Republic of Georgia native Lali Baratashvili slips into her leadership role as a Lady Cougars co-captain by signaling a play during a girls basketball game in Vicenza, Italy.

Republic of Georgia native Lali Baratashvili slips into her leadership role as a Lady Cougars co-captain by signaling a play during a girls basketball game in Vicenza, Italy. (Courtesy photo)

On the basketball court, there’s lots to like about the Vicenza Lady Cougars’ senior co-captain Lali Baratashvili.

The 5-foot-6-inch, all-region guard is averaging some 15 points and more than five steals per game against her Region IV foes in Italy. She is an excellent ball-handler and shooter — “She has a beautiful stroke,” Vicenza coach Michael James said by telephone last weekend — and is “very aggressive on offense and defense.”

She’s also a team leader, James said. “We have several players who’ve never played before,” he said. “She really pushes them ....”

Off the basketball court, there is even more to like about the 17-year-old.

At age 10, the native of Tblisi in the Republic of Georgia who spoke Russian and Georgian but at the time almost no English, moved to Pacific Grove, Calif., when her mother married her stepfather, Peter Huller.

“She jumped right into the fifth grade just a week later having had very little exposure to English and had no problems at all,” Vicenza anti-terrorism officer Huller wrote in a background e-mail.

Adapting to big changes with no problems at all would soon become Baratashvili’s trademark. Other children might have found such an uprooting too daunting to handle, but Baratashvili managed the situation with aplomb.

“It wasn’t too hard,” she said by telephone before reporting to her commissary job on Sunday morning. “I was just 10, so it was easy.”

Even so, said Baratashvili, who now speaks English with no detectable accent, becoming acclimated to life in the U.S. wasn’t instantaneous.

“It was really weird at first,” she admitted, “because I didn’t speak the language. It took two years for me to fully adapt.”

Helping the process was basketball, a sport Baratashvili tried for the first time in California.

“It was a way to learn the language,” she said. “I liked it right away. I picked up on it really fast.”

So fast, in fact, she was her junior high school’s MVP in ninth grade. She also excelled in soccer and track, according to Huller, as sports helped her fully settle into her new way of life. Then, three years ago, the family moved to Vicenza.

Although the move wasn’t as wrenching as her previous one, Baratashvili admitted she was disappointed to leave California.

“I still miss it,” she said, “but I’ve gotten used to being over here.”

So much so, she said, that even if she could arrange her life a different way, she wouldn’t change anything.

With Vicenza’s girls idle this weekend, Baratashvili and her teammates, currently 6-2, are free to think ahead. They’re currently behind 7-1 Milan and unbeaten Aviano in the American Schools in Italy League race. Vicenza split two games at Milan in December, and hosts neighborhood archrival Aviano Feb. 11-12, possibly with the league title on the line.

“It was fun to beat Milan (30-29 on opening day),” she said. “I wish we had beaten them twice, but I’m looking forward to playing Aviano.”

Then it’s on to the European Division II tournament in Mannheim, where many players have trouble coping with so many games so far from home. Not surprisingly, the ultra-adaptable Baratashvili is not among them.

“It’s pretty easy,” she said of what some see as a tournament grind. “You’re staying with your friends and you wake up and you get to play basketball.”

And get ready for another big change. Baratashvili, who maintains a 3.75 grade-point average, said she hopes to go to college somewhere in New York after she graduates this spring.

Is basketball in the college picture?

“Maybe,” she said.

Looks as though, as always, she’ll find out when she gets there.

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