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Plum graduate Cressler makes impact in Estonia

Michael Love
| Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, 11:00 p.m.

Avis Utilitas Rapla is a name not well known to basketball fans in Western Pennsylvania, but one of the leading scorers on the team from the Alexela KML professional league in Estonia is more recognizable.

Nolan Cressler is enjoying a successful first pro season after graduating from Vanderbilt. He has settled into not only his new basketball life but his new surroundings half a world away from his hometown of Plum.

“I have pretty much gotten used to the routine of the everyday work that the job requires,” Cressler said. “But sometimes, especially when times are tough and I am missing home or when our team isn't doing too well, I have to just remember that I am blessed to get to do something that I love to do for a job, and not everybody gets that opportunity.”

Rapla is 10-8 (third place) through 18 of its 26 Estonian League games. The playoffs begin in April.

The team also plays in the Baltic League, which features five teams from Estonia and eight other franchises in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Rapla finished the Baltic regular season 5-5 and will begin the playoffs Feb. 28.

“We've been up and down,” Cressler said. “We started off pretty well and have had gone through some slumps. We have a nice mix of personalities and talent. We just want to be playing our best basketball come playoff time.”

Cressler is second on the team in scoring for Estonia league games at 18.2 points per game. In Baltic League contests, his scoring average is a team-leading 17.3.

“I quickly noticed over the first few games that the speed of the game was faster,” Cressler said. “It's not necessarily the athletes who are faster and quicker. European teams run organized offenses and do not waste time getting into the offense, so the change over from playing offense to defending is much quicker and was an early adjustment for me.”

The response from the fans to the team, Cressler said, is a fun part of the experience.

“For the Estonian League teams, we (Rapla) probably have the best and most loyal fan base,” he said. “Rapla is a really small town about 40 minutes from the capital city Tallinn, but the town really rallies around our team and supports us. We had a game seven hours away in Lithuania, and on our way to the game, our fans were set up on the side of the road and were chanting at us, waving flags as we drove past. It was hilarious. They blow airhorns and bang drums the entire game, whether we are up 20 or down 20.”

Cressler said his approach to the game on the court and his appreciation of the professional opportunity resonated with his new teammates.

“My team usually has one or two Americans on it every year, so they kind of know what to expect from American players in terms of style of play and mentality,” he said.

Connecting with American teammates Dominique Hawkins and Devonte Upson, Cressler said, has proved valuable. Upson has previous pro experience in Finland and Switzerland, and Hawkins is a first-year pro who played for Jim Calipari at Kentucky.

“We talk about our experiences a lot,” Cressler said. “We like to reminisce on the college days and the stuff we took for granted. This is both their first years with (Rapla), so they've made adjustments, too. It's just a unique experience being over here that is hard to explain to most people unless they have experienced it, so its cool being able to go through it with them.”

Cressler said he also is grateful to share this experience with his fiancee, Dani, who he met during his time at Vanderbilt.

“Dani and I adjusted pretty quickly to living in Estonia,” Cressler said. “At first, we were like, ‘Wow, this is so weird. This is so European.' Now, we are pretty used to everything. But every couple of weeks, we will look at each other and be like, ‘Where are we?' ”

Cressler is signed with Rapla for just this year, a common practice with European leagues and teams. After the season, he will take the summer to evaluate and discuss his options with his agent.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mlove_Trib.

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