WATERVILLE — Temple Academy girls basketball coach Joe Rossignol wasn’t sure at the start of the season what was in store for his team after graduating five seniors and facing perpetual injuries among a few players last year.

Turnout for the team this fall was good, but many of the girls had never played basketball before. Some barely spoke English.

Yet somehow the team, which is made up of foreign exchange students from an unprecedented number of countries, managed to pull things together and is headed into the state championship tournament with a 14-4 record. They’re ranked second in Class D south.

“It was daunting, but I have two assistant coaches, and they were great,” Rossignol said. “The girls listen, and they’re exceptional young ladies. It’s just been an amazing thing. It’s been a great year, and it’s been so fun.”

Temple Academy, a small non-denominational Christian school affiliated with Waterville’s Centerpoint Community Church, has, like many schools, typically hosted a handful of exchange students in years past.

But this year, school officials said the number of exchange students exploded because of both interest in the community in hosting students and demand for placements from Ayusa, a nonprofit foreign exchange student program.

The Temple Academy girls basketball team practices at Temple Academy in Waterville on Friday. The team includes students from nine countries, including the United States.

Of the roughly 240 students who attend Temple Academy, about 35 to 40 are foreign exchange students representing 19 different countries.

“A lot of these kids are normally matched with a family in March or April,” said Lisa Riportella, a community representative with Ayusa who also serves as an international liaison at Temple Academy, a largely volunteer position. “This year, there were a lot in August that had not been placed yet, and Temple Academy just had an incredible amount of families who wanted to open their homes and accept these kids.”

Kevin Wood, the school’s chief operating officer, said all foreign exchange students are paying tuition, which costs $4,585 for high school students, not including student fees, sports fees and other costs. Wood would not say if the school pays families to host students.

“The reason why there are so many is because we’ve been involved with international students now for six or seven years, and our name has gotten out there,” he said. “They love what we offer here. They absolutely love the experience they get here. So really it’s word of mouth back to their home countries as well as working with the agency.”

On the girls basketball team, 10 of 17 girls on the team are from eight different countries other than the United States: Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, Belgium, China, Japan and Spain. Everyone practices together, though only 14 can play in varsity games.

Suzanne Lours, who is from France, said she had never played basketball before but came out for the team after playing soccer in the fall.

“At the beginning of the year, I was not on the soccer team, and so after school, I was always at home. It was really boring,” said Lours, 16. “At school, all the girls on the soccer team were talking together, and I was all alone because I had exchange student friends, but I wasn’t really part of the group. I started soccer, and after I made a lot of friends.”

The start of the season was difficult, as many of the girls, like Lours, had never played basketball.

The Temple Academy girls basketball team gathers in the coach’s office before practice at Temple Academy in Waterville on Friday.

“It’s been fun as a coach, because we not only had to try and get through the language barrier but also the sport language barrier,” Rossignol said, explaining that many of the girls did not know words associated with basketball like “baseline.”

Olivia Baker, a senior at Temple Academy who has been on the basketball team the last four years, said while it’s been challenging at times, she’s also enjoyed watching her teammates improve.

Over the course of the season, the team has traveled all over the state, including to Jackman, Rangeley and by ferry to the islands of Vinalhaven and North Haven.

“Some of our students had never seen the ocean before, so they were extremely excited to see that,” said Baker, of Winslow.

Riportella, whose daughter, Chloe, is on the team and whose family also hosts a 10th-grade boy from China who is attending Temple Academy, said the experience for her children has been priceless.

The chance to participate on a sports team is one of the things exchange students often look forward to the most, she said, though it isn’t always possible at larger schools where being on a team is more competitive.

“When they come over, they want to experience everything in America and at an American high school,” Riportella said. “To go home and say, ‘I played a sport for an American high school’ is really cool. It’s also so instrumental in their relationships, not only with other international kids but with the American kids. It builds their friendships.”

Most exchange students at Temple Academy are in the United States for 10 months on a J-1 visa, Riportella said.

Lours, whose six-month anniversary of being in the U.S. was Friday, said when she returns home she wants to continue playing sports and is thinking of starting a volleyball team, since with basketball, “I don’t know if I’m so good.”

“Having a team is really, really nice,” she said.

“It’s like a sisterhood,” Baker said.

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: rachel_ohm