was part of a championship with Chartres that saw them earn a promotion.

She also spent the NBL1 North season in 2023 at the Ipswich Force and it had been a similar journey over the previous decade too since Blazejewski finished her college career.

So joining new teams and going from country to country is something she is used to, but that doesn’t mean each new stop doesn’t have its challenges.

“There’s still always an adjustment period each time, but I think you get more used to knowing what to expect and more used to know the first weeks will always be tough,” Blazejewski said.

“You know that once you get through that initial period of time, you’ll feel more comfortable but I think this last year or so for me has had so much change. To be honest I’m a little bit over showing up halfway through somewhere new, so that’s why I knew I wanted to go back to a league in Australia I’d played at before.

“I wanted to be somewhere I could see some friends and where I knew what to expect with the competition. Even here when I first got here, I did have to get to know each other and try to figure out our style, how we play and what’s my role. But it’s been two weeks now that I’ve been here and I’m already feeling better and like I have my bearings.

“And it’s crazy that I feel like I’m here at the start, but I’m not and there’s only seven games left so it’s kind of hard to wrap my head around that. The team has been playing so well, though, and I just know all I need to do is come in and add whatever I can to the good things they are already doing.”

Excited about role on this Cougars team

At this point in Blazejewski’s career, coming back to familiar environments and places she has enjoyed playing and living was something important to her.

She had just finished her returns to Germany and France, and she knew she wanted to come back to Australia to play in the NBL1, but having played at East Perth back in 2022 and with Ipswich in 2023, she was open to returning either to Queensland or WA.

However, what got her over the line to come back to the NBL1 West was her conversations with Cougars coach Tyrone Thwaites and the role that he saw her playing with the defending champions.

Blazejewski doesn’t want to have to join teams and be seen as the saviour any more, so the chance to join a front court with Jessie Edwards, Daniel Raber and the emerging Harriet Ford, and to play with guards Jewel Williams, Alex Ciabattoni and Steph Gorman was impossible to say no to.

“It was quite different of a role because as a foreigner or import player, sometimes it’s the complete opposite and they look at you to come in and save the day,” Blazejewski said.

“It was actually a really good conversation I had with Tyrone because in my previous NBL1 experiences it was on teams where they needed me to go out and score 20, and do this, this and this to help us get a win.

“But in this situation it was a totally different role and I like playing team basketball. I love that when you’re out there anybody on your team can go off and at this point I’m looking at what I can do to make people around me better.

“The older you get the more I think you stop worrying about your own numbers and now it’s about what else can I bring so this situation is pretty cool. Even looking at the two games since I’ve been here, I feel like there is five or six people on our team who it could be their night.

“It’s kinda cool and even last week as much as I wished I could play, it gave me a chance to take it all in and learn more about my team.”

Playing to win now and not for next contract

Another thing helping Blazejewski feel less pressure when she now joins a new team is the fact that she isn’t feeling that same cloud hanging over her head of making sure she has a next stop in place to ensure her career continues.

Now that she has been doing this for more than a decade, Blazejewski is confident that a next stop will eventuate, but what she wants to do now more than ever is to enjoy the current place she’s at now and not worrying about what’s coming next.

“The next contract thing is stressful when you’re an import player and I think at the beginning of my career for a while it was always in the back of my mind about where I was going next, and if a team would want me,” Blazejewski said.

“It becomes very stressful and it’s not really fun to play that way because you don’t enjoy where you’re at. So now I am focusing on enjoying where I’m at now and not really worrying about the next contract.

“Even within the last three years for me, things are always coming up and I just have that faith it will all work out. So ultimately winning for me has always been the most important thing and I want to be in teams where we’re winning.

“That still holds a ton of weight but at this point I don’t even know where I’m going next, and I don’t really care. Let’s just try and win it all and that’s all I’m focusing on.”

Chance for great Grand Final occasion this year

Blazejewski’s decision being right to come back to the NBL1 West was confirmed to her when she found out this year’s Grand Final would be played a women’s and men’s double-header at RAC Arena.

