STILLWATER — Oklahoma State guard Maria Castro remembers sitting in the Cowgirls locker room trying to fight off nerves after coach Jim Littell told her that she would be starting against Oklahoma.
It was her first career Division I start at a place — and situation — she didn’t always envision being in.
“I didn’t know if I was going to do good or not,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘They are going to start me because they trust me and I am going to do the best I can.’”
After only averaging 14.3 minutes a game previously, Castro scored 14 points in 36 minutes in place of injured guard Areanna Combs in the Cowgirls’ 96-82 win over the Sooners on Jan. 7.
“Three or four days before the game, I talked with (teammate) Loryn Goodwin,” Castro said. “I was going to be patient and knew my time was going to come at some point.”
Castro’s journey to this stage of her basketball career has been all about the unexpected.
Castro first arrived in the United States two years ago to play basketball at Gulf Coast State College in Florida not knowing a word of English.
Castro, who grew up in Guanajuato, Mexico, and played basketball on the U18 national team for her home country, had to quickly play catch-up to the American way of life.
“It was hard. I didn’t know any English,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone. Life here was fast. I didn’t know what anyone was saying.”
Castro credits Gulf Coast College coach Roonie Scovel — who first learned of Castro’s desire to play basketball in the U.S. by way of former Mexican national team coach Marynell Meadors — with her transition to America.
“I learned just by talking to people,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were saying, but I kept paying attention to their words. I just kept learning and reading. My coaches helped me a lot every day.”
When asked what were some of the first English she grasped, Castro responded by saying, “basketball language.”
Those first few months in the U.S., Castro said, were difficult not only adjusting to her new surroundings, but because she was away from her family in Mexico.
“It was really hard,” she said. “For two years, I didn’t see my mother.”
Her mother, Beatriz Castro Esqueda, currently plays basketball in Mexico as part of the women’s senior team. It was spending time around her mother, watching countless games as a child, that sparked Castro’s desire to play.
“My mom is like my hero,” Castro said. Her mother had the opportunity to see her play for the first time on an American college team when OSU traveled to Mexico in November for the Women’s Cancun Challenge.
“She is coming to see me play next month,” Castro said. “I’ll be nervous.”
In two years at Gulf Coast State, Castro helped the school win consecutive NJCAA national titles. Along the way, she was named first-team all-conference and to the NJCAA Region 8 FCSAA all-tournament team.
So when Castro signed with OSU last summer, Littell knew the kind of asset — both as a player and a person — that would be coming into the program.
Not even halfway through her first season in Stillwater, the veteran coach — impressed with her work ethic and relationship with teammates — considers Castro “maybe the best teammate” he has coached in four decades around the sport.
“She had four B’s and an A, and two years ago, she didn’t speak our language,” Littell said about Castro, who is pursuing a degree in psychology. “So that’s a hardworking kid who deserves everything she gets.”
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