Despite the University’s decision to forgo the normal fall break for the 2020 fall semester, many students — especially the two-thirds of the student body that are Virginia residents — have still had the opportunity to go home and see their families. However, for senior guard Tomas Woldetensae and sophomore center Francisco Caffaro, going home is not an option. In fact, it has not been an option for over a year.
Woldetensae said he last visited his family in Bologna, Italy in the summer of 2019. The same is true for Caffaro whose hometown is El Trebol, Argentina.
Situated across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Strait of Gibraltar — 4,443 miles from the University — Bologna, Italy is a far cry from Central Virginia. On the other end of the Western Hemisphere, 4,971 miles south of Charlottesville and 254 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, the small town of El Trebol is even farther away.
NCAA men’s basketball teams will begin the new season Nov. 25. While most other students head home for winter break, the Cavaliers will compete throughout December and most of January. Some Virginia players will take two or three days out of this hectic schedule to return home, but most international athletes, in a normal year, can only visit their families during the summer months.
“It's pretty difficult,” Caffaro said. “In the past four years, I’ve probably seen my family a total of three months.”
Woldetensae has found himself in similar circumstances. Moving to the U.S. back in 2016, the 6-foot-5 guard played two years of high school basketball at Victory Rock Prep in Bradenton, Fla., before jumping across the country to Ottumwa, Iowa where he played two seasons at Indian Hills Community College. As a foreigner, he has already seen more of the U.S. than some Americans might see in their lifetime.
“I'm going on my sixth year away from home, and the homesickness is becoming stronger and stronger,” Woldetensae said. “The pandemic isn't making anything easier.”
It is a challenge many others likely share. In 2019, 17 percent of NCAA Division I men’s basketball players were international students, an increase of about six percentage points since 2014.
Although homesickness is not new for Caffaro or Woldetensae, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified it. Whereas most students have their hands full worrying about the implications of the coronavirus in Virginia and throughout the U.S., international students — like Caffaro and Woldetensae — must also keep in mind its implications in their native countries.
Argentina has the seventh-most coronavirus cases in the world with over 1.1 million, and Italy has the second-highest case-to-fatality ratio after suffering one of the world’s first major outbreaks. Accordingly, maintaining contact with their families has become more important than ever for Caffaro and Woldetensae.
“FaceTiming my family, it's like being with them in a way,” Caffaro said.
As most of the world has discovered in the past eight months, however, FaceTime and Zoom can only do so much. It is human nature to crave face-to-face social interaction. That said, the men’s basketball program has tried its best to create a second home for them in Charlottesville — that is to say, a home packed with a raucous crowd of 17 players and four coaches.
“We understand that our international guys have not had the opportunity to go home …. [and] the mental challenge that comes with that,” assistant coach Jason Williford said, speaking on behalf of all coaches for the men’s basketball team. “We are always there to talk and hear them out if they need us. We are here for all of our players.”
Caffaro, especially, has appreciated this availability.
“Coaches are always there for you,” Caffaro said. “I feel like my relationship with both my coaches and teammates has grown for sure.”
In charge of the X’s and O’s on the basketball court, the Cavaliers’ coaches have also tried to facilitate the development of personal relationships between players off the court.
“Naturally, most of our teams over the years have been close, but COVID has made this team pretty close so far,” Williford said.
Facing a multitude of both state and collegiate social restrictions, the players have naturally gravitated to spending an exorbitant amount of time with each other. Just as many families across the U.S. grew closer when nationwide lockdowns began in March, the Cavaliers have united over their unusual circumstances.
“More than growth, I've seen true brotherhood and support,” Woldetensae said. “They really care about you as a human being.”
The seven-foot Caffaro echoed that sentiment. After leaving his native country at the age of 16 to attend the NBA’s Global Academy in Australia, Caffaro stayed there for two years before enrolling at the University in the fall of 2018. If the pandemic has brought him anything positive, it may be a chance to better get to know his teammates in a somewhat stable environment.
“This whole pandemic had us all experiencing something we never had before and us as a group have been handling it very well,” Caffaro said.
With the 2020-21 season promising to be unlike any other, the Cavaliers hope that their off-the-court bond will translate to success on the hardwood. Woldetensae especially could play a large role. Last year, prior to the season’s premature end, Woldetensae started in 22 games, averaged 6.6 points and led the team in three pointers, with nearly two per game. Caffaro will look to increase his limited minutes from last season, now in his third year as a Cavalier.
Nevertheless, for Caffaro and Woldetensae, their relationship with their teammates and coaches means much more than wins or losses. Thousands of miles away from home, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Argentine giant and the Italian sharpshooter can rejoice that they have found a second home — albeit in the middle of Virginia.