She has played in some amazing environments in Europe including this past season in France, but the possibility of playing in front of 10,000-plus people at RAC Arena later this year is quite the enticement.

In the big picture, even if the Cougars don’t happen to make it, she knows what a big deal it is and she’ll be keen to be along to watch anyway.

“That’s super exciting and having that platform for people to come and see men’s and women’s basketball players, I think it’s such a cool step for NBL1,” Blazejewski said.

“I’ve played in some big arenas and even in my last experience in France it was so cool seeing that full arena, but to have that here with the bigger capacity is really exciting. I just hope we get to play there now, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that happen obviously.”

Life overseas as a professional basketballer

Having grown up in a small town in Benzie County and then still attending college in Michigan at Lake Superior State, Blazejewski wasn’t quite aware of the possibility to make a professional career playing basketball all over the world.

When she finished college she didn’t quite know what was in store, but then the chance to play basketball internationally presented, and she has never looked back.

“I could have not pictured this at all to be honest. From where I’m from in a small town, it was just a big deal to be able to get a scholarship to college and play,” she said.

“At that point especially you didn’t hear about people playing overseas but on one of my college visits there was a player who had just graduated and she was about to play in Portugal.

“That was the first time I had really ever heard about or had it hit close to home that it was something possible as a basketball player. So I was just thinking I might play for a couple of years and experience that, and then just go home and get my master’s or go into college coaching.”

Blazejewski sure got some strange looks from her friends back home and even parents when she initially told them she was going down the path of heading overseas to play basketball.

The first stop was the Czech Republic and ever since she went to Germany, Luxembourg, Puerto Rico, Portugal, France, Australia and Switzerland, and has now had multiple stops in Portugal, Puerto, Germany France, and this is her third visit down under.

It has ended up being everything and more she ever couldn’t have imagined when graduating college in 2013, but that doesn’t mean it’s all been an easy or smooth ride.

“When I told people back home I was going to try playing overseas they had no idea what I was talking about,” Blazejewski said.

“They literally thought I was crazy and even my parents couldn’t understand, but they were the ones who also told me to start tracking down players who have done it and find out what their experience was like.

“So they were fully supportive but it was tough because people would be asking why I wasn’t following the expected path, but I’m so glad I went this route and it’s been amazing.

“I never would have thought I would play 10 or 11 years and experienced eight countries now, and multiple times some of them. Getting to travel the world doing something you love is such a blessing.

“Even though there are tough times and you are away from home, and there’s a lot of struggles, at the end of the day, when you leave a place you sit on the plane pretty proud of what you did in a foreign country and what you overcame, and experienced.

“I love to play and compete, but it’s also my ticket to see the world, and I’m kind of doing retirement in reverse.”

What might come after playing career

There’s no reason to think that Blazejewski doesn’t still have several years left in her playing career, but she’s also started to look into the future about what life might be like once she does stop playing.

While it’s very different to her parents who had the same careers for more than 30 years before retiring and now getting to experience new things overseas including visiting places their daughter is playing, Blazejewski is excited knowing she has several options.

She’s not quite she what path she might end up following, but she’s excited to find out how it all pans out.

“I think my initial vision has changed a little bit over the years because I’m no longer 22. I always thought I would get into strength and conditioning, and I did my degree in exercise science and I dabbled in that for a while,” Blazejewski said.

“Coaching is something I am still considering and I’ve also found that sports psychology has been so helpful to me in my career. I started seeing one a few years ago and it’s been game changing for me so I’ve considered going down that path to see if I can spread that awareness to help athletes.

“I’ve also done a bit of work with the agency that represents me and have dabbled in that so I’m just keeping my options open, and trying to find that thing that’s a passion for me and waiting to see what it is that grabs onto me.

“I’ve become more exciting to think about the future now that I know that time is coming where I will have the chance to start a whole new career.”

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