"I Just Want To Travel" - Pare Pene On To Big Things

New Zealander's Leadership Was Essential To Lady Mocs Basketball

Monday, May 16, 2022 - by Joseph Dycus
Pare Pene
Pare Pene
- photo by Joseph Dycus

The swishing of nets, the squeaking of sneakers, the bouncing of a basketball, the applause of the crowd and Pareunuora ‘Pare’ Pene’s voice echoing through McKenzie Arena. If anyone decided to put together a “soundtrack” of UTC women’s basketball over the last four years, those would be the essential elements.


Pene’s cheers of joy and encouragement through the highs and lows of those seasons would probably be the defining track.

If Morgan Hill made an and-one layup, Pene was the first to scream in approval. When an official called Dena Jarrells for a charge, Pene’s exhortation to focus on the next play would ring out over a cacophony of noise.


Any teammate of hers effusively praised the New Zealander’s leadership if given the opportunity. Karsen Murphy and Addie Grace Porter likened Pene to a “team mom.” Abby Cornelius said Pene was one of the most social people one could meet. If there was a player who represented what a team wanted from a senior leader, Pene was that.


Four years ago, Pene’s UTC legacy was yet to be set. She had just made the 8,000 mile trip from her hometown of Rotorua to Chattanooga, part of a four-deep freshman class. At that point, Pene had no visions of being a leader; she just wanted to figure out her new country.


“I was trying to soak everything in and go with the flow and learn what I could from the upperclassmen and whatnot,” reminisces Pene. “I had no idea what to expect in America.”


Pene’s mother Sue says that as late as 2015, her daughter did not display any interest in attending a university in the United States. Sue Pene says that changed “out of the blue” right before Pare was set to graduate Rotorua’s Girls High School, where she had been named “Head Girl.”


“I was pleased because I believe this experience would be a once in a lifetime even though it was going to be an uphill challenge to find a college for her, and we were very grateful when UTC offered Pareunuora a basketball scholarship,” Sue Pene says, while her father Darrell adds, “(I’m) just happy for her that she was taking an opportunity that few can experience”


Pene earned that scholarship too, as she led the Volcanoes to the WBC Tier 2 Grand Final her senior year. She was a menace to ball handlers that year, nabbing almost two steals a game to rank fourth in her league. When Chattanooga offered her a scholarship, Pene admits neither she nor her family knew much about the program or the city.


“My mama only knew of it from the 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' song, and I was like ‘Yeah, I guess so,’ Pene says. “When we looked online at the photos and they were like, ‘Give it a go, and if you don’t like it then you can always come back after your first year.’”


Pene says she struggled with shyness during her first year, something her former teammates vehemently dispute. Cornelius says that at a social event, her fellow freshman already seemed to have more friends after one week than anyone else.


“She was just instantly herself, and I think it took her a minute to open up to everyone,” former point guard Molly Clounch says, “but I wouldn’t describe her as shy by any means.”


Along with Clounch, who Pene says “was really sweet” and who “showed me the ropes of Chattanooga basketball,” she credits NaKeia Burks for welcoming her as a newcomer. Burks let the then-freshman know that she was there for her both on and off the court.


“NaKeia really took me under her wing and was the team mom then,” Pene says. "A lot of my leadership skills I learned from her, and I got to learn for two years.” 


“As a freshman, I thought being two hours away was tough enough. I couldn’t imagine being across the world from her family,” Burks, now an assistant coach at Lee University, says. “I went up to her and told her that if she ever needed anything, to just let me know. She didn’t have a car, so if she ever needed to go anywhere to just come get me.”


Even though Pene had the support of upperclassmen, she still says living away from her family for the first time was difficult. This experience shaped her actions over the next three years, when she went from newcomer to a pillar of support for the UTC team.


“My freshman year was rough, and I was like ‘Dang, I don’t want them to feel like that,’” Pene says. “I wanted to make them feel like we’re sisters and we’ve got each other’s back.”


And for the next three years, Pene grew into a supportive pillar during a time where wins were sometimes rare. Playing time may have been inconsistent for Pene, but her impact could not be measured with stats even if she played 40 minutes a night.


