For Rachel Cimmier, basketball has become an international language.
The sport she loves helps the exchange student span the cultural gap between her native France and a new world at Mount Hebron High.
Vikings coach Dave Greenberg, a guidance counselor, works with many exchange students, such as this year's Japanese manager Ayumi Ono, and urges them to be part of his team. But Cimmier, 6-2, is the first exchange student to suit up, much less start, for the No. 5 Vikings.
"She's the tallest kid we've ever had," said Greenberg. "But the thing that's most impressive is that she's athletic. She's not just a big kid."
With good moves inside and nice range on her jump shot, Cimmier fills a void in the Vikings' lineup.
"We were looking at a team that basically had four players," said senior forward Kristen Lloyd. "We needed another player. When we first saw her, we saw some things to work on right away, but she's very effective inside. We were really impressed."
Cimmier met her first challenge, the Strathaven (Pa.) Tip-Off Tournament earlier this month, with mixed results. She made the All-Tournament Team along with Vikings All-Metro guard Emily Yanero but had a rough time in the title game.
In the opener, a 48-39 victory over Strathaven on Dec. 10, Cimmier scored 18 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. The next day, however, she managed just 10 points and seven rebounds in a 60-50 loss to Downingtown (Pa.).
In the Vikings' last outing, a 65-63 double-overtime loss to Laurel Thursday, Cimmier rebounded with another strong performance, scoring 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
Even Greenberg expects a few ups and downs with all the adjustments Cimmier has had to make, especially going from international rules to those of local high school competition.
Not only had Cimmier never played with the smaller ball of the girl's game here, but she had some trouble with a tighter traveling restriction. International ball allows a step and a half, and eliminating that half step was not easy.
While trying to absorb those and other rule changes, Cimmier also worked to streamline some of her skills.
"She had some real bad habits that we've tried to change," said Greenberg, "and she's done very well, but sometimes in the heat of battle you revert to old habits."
An experienced player, Cimmier took up the game at 12 and worked her way onto a French junior national team four years later. But once she turned 18, Cimmier was too old for the junior team, so she looked elsewhere to improve her game.
"In Europe, people think the United States is the best country for basketball," said Cimmier. "And I want to speak English very well, so the best way is to come here."
Cimmier also came for an education. Interested in going to college to study for a career possibly in political science or economics, Cimmier enrolled in advanced courses, including calculus. She already has taken the Scholastic Assessment Test and scored over the national average in both the verbal and math portions.
With her basketball ability and her intelligence, the only thing that stood in her way was the English language. Although she speaks very well, Cimmier admits communication still can be a problem.
"I really understand when people speak to me, but I have trouble to speak sometimes. I know the word, but my accent, nobody understands me," she said.
But off the court and in practice, Cimmier's teammates say communication is getting easier .
"I was just trying to explain something to her," said Lloyd after a practice session, "and she comes back, and she's sarcastic to me. Here I am thinking she doesn't understand what I'm saying. I think she's very intelligent, and even though she might not understand exactly, she has an idea. You can't put anything over on her."
Although the transition is still frustrating at times, Cimmier would not trade this experience. She can't praise her teammates, aches and host family enough.
"I don't say that because I have to," said Cimmier, who lives with the family of Amy Weber, a member of the Vikings' cross country and track teams. "They are all really nice and the girls really try to help me. I get homesick sometimes, and I think I will be happy to go back home [after graduation], but I would like to stay here for college and play basketball."
A few college coaches already have taken a look, and Greenberg said, if she keeps working, Cimmier could earn a college scholarship.
"I feel two years down the road she could be a great college player," said Greenberg. "Her motivation and work ethic are just terrific, and she really loves playing and wants to develop her game as much as possible. She gets frustrated when she doesn't play well, but it's been a month of practice to change things she's done for years. That's really asking a lot of anybody."