Many college athletes hope to pursue a professional career either here or overseas after graduation. For Emma Tuominen, things didn’t happen in that order.
The Indiana Tech post grew up in Lahti, Finland, a small city known for nature and winter sports. As the daughter of athletes, her parents encouraged her early in life to engage in sports.
“My dad wanted me to play soccer, but I refused after watching my older brother’s games because I wanted to do something of my own,” Tuominen said.
At first Tuominen tried gymnastics, then track but eventually settled on basketball.
“My dad recommended basketball and at first I was hesitant but then he got me into it, and I really liked it,” she said.
In Finland, sports are not attached to schools as in the U.S. There are club teams and sports-specific schools where young prospective athletes can study and develop in their sport.
Tuominen was accepted into Lahden Lyseo, a high school for athletes where she could focus on developing her game and her academics. The acceptance process was stringent, including grades, basketball tests and an interview. Training sessions were 3-4 mornings per week and primarily with boys. She often found herself as the only girl in the gym playing against boys.
“I had to work hard to score against the post players so they wouldn’t block my shot. However, they were very encouraging of me,” she said.
Finnish high school is just three years, and Tuominen — playing U16 — was invited to the National Team Camps which take place during Christmas break and summer. Athletes are selected to participate in the National Championship when the summer ends. Tuominen didn’t make the cut that first fall, but it didn’t discourage her.
“There is a big rotation of at least 20 girls, we played league games over the summer to prepare for the European Championships,” Tuominen said.
Tuominen decided she wanted something more as she completed her time at Lahden Lyseo, along with playing for the U18 club team. During the summer before her senior year, she was again invited to the National Team Camp. This time she was selected for the U18 European National Tournament in Bosnia with the National Women’s Team. In 2017 she played in the National Women’s League on a team called Kouvottarett. She was named Best Player of the Finnish Southeastern 18-year-old league.
With no college sports in Finland, Tuominen would have had to travel for basketball and college separately while balancing both. It would be easier in the United States.
Tuominen had prepared for the next step her whole life, even making decisions in her contracts to receive no compensation so as not to affect her future eligibility for American college basketball. She began looking into her options as many people in Finland convinced her to check out the NCAA. She was only able to visit schools through video meetings and finally settled on a late decision during Christmas break of her senior year. She boarded a plane to take the nine-hour flight to the state of Indiana.
Coming to America
Division I is a desirable landing spot for many basketball players, but for Tuominen her first stop was a bad fit. While attending Purdue-Fort Wayne, she was at a program in the midst of turmoil that eventually ended in the coach's departure.
The good news — she found a city she loved.
The bad news — she began to hate the game that brought her to the states in the first place.
“It was a big change coming to the U.S. and I was just getting used to the city and people around me, which took a lot of time,” Tuominen said. She questioned if she really wanted to endure another transition again.
“I decided to contact (Indiana Tech) Coach (Jessie) Biggs and she invited me to come play an open-gym with them,” Tuominen said.
Tuominen quickly realized that the program and environment at Indiana Tech would be a better fit for her academically and basketball-wise. It made sense to transfer programs, but in the comfort of the same city.
Tuominen made a fresh start at Tech the next fall after a summer visit in Finland to refresh with her family.
Almost instantly, she knew she made the right change. Classes were smaller and she enjoyed getting to know her professors on a more personal basis.
“I’ve had a lot of great experiences and I’ve had a lot of help to allow me to achieve more on the academic side,” Tuominen said.
It took her a while to ease back into feeling confident on the court again, but Biggs recognized exactly what Tuominen had to offer the Warriors.
“I try to sit down with all of my players and find out what they are looking for from this experience. It was something Emma was able to share, and she wasn’t enjoying basketball,” Biggs said.
“One thing I like about Coach Biggs is that when we do basketball stuff, we do it fully,” Tuominen said.
Finding the Love
After getting comfortable with the system at Indiana Tech, Tuominen improved each season, earning more time each year, understanding her role and improving her shooting. Biggs stresses teaching concepts and helping her players understand the game. She uses analytics, stats, and percentages, but most importantly, finds the purpose in everything her team does.
“Emma is extremely intelligent and her brain functions in percentages and numbers. She’s always thinking about what the most effective or efficient way is to do things,” Biggs said.
