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Rizo among five Mustangs boys basketball seniors uniting like family

In one breath, Bob Rizo talks about steaming hot weather and gang violence.

The West Fargo Sheyenne senior was just 7 years old when he moved from Nigeria to the United States.

Rizo was never caught up in conflicts at that young age. He remembers Nigeria most for getting done with private school and running with his younger sister to buy candy before they did their homework and played soccer with his friends.

But he and his family still worried about the country and war. They had to get out.

"I always think about where I come from because not everyone has a chance to transition from a bad place like that," Rizo said. "I'm always grateful for every chance I get in anything."

So Rizo went from Nigeria to the United States, and more specifically, North Dakota. The temperature was a shock. He said it was the first time he had seen snow.

Rizo struggled most with learning English and had problems making friends initially. He had about a month to catch up on the language before he started school.

He said his best English lessons came from watching the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants" and especially remembers an episode that features a song that spells "fun."

Rizo also made friends through basketball. Although he knew soccer best, Rizo picked up a basketball one day in elementary school. He started taking and making a few shots during an open class period. Rizo gained his closest friends through basketball.

Rizo is among five seniors for the Mustangs boys basketball team that's gone 12-2 in their first 14 games and have earned its highest ranking in program history at No. 3 in the state polls.

Rizo said he and his classmates have "handled their business."

"I thought this was fun," Rizo said. "I didn't really know what (basketball) was at the time. They introduced me to what it is, and I fell in love with the game."

Rizo and fellow Mustangs senior Keaton Ballestad went to the same elementary school and grew to know each other in the sixth grade. Ballestad said Rizo has always loved to smile and has been smart since they met.

"I've known these guys for a long time," Ballestad said. "Every single one of them is a great guy."

Mustangs senior forward Elijah Charles moved to the area his freshman year from Bismarck and met his classmates on the team at an open gym. He felt like he was introduced to a family. He'll remember his teammates most for the jokes they made while on the bus during road trips.

"We're just a great connected group of guys," Charles said. "I think (sports) built a chemistry between all of us."

Mustangs senior guard Zach Westphal said all five seniors bring something unique to the team and contribute in different ways. They've played together for a countless amount of time which makes Westphal believe the Mustangs could win a state championship.

"We've improved every single year," Westphal said. "We found our place and what we wanted to do as a team."

Senior center Kemal Hajric, who moved to the United States from Bosnia as a child, said the Mustangs have always been close, even if they come from different areas.

"We have a really good chemistry," Hajric said. "Just us being together early on before high school, growing up together has helped us be successful this year."

Rizo, who wants to go to North Dakota State to study medicine, remembers seeing a sign that welcomed him to North Dakota when he first moved here. He wondered what his family was getting into.

Now he thinks he's found a second family.

"We're pretty tight. I could almost say we're brothers," Rizo said. "We better each other by just being together."

Colton Pool

Pool is a reporter for The West Fargo Pioneer covering city sports and community news. He was the sports editor for The Dickinson Press covering Dickinson State athletics, high school athletics and Southwest Speedway. He graduated from North Dakota State with a degree in journalism and a minor in English. You can reach him by phone at 701-451-5715 or tweet him @CPoolReporter. 

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