Coming to America has been very good to LaSalle’s Yevgen Sakhniuk


Cheesesteaks and pancakes with maple syrup.

Such culinary delights are not the recipe for success on the hardwood. They are, however, at the top of Yevgen Sakhniuk’s list of foods since he came to the United States from Ukraine 16 months ago.

Sakhniuk, who goes by “Eugene,” arrived at La Salle in August 2014 without ever having seen the campus. He had been to the States only once before, which was for a basketball tournament in Providence, R.I. There would be no brief visit to the U.S. this time as the day he arrived Sakhniuk commenced a college career that includes playing for the Explorers.

“It was a little bit strange at first, but at the same time I was very excited about seeing the college and seeing how everything looks in America,” he said. “I knew it was very different compared to my country. I was a little bit nervous about everything because I was not really comfortable with the language at that time. It was a challenge for me at first to get to know some people and make some friends.”

Fast-forward to December 2015 and Sakhniuk’s English is outstanding. He has found everything about the university community to his liking.

What was a little tough for him is that he sat out last season while assimilating to life in the U.S. and at La Salle. But he wasted no time in showing his potential in this season’s opener against visiting Towson.

Though he committed four fouls, Sakhniuk went 5-for-5 from the floor and had a season-high 11 points in a 78-76 victory. As one might imagine it was a moment he cherishes.

“It was my first official game on this court and I was very excited to play in it,” he said of the game at Tom Gola Arena. “I just tried to give all my best on the court and I had been waiting for that opportunity for almost a year. I wanted to show people what I had.”

It was at the tournament in Providence where Sakhniuk, who has experienced the international stage playing for Get Better Academy Sparta of the Czech Republic and under-16, -18 and -20 Ukrainian national teams, placed himself on La Salle’s radar. Coach John Giannini knew Sakhniuk had plenty to offer in terms of off-the-court maturity and on-the-court talent.

Through seven games Sakhniuk’s talent shone through from the standpoint he was 19-of-25 (76%) from the field. The overall on-the-court maturity is a work in progress as the 6-7, 235-pound forward he has been struggling with foul trouble due in large part to his game not being where it needs to be defensively.

“He is somebody that you would be proud to have as a son, as a player to coach and as a teammate,” said Giannini, in his 12th season at La Salle. “He is very mature and tends to do the right things on and off the court. In terms of basketball he has barely scratched the surface. His shooting percentage is astounding, but he is struggling to play defense at a high level and to feel comfortable with the intensity that you see in college basketball. When he figures out those parts of the game the sky will be the limit.”

Sakhniuk, the only child of Alexander and Oksana, who have never been to the States, was able to adapt to life on the North Philadelphia campus pretty quickly. Certainly, there were cultural differences with which to work his way through. A pleasant experience has come in the form of intimate class settings that have allowed him the opportunity to get to know his instructors at the school, which has 4,200 undergrads.

“What I like most about La Salle is the education process,” said Sakhniuk, who is undecided what business route he wants to take as his major. “I like that it is a small school and teachers are always around to ask questions. At the same time teachers here are friends as well as teachers. The smaller classrooms make it more comfortable for studying.”

Sakhniuk was plenty comfortable back home enjoying his mother’s chicken with mashed potatoes. He also enjoyed ample bowls of borscht, a soup of Ukrainian origin that includes hearty portions of beef and pork, or a combination thereof. Ah, but at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game last year he was turned on to the Philly cheesesteak. Alas, it did not take him long to recognize the cultural differences when it comes to food.

“I think Americans eat a little bit more junk food and fatty foods than people in my country,” said the fan of Adam Sandler, Ben Affleck and Johnny Depp. “So it was a bit of a challenge for me to find healthier food here on campus because lots of food places here have junk food. It is still a little bit of a challenge for me sometimes.”

The challenges on and off the court will continue for Sakhniuk, but as Giannini said the sky seems to be the limit for this young man from Ukraine.

Above: Yevgen Sakhniuk is learning the differences between his native Ukraine and the US go beyond foods and language but he is embracing his new role as college student. (Courtesy LaSalle Athletics)
Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.