“The style of how we play at Indiana Tech fits me and I love basketball,” Tuominen said.
Having played Division I and coached at various levels of the NCAA and currently coaching at the NAIA for the past 10 years, Biggs understood what was relatable and comparable between the two which in turn helped Tuominen’s transition.
“I felt at this level, she could be a very successful basketball player and enjoy the game.
That’s what we focused on and it was a good jump for her,” Biggs said. “The way she cuts and goes so aggressively, you can’t coach that; you just have it, and she does.”
The Warriors coaching staff recognized Tuominen’s aggression and how to incorporate it into their system.
Tuominen is one of the highest field goal percentage shooters on the Warriors, averaging about fourteen points and shooting around 54 percent.
“My teammates and coaches tell me to shoot more but I did want our team to do well. I know I’m a better driver and if I see an open shooter next to me, I’m going to pass to them,” Tuominen said. “I didn’t know how to be selfish and was passing the ball too much and overthinking.”
“I think her go and drive stands out. She goes hard in her playing, she cuts hard, she drives hard. In the women’s game, you don’t see that aggressiveness to her level and that’s what makes her such a tough match-up. You can post her, but she’ll drive right by you. You can put a small guard on her, but she’ll post you,” Biggs said.
“Emma is unselfish and puts the team’s best interest before herself. You never have to question if she is giving it her all because she’s a very reliable teammate that has a tireless work ethic,” teammate Eileen Salisbury said.
The Warriors are currently first in the Wolverine-Hoosiers Athletic Conference. Indiana Tech earned the top spot in the WHAC Coaches and Media poll this season and are confident about a sixth straight trip to the national tournament.
Home Away from Home
Tuominen is now surrounded by support. She video chats with her parents, Juha and Sari, in Finland as often as possible, even with a seven-hour time difference.
“They watch every game as it’s happening no matter the hour. I don’t think they’ve missed a single game,” Tuominen said.
Juha and Sari often get up in the middle of the night to watch their daughter play and then go back to sleep only to wake up a few hours later for work. Tuominen also keeps in touch through video with her older brother, Jasse, a professional soccer player in Sweden.
They’ve come to the U.S. a few times to visit over the course of her college career, but Covid made it difficult at times for that to happen. On their visits, they have seen New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. The NAIA has allowed her more opportunity for those trips with her family and more opportunity to travel home for holidays.
The NAIA has also afforded Tuominen the time to focus on interning 20 hours per week in the human resources department of the college. Her boss and the rest of the staff are flexible in allowing her to choose her own hours knowing that she faces the demands of schoolwork as well as her game and practice schedule.
“I love the internship. I get to try what I’m learning in class and get exposure to different areas of human resources. I enjoy all of the responsibilities I get,” Tuominen said. “Coach Biggs is really good about giving us the time we need outside of basketball to complete school and focus on internships.”
Stay or Go
As Tuominen finishes her fifth year with a Master's in Business Administration with a concentration in human resources, already achieving her Bachelor of Science and Business Administration with a concentration in marketing and human resources, she hopes to stay in the U.S. with a student F-1 VISA.
Tuominen also knows that playing professional basketball in Finland again is still an option. Even though she loves Finland and misses her family, she has established herself here and is torn between the two. Tuominen believes the change in programs, her teammates and Biggs were instrumental in her success on the court and in her pursuit of a degree.
“Emma is a great representation of our school and program, because not only does she perform well on the floor, but she cares a lot about her academics and the people around her,” Salisbury said.
“I really appreciate Coach Biggs because she gave me the opportunity to transfer, and I feel like every year she believed in me. She never stopped believing in me and that is part of the reason I am playing the way I am this season,” Tuominen said.
The Warriors will miss Tuominen next season but know they are releasing a star no matter what endeavor she pursues.
“Emma is one of the best human beings you are going to meet,” Biggs said. “She’s made the most of it here. She is just one of those people that is not just a wonderful basketball player who helps her team win games, but you know her future’s bright.”
College Basketball Times is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization. If you enjoyed this article, please considering making a small donation by clicking the button below. All articles, and the operation of this site, are made possible through these generous donations.