Irene Huguet feels like the star of her own movie.
The native of Pamplona, Spain — the home of the running of the bulls — dreamed of life in the United States, and through an international exchange program, she got her wish.
Huguet, 16, is a high honors student in her junior year at Wantagh High School and the starting center on the girls basketball team despite arriving in the United States this summer.
She lives with a host family and will go back to Spain at the conclusion of the school year, but for now, she’s basking in the experience.
“It’s so different from my high school in Spain, but I love it,” said Huguet, who has a noticeable accent but speaks English fluently. She said children in Spain are required to learn English from a young age, so it’s like second nature.
“For me, I’m like living in a movie right now.”
Through Language Kingdom, an organization in Spain that aids students’ desires to study abroad, Huguet found her place in the Wantagh home of Steve and Lucy Cates and their 11-year-old son, Chase.
They volunteered to host a student from South Korea last year because Lucy Cates said her cousin in Virginia enjoyed the experience. After viewing several profiles of potential candidates, they volunteered again to welcome Huguet into their home through an organization called International Student Exchange. “Something about her drew me to her,” Lucey Cates said.
A video call with Huguet’s parents served as an introduction between the two families. Host families are required to pass extensive background checks, Steve Cates said, and although they are not required to pay for Huguet’s expenses, he said they gladly chip in.
“I’m so thankful for them,” Huguet said. “They are an incredible family. They have treated me like their daughter since I came here.”
Though Steve Cates said there was an adjustment period during the first few weeks, the awkwardness is gone. He said Huguet is responsible and keeps him and his wife updated with calls and texts when out with her new friends.
“We laugh because Irene took Wantagh High School by storm,” said the 47-year-old Nassau County police lieutenant. “She’s so friendly that she gets along with everybody. My wife went to the parent-teacher night, and all the teachers were just bragging. She’s just a special soul.”
Wantagh coach Stan Bujacich thought it was a practical joke when he heard through the grapevine of an exchange student seeking to play basketball.
“I thought, ‘Yeah right, I’ve heard that one before,’ ” he said.
During the year’s first open gym session, Bujacich watched from afar with Julia Wilkinson, a junior on the team, and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
A 5-11 post player with a shooter’s touch seemingly came from nowhere. He later learned that she excelled as a team defender and could pass with both hands, among other intangibles, a testament to her coaching in Spain.
She was an easy fit for the team. Eventually, she became a fixture of the starting five.
“I was making a joke, it’s like a one-year contract,” said Bujacich, who added he’s never coached an exchange student before. “I had the other coaches laughing when they were asking me about her.”
Wantagh athletic director Jennifer Keane said approving Huguet’s eligibility was standard procedure.
“The process for Irene was not that hard because she was part of an already established, approved program,” Keane said in an email. “Once we got all of the information from the host family, I completed the Foreign Student Reporting form for [Nassau] BOCES and submitted it to the executive director for approval. Once I received the approval from Section VIII, Irene was deemed an eligible competitor for Wantagh for one year.”
With Huguet, Wantagh earned the No. 3 seed in the Nassau Class A playoffs, but her transition wasn’t seamless. Huguet said the game’s physicality is far different here than in Spain, where it’s more of a finesse game. The biggest difference was the volume of basketball she’d have to play.
“In Spain, we don’t play in high school,” Huguet said. “We play in clubs. We play all year, not only the winter season, but we have less practice and less games than here.”
The Cates attend games when they can. Steve Cates played in high school and used to coach in the Police Athletic League, and he praised how she plays defense.
“I love that. In Spain, my family usually comes to see my games,” said Huguet, who video chats with her parents and 13-year-old sister on Sundays. “I feel like they are my family here.”
Despite the learning curve, Huguet is like any other member of the student body. She walks the halls with friends, excels in her studies and participates in after-school activities.
“I’m going to be so sad to go back home,” she said.
So will her host family, which plans to visit Huguet in Spain in the future.
“She’s beautiful inside and out,” Lucy Cates said. “I will be an emotional mess when she goes back to Spain.”