“She’s a great culture kid, and even though her minutes don’t express that on the court, Pare’s a great leader,” Pene’s coach Katie Burrows said toward the end of the 2022 season. “She’s like a mother hen, and she’s never met a person she couldn’t talk to. And she’s super-compassionate. If someone is struggling, she’s going to flock to them and try to help them.”


As UTC’s onetime coach alluded to, Pene’s leadership style was based upon knowing each member of the team on a personal level. The woman who made the dean’s list seven times and recently graduated with a degree in psychology says there were times she could apply what she learned in the classroom to her day-to-day life.


“I try to read them and see where I can help,” Pene says. “When my teammates walk into the gym, I can tell if they’re in a bad mood or if they’re good. It’s just trying to get them to be more positive. Like positive self-talk about themselves.”


Basketball is a popular spectator sport where failure is a regular occurrence. Pene compares the sport to the rest of life, where people often worry about gaffes no one else will remember. It is a message she would tell her teammates any time they went through a rough moment in their life or academics or athletic careers.


“Nobody is going to think ‘Oh, this girl tripped over herself, oh my gosh that’s so embarrassing,’” Pene says. “Who cares? People most of the time just think about themselves. Just live your life, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking your life has to be this way or that way.”  


Off the court, Pene enjoyed her classes (she shouted out Steve Underwood and Liz Hathaway as a few of her favorite professors) and the city of Chattanooga (Pene mentioned “chilling by the river at Coolidge Park” as a favorite activity). But Pene says doing things like lifting weights with teammates is something she will miss the most.


“When I work out after college, because I’m not trying to let myself go, I’m gonna be (working out) by myself,” Pene says. “You won’t have people encouraging you or making you laugh. It’s just going to be you working out.”


Like many athletes, Pene bonded with teammates through food. After she established herself as a leading voice for UTC’s team, she began to pull from her life across the ocean when coming up with ways to bring her teammates closer together.


“One thing I loved doing was each room would put on a dinner bi-weekly,” Pene says. “We’d talk about anything and have fun, and it was our time to just be us and be something outside of basketball. I wanted to bring that family aspect, because that’s what it was like back home.”


Although Pene’s food choices were somewhat limited compared to the average athlete, she still found plenty of good food around town that fit her vegan diet. When asked about what she will miss most about the United States, she laughingly says the large portion sizes and free refills is near the top of the list.


“She’s a big foodie,” Burks says. “We just went to breakfast, and we were going all over Chattanooga trying to find somewhere to eat.”


The graduate also has a hunger for learning about new cultures and about different kinds of people. Darrell Pene says Pare will travel with the family to London and get a job that allows her to travel around Europe. Sue says her daughter has expressed interest in volunteering in Nepal.


“There’s no career plans: I just want to travel,” Pene says, before adding, “My parents tell me I need money and a job, and I know that. Now I feel like my most solid plan is to go back home and work for a few months to save. My parents are going to England later in the year, and they said I can come with them.”


Pene mentions teaching English overseas as a very possible option. Because teachers get long breaks throughout the year, such a career would allow her to travel. But for the recent graduate, nothing is set or fixed in place at the moment.


“I have a lot of backup plans, but I don’t really have a plan A right now,” Pene says. “It’s kind of bad, but I just go with the flow, so that’s what I’ve got.”


It would be a drastic change for a person whose last four years have revolved around a set schedule and structured environment. Even though she was able to travel around the South and occasionally beyond with the basketball team, those sojourns were small potatoes compared to the places she wants to go.


Four years removed from being the out-of-place in a distant land, Pene will most-likely find herself in a similar situation once again, whether that be in Europe, Asia or another continent entirely. Whatever career she ends up in, no one who knows Pene will be surprised if she ends up being a leader in her field too. 


“I like to get out and experience new things,” Pene says. “Which is why I want to get out and travel the world, because it would be cool to see new cultures and meet new people. I love meeting new people and just hearing about their life and different backgrounds.”



Do you have an opinion on this article, or have a story you believe needs coverage? You can contact the author at Joseph.A.Dycus@gmail.com or on Twitter at @joseph_dycus.

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