Nika Muhl thought she was getting duped.
The Croatian guard was already far along in her recruiting process, having decided on four schools, when she got an email from UConn. As a life-long Husky fan, she couldn’t believe it.
“I was in shock,” Muhl said at the 2019 Final Four. “I thought someone was joking with me.”
It was no joke, however. In January 2019, the Huskies made Muhl’s top-five list and in April, she committed. Now, over a year and a half later, Muhl is finally on campus as an official member of the UConn women’s basketball team.
But that feeling of disbelief still hasn’t dissipated — especially when she walks into the Werth Champions Center and looks up the banners that line the walls of the gym.
“Every time I see them, I’m like, ‘I’m here, I can’t believe I’m here,’” Muhl told the media on a Zoom call Monday. “Practicing in the same gym where all the big names were practicing, it’s just overwhelming.”
At some point, the awe and amazement will eventually fade for Muhl as she settles into life in Storrs. She just doesn’t expect that to be anytime soon.
“I’ve had that feeling since I’ve come here and I have that feeling still. I don’t think I’ll get rid of that feeling easily because this is all so overwhelming for me,” she said. “It’s a big step in my career. It’s not next level, it’s 10 levels from where I’ve been. I’m just excited, I’m so blessed and I can’t wait to get to work with the team.”
For a while, though, it looked like the dream might have to be put on hold. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the United States to close its borders and shut down its embassy in Zagreb, Croatia. Even after Muhl finally secured a visa to enter the country, finding a flight in proved to be a challenge.
“It was hard to schedule a flight because the flights were always being postponed and I didn’t know which flight I would take,” she said. “In the end, I was able to get the earliest one possible and I arrived safely. There were no problems with the flight. It was good and I was here on time.”
Under normal circumstances, moving halfway across the world would be a big adjustment, let alone doing so in the middle of a global pandemic. However, Muhl said she felt right at home from the moment she arrived.
“It’s everything I thought it would be and much more,” she said. “The girls and this group and this community — the first day when I came I felt a part of a family and it’s been great so far. I’m enjoying it and I’m having fun.”
To keep everyone safe, the players were organized into pods — groups of 3-4 players that live and workout together, separate from the other groups. Muhl’s household is a unique cultural mosaic that features Evina Westbrook from the west coast, Autumn Chassion from Louisiana, and Muhl herself from Croatia.
Despite that, the group has bonded together quickly.
“The girls are great. We’re having fun, we always joke about how Evina is like our mom in our pod,” Muhl said. “She’s been taking very good care of us, being a leader on and off the court and I love learning from her because she’s similar to my position so that’s being helpful a lot. Everything is going great, I’m thankful for them helping me get into the program.”
Muhl’s transition has also been aided by the fact that UConn already has another European on the roster — Anna Makurat. Though Croatia and Poland are distinct from one another, Makurat knows what it’s like to deal with the culture shock of coming to the U.S. from Europe and has been more than happy to help Muhl acclimate.
“She’s been a big help off the court really with just talking, encouraging me, giving me advice,” Muhl said of Makurat. “I’m same place she was last year so it’s great to have someone to help give me advice for this.”
Because the players could only work with the other members of their pods as of Monday, the two hadn’t worked together on the court yet. Even still, Makurat is helping the freshman prepare for what is a notoriously difficult first year at UConn.
“She told me that I’m going to have ups and downs,” Muhl said. “She just keeps repeating it all the time. I just have to be mentally tough and understand that everybody here just wants to make me a better person and player. Just stick to what I do, not let anything get me down.”
Ever since she was little, Muhl’s watched anything about the program that she can get her hands on, from games to TV specials to interviews and even Geno Auriemma’s coaching videos. But even with all that exposure beforehand, she was still amazed by the coaching staff during her early workouts.
“It’s honestly mind blowing for me how much effort each and every one of them gives on the court,” Muhl said. “Everybody’s doing their thing, everybody’s giving 100 percent. You have everything. I’m really able to learn from each one of them.”
Though adjusting to the fact that she’s actually at UConn living out here dream has been overwhelming for Muhl, it’s been just the opposite on the court. By seeing how hard the coaches and everyone else around the program work, the freshman figured out a simple plan for success.
“The only thing that I have to do is give 100 percent and be concentrated,” Muhl said. “[The staff has] been great and I love that I can learn from so many great coaches.”