The holidays arrived about four months early for Boulder boys basketball coach Eric Eisenhard.
In August, as school began and the Panthers began informal workouts for the upcoming season -- their second under Eisenhard -- a pair of unlikely and completely unexpected gifts walked into the Boulder gymnasium, sheepishly asking for an opportunity to try out for the team.
Talk about a surprise present. The two athletes turned out to be exchange students well-versed in the art of basketball. One, Diego Riverol, is a 6-foot-4 forward from Venezuela who boasts soft hands and a knack for rebounding. The other, 6-0 guard Alejandro Rodriguez from Mexico, quickly asserted himself as a savvy floor general with a keen sense of the game.
Together, they have helped propel the Panthers to a promising start despite an eight-win season a year ago and a potentially devastating preseason injury that would have waylaid many teams.
"Alejandro, he's a playmaker. And Diego, he's a big body underneath who rebounds the ball really well," Eisenhard said. "Both of them have learned a tremendous amount since they got here. They've been in the gym since Day 1.
"They came in maybe six, seven days before school started. They heard about us and came into the gym and said, 'Can we play?' It's been a huge learning experience for them. And it's been great for the team too to have a couple new guys around. The whole school loves them. They're really nice, personable kids."
For Riverol, his Boulder High experience is a return to his roots of sorts. His mother actually graduated from the University of Colorado, and Riverol spent several years in Boulder until he was 4-years old, when his family returned to Venezuela.
Earlier this year, Riverol satisfied an urge to study abroad by returning to Boulder. His family joined him for his arrival, and the Riverol group reconnected with many of the friends they had made in the area roughly 15 years ago. On the court, Riverol has emerged as one of the Panthers' leading rebounders, and he has teamed with sweet-shooting forward Jonah Charnick and fellow senior Austin Blessing to give Boulder a formidable rotation in the paint.
"I wanted to get a year of experience as an exchange student," said Riverol, who is staying with the family of teammate RJ Lampert. "My family really loved Boulder and my mother really loved CU. We decided to come here. The first month I was here my parents were with me and we visited all the old friends. They might come again in February."
Rodriguez's presence has perhaps been even more crucial to the Panthers, even if it largely is due to circumstance. In early December, senior guard Marc Krimstock was in a serious bicycle accident that left him with multiple fractures in his skull and face. That misfortune was in addition to the knee injury suffered by point guard Tommy Baumgartner near the end of football season. Rodriguez has more than filled the void at guard, playing a brand of basketball in which his contributions are both myriad and timely.
During a recent blowout win against Littleton, Rodriguez showcased all the elements that could make him a force when Front Range League play begins in January. After Littleton had trimmed a 22-point Boulder lead to 13 at halftime, Rodriguez set about regaining the Panthers' spark.
Rodriguez quickly handed out assists on baskets by Lampert and Charnick before turning a steal into a basket of his own. A Littleton 3-pointer briefly stemmed the tide before Rodriguez drove the base line, missing the shot but converting his own offensive rebound.
Both Rodriguez and Riverol are open to the idea of continuing their academic and athletic careers at American colleges.
"My father was here for business many years ago in Colorado, and he played basketball and loved to play," Rodriguez said. "The thing that's challenging is the language, but that's coming. The basketball here is more physical. So it's a little different. But I'm practicing and working hard and enjoying the experience."
Follow Pat on Twitter: @prooney07