Accepting a scholarship to play basketball in America is a massive step for a teenager - luckily Rotorua's Awatea Leach has the perfect role model.

The 19-year-old will move to Texas in August, having signed to play for Collin Community College, 15 years after her aunty Aroha Haumaha became the first Māori woman from Rotorua to receive a basketball scholarship to America.

Awatea, who was Rotorua Girls' High School deputy head girl in 2016, spent the last two years studying design at Massey University in Wellington, but at the end of last year decided it was time to chase her basketball dreams.

"I was still playing for reps and for the Rotorua Lady Vols [in the New Zealand Women's Basketball Championship]. But, I missed the intense trainings and games - the structure of waking up and going to training every day like at high school," Leach said.

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Under the guidance of Darrell and Sue Pene at Rotorua Basketball, she signed with a recruitment agency which helped Kiwis apply for scholarships overseas.

"We set up a profile and created highlight videos to send over. They told me I could also be more proactive, so I started getting in touch with coaches myself and sending videos. One of the coaches at Collin Community College contacted me straight away and said he liked what he saw, he'll be my coach over there.

"It was a bit overwhelming, but really exciting, knowing it was actually going to happen."

Rotorua's Awatea Leach has signed for Collin Community College in Texas. Her aunty Aroha Haumaha went to America on a basketball scholarship in 2004. Photo / Stephen Parker
Rotorua's Awatea Leach has signed for Collin Community College in Texas. Her aunty Aroha Haumaha went to America on a basketball scholarship in 2004. Photo / Stephen Parker

Leach said she was most looking forward to experiencing a different environment and a different culture.

"Hopefully I can make my family and my friends and my coaches here proud. I'm just looking forward to playing, being able to play at a high level of basketball and being in that environment where you eat, sleep and breathe basketball.

"I'll be in a junior college division one, it's a smaller area but the competition is still intense because everyone's trying to make it to a bigger college or a bigger town or city. My aunty went to a junior college and some of my friends - they said it was a good way to ease into the culture of the game over there, but still really intense competing for spots."

She said her aunty had been a massive role model for her growing up.

"I grew up watching her play, going to her tournaments and watching her grow as a player. Everything that I do is what I have learned from her, everything I tell myself is what she has told me.

"We've been playing together for about four years now [for Rotorua and Te Arawa] and that has been the highlight of my basketball, being able to play with her, because my whole life I've been watching her."

Awatea Leach signs her Collin Community College basketball contract with her parents Randal Leach (left) and Tina Leach, and her aunty Aroha Haumaha. Photo / Supplied
Awatea Leach signs her Collin Community College basketball contract with her parents Randal Leach (left) and Tina Leach, and her aunty Aroha Haumaha. Photo / Supplied

Haumaha, who spent a year at Dodge City Community College in Kansas and three years at The University of Memphis, Tennessee, said she was immensely proud of her niece.

"What makes me most proud is I know she can make the most of it. I've seen her from such a young age going through, being at trainings, being her coach, I just know how much potential she has and how amazing she is.

"It feels so good to see her achieving her goals and getting there because I know once she gets there she's going to do amazing. It's so awesome to know she's going over there. I don't think she will ever regret the experience and I know she has the skills to be there.

"Awatea's parents, her whānau and her wider support system is huge. Her parents are the core foundation for her, they are such a huge support in helping her get there."

Haumaha said her time in America helped her grow, not only as a basketball player, but as a person.

"It taught me everything, it wasn't just a basketball scholarship to me, it really created the person that I am today. It gives you those life experiences, like time management, dedication, sacrifices you have to make, you get all that at another level over there."