Kate Koval, a sophomore basketball player at Long Island Lutheran, talks about playing while her family and friends are affected by the war in Ukraine.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca; Photo Credit: SERGEY KOZLOV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock; AP; Koval Family

Long Island Lutheran High School basketball star Kateryna Koval received permission from her coach to leave her cell phone on the team bench all season.

Normally, such distractions are not allowed. But for the 16-year-old Koval, it was a necessity.

Koval is a 6-5 sophomore exchange student from Ukraine who came to Long Island in September 2021 to pursue her dream of playing professional basketball. She was born in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where her parents, Oleksandr and Natalia, still lived on the morning of Feb. 24, when Russia launched its invasion of the Eastern European nation.

Koval also has two brothers, Mykolaa, 23, and Oleskii, 15, both of whom are going to school in the United States. Her mother has since left Ukraine and is in Canada, but her father remains in Kyiv, helping to protect the city.

“I’ll never forget the morning I woke up and Russia had invaded Ukraine,” she said. “The war had started on the borders and at that time my family was living in Kyiv, in the capital. I was so upset and started calling them.”

Koval said she spoke to her mother that morning, but it did little to quell her fears.

“I was still so worried because I knew my family was in danger,” she said. “I kept thinking every minute, ‘Where are my parents now? Are they OK? What’s happening?’ I couldn’t stop listening and watching the news reports. It was horrible.”

On the day of the attack, Long Island Lutheran was scheduled to play St. Joseph by the Sea in Staten Island.

Christina Raiti, Long Island Lutheran’s girls basketball coach and the school’s assistant athletic director, said her first concern was Koval.

“Understandably, her heart was with her family in Ukraine,” Raiti said. “And focusing on a basketball game was going to be difficult.

“Kate broke down and was crying before the game, just overwhelmed with sadness,” Raiti said. “I took her for a walk and told her we could cancel the game. And she could go home to Rosedale and relax. She said, ‘No, I’m playing.’ We put her phone on the bench and had an agreement that if anyone called, we were picking it up at any point in the game.”

Koval scored 30 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in an 81-53 victory.

“Her performance was unbelievable,” Raiti said. “She was able to push through and persevere.”

As difficult as it was to play that day, Koval said it was exactly what she needed.

“I felt guilty playing while [my family and friends] were over there in harm’s way,” Koval said. “But basketball was the only thing to keep me from going crazy during that time. I had to keep myself busy and not think about the war, and my family wanted me to play.”

LI Lutheran's Kate Koval is 6-foot-5 basketball player from Ukraine and...

LI Lutheran's Kate Koval is 6-foot-5 basketball player from Ukraine and played for the U16 Ukraine national team.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Student becomes the teacher

Raiti, who was an assistant coach for five years at Lutheran and became the head coach in 2020, said she has learned much from Koval this season.

“I saw a woman’s strength, perseverance and courage all wrapped into one,” Raiti said. “She’s taught me how to support others because we can sympathize but we can’t empathize because we’re not there. So we support.

“Kate made sacrifices to come to a place far away from home and play basketball at the highest level at LUHI. She had to give some stuff up to make it happen because it’s a business trip at the end of the day. She’s joined our family and thus her family became ours.”

Koval is fortunate to have the support of her extended family.

“She came to Lutheran for our education and to reach her potential as a basketball player,” Raiti said. “She’s only 16 years old and has blown me away and taught me things beyond the X’s-and-O’s.

“There are certain things you can prepare for as a coach,” Raiti said. “This was so extreme it was nearly impossible to prepare for. We were Kate’s support system. We did our best to support her amidst a lot of uncertainty going on in her country. There were a lot of rumors. We were dealing with hourly media reports. It was exhausting and I found myself very anxiously updating Twitter and looking at the various news outlets for updates. I was speaking with her mother and grandmother, who were my primary contacts, and trying to understand the full scope of the invasion and the start of the war.”

Raiti said Koval wasn’t sleeping and was in a constant state of panic.

“We have a child here,” Raiti said. “And her parents were now going through some things that they weren’t going to share with us, especially in the days leading up to the initial attack. They all seemed to think it was an empty threat from Russia.

“And when war became a reality, my biggest fear was having Kate find out something in the news when I wasn’t with her. For most of her 16 years, Russia had a presence in Ukraine, but they’d never attacked and tried to take over.”

Family first

Koval’s focus remained on her family, and she compulsively checked on the news reports coming out of Ukraine. She spent nights watching the news with her host mom, Islande Blaise, in Rosedale, Queens.

“I was focused and watching news every second live from Ukraine,” she said. “It was bad for me to do that. It was too much. In the beginning, I couldn’t put my head down and go to sleep because of the bombings. You never knew what was going to happen, and I would stay up until 7 a.m. But my host mom has been super-supportive of me and spends a lot of time with me so I’m not alone.”

Koval watched the devastation and recognized some of the towns and cities being destroyed.

“Two years ago, I was literally playing and practicing in a gym that was just destroyed,” Koval said. “It was blown away. The places that I drove by every single day are gone — they’re obliterated by the bombings. And the places that aren’t completely gone are ruined.”

’I worry every day’

Koval’s mother left Kyiv for Slovakia six weeks ago and now is in Canada. Her father, a pharmacist, has stayed behind.

“My dad is protecting the neighborhood with other men,” she said. “They are making sure houses aren’t looted. He said the streets are quiet now — everyone is gone — and it is eerie. The city of Mariupol and the cities closer to the border are destroyed. My dad doesn’t ever want to leave his country. It’s his country and it’s all he knows. It’s not easy to leave your house and everything you own and start a new life and go to another country, especially when you’ve spent your whole life in one country. I’m very proud of him for staying and fighting for his country. But I worry every day. I don’t want to think that I may never see him again.”

The family of Kate Koval, who is front row on...

The family of Kate Koval, who is front row on left. Top row, from left: brother Mykolaa, father Oleksandr, younger brother Oleskii. Front row, from left: Katie Koval and mother Nataliia. Credit: Koval Family

Sights set on pros

Koval came to the United States with an eye on a career as a professional basketball player. Back home, she was a member of the Ukrainian under-16 and under-18 national teams but decided the opportunities to play and learn the game were better in the United States.

“They have better academics here,” Koval said. “My goal is to move on to college and to the WNBA or to play professionally in Europe.”

Koval has adapted to the speed of the game and the physicality of play in the U.S. She has improved her conditioning and started a weightlifting regimen.

She was selected for Newsday’s All-Long Island first team after averaging 19.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game, including 25 points and 22 rebounds in an 86-51 victory over Staten Island Academy.

“She is a unique player and one of the greatest kids we’ve had the pleasure of spending time with,” Raiti said. “She’s an A-plus student, and the sky’s the limit with her basketball skill set. She can pick any college across the country, as all the big ones have expressed interest.”

While the letters and emails pour in from prospective colleges, Koval is interested in only one form of communication— the one from her dad — from her homeland.

“I wait for his contact all the time and it’s comforting to hear his voice,” she said. “Those are good days.”

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