The ball is kicked, she goes up for the header and…GOOOOOAL! Suzie Peters races back to her teammates who tackle her in excitement, putting the Americans up on the English squad. Despite the locale — England, where soccer is king — and the international flavor of the match, there is no stadium and no crazily dressed fans. Instead, the game is being played on a quiet field in Liverpool, where two college squads are challenging, and learning from, each other away from the roar of a crowd.
Catholic University sponsors many trips for students to go abroad and experience new cultures during the school year. With missions trips over spring break, study abroad and international internships, students have more opportunities than ever to see the world. For college athletes, however, those opportunities are not always a good fit. With so few years to play the intercollegiate sport they love, missing a season and its team camaraderie can be a disheartening prospect. Even going abroad during the offseason semester is difficult because players try to keep up with workouts at that time. Besides, each CUA sport includes a two-week nontraditional playing schedule during the offseason semester.
Recognizing these factors, coaches of the women’s teams at CUA have begun to take their squads abroad so their players can experience life and sports overseas.
The women’s soccer squad, for instance, traveled to England during spring break 2008 to train at the soccer youth academy created by that nation’s winningest professional soccer team, Liverpool FC (short for Football Club). CUA’s team had opportunities to train with the academy’s coaches and play against top universities. They also gained cultural knowledge through sightseeing, tours, interactions with their English host family and attendance at two Liverpool FC games — a different experience from any athletic contests they’d seen in the United States.
“The atmosphere is one you can’t really describe,” says sophomore Kelly Donnelly, who recalls the 45,000 people in the Liverpool stadium singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in tandem with the recording of the song by the ’60s Liverpool band Gerry and the Pacemakers. “We were into it more than a non-soccer player might be, but not as much as some of the English fans — even little kids were cursing at bad calls.”
CUA went 2-0-1 against the English squads they played, but the purpose of the trip was not to score victories as much as it was to see a new culture, bond as a team and experience soccer in a different country.
“We wanted to give our players exposure to a soccer-rich country that basically lives and breathes the sport,” says coach J.P. Sousa. “There is no better place to go than England, which has the most popular and competitive professional league in the world, the English Premier League.”
CUA’s field hockey squad took a similar trip in August, but went south instead of east, traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for nine days.
The women played three games against local field hockey clubs and trained with players and coaches from one of the premier teams, Club Atlético de San Isidro, which has produced players for Argentina’s national team, the bronze medal winner at the Beijing Olympics. The CUA students also completed a service project, going to a