On the list of things we take for granted in Western New York, our proximity to Canada likely ranks high.
Sure, in the Buffalo Niagara region we may think that recruiting women basketball players from our neighbors to the north is a no-brainer, but there's more to hunting in Canada for future college players than just simple convenience.
First consider this statistic -- Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure rank among the top 10 in percentage of Canadians on their roster in NCAA Division I.
Utah ranks first, with six of its 14 women's basketball players from Canada -- 43 percent. Canisius is fourth with 29 percent (four of 14) with St. Bonaventure fifth (25 percent, three of 12) and Niagara eighth (20 percent, three of 15).
Schools in the United States have always been attractive to Canadians since Canadian universities do not give out athletic scholarships.
But what has made Canada an attractive recruiting ground? For starters, the quality of youth basketball is getting better, which produces better players. Credit part of that movement to increased television exposure for the women's game in the United States and on increased opportunities for Canadian men to play in the U.S.
"They understand this is a good deal, they can go to college, get their education paid for and improve their skills," Niagara coach Bill Agronin said. "I think the Canadian government wants its (national women's basketball) program to move up a few notches. When I first started recruiting, the Canadian colleges and sports hierarchy discouraged kids from coming to the States. I tried recruiting a girl from Niagara Falls, Ont., one time and she wanted to play on the Olympic team, so she stayed in Canada. That mind-set has changed and a lot of kids are coming south."
While we usually think of a Southern school as one where tan lines compete with grade point averages, Western New York schools are, after all, still geographically south for Canadians. This is one time where cold and snow don't seem to end up in the negative columns of a recruit's pro-con lists.
"We get a lot of kids who won't give us as good a look because of weather conditions," St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley said. "It doesn't faze kids from Montreal or Toronto."
Many of the Canadians have been starters and high-impact players for the Big 4 teams. Some examples:
For Bona, Audrey Latendresse (Repentigny, Quebec) is a starting forward, second in scoring (9.9) and leading rebounder (5.9).
For Canisius, two starters are Canadian: Megan Lyte (Midhurst, Ont.) is the leading scorer and rebounder (14.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Jessie Lamparski (Hamilton, Ont.) is fifth in scoring (7.5) and leads the team in assists (44) and steals (19). Both are starters. Abby Radunske (New Hamburg, Ont.) averages 8.1 points off the bench.
For Niagara, Jessi Tomasin (Hamilton) is a key three-point shooter, making 41.2 percent of her attempts from that range. Jessica Kemp (Niagara Falls, Ont.), who graduated in 2004, is 12th on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,157 points.
Overall, the landscape of women's college basketball is becoming more like the men's game, at least when it comes to competitive recruiting. A higher profile for the women's game means that college coaches need to be creative in finding and attracting players.
"You've got to flip over every rock you can," Crowley said. "There's some untapped ground, but not much."
"There really isn't a good player out there that every coach doesn't know about," Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. "For us it makes sense because we are so close. Such a huge bulk of the Canadian population is in Southern Ontario and Toronto -- you could drive three hours in almost any other direction and not find that kind of population base."
The other attraction for Canadian student-athletes to Western New York: other Canadian students.
All three schools have general Canadian student populations, with Niagara and Canisius boasting the most. Niagara in particular is attractive to students interested in teaching since its education department has a reciprocal agreement with Ontario for certification.
"We have Canadians on our hockey team, obviously, but we also have a good number of Canadians in our general student population," said Canisius' Zeh. "It feels good for them, I think, to have that. And we're close to home for them so their families can see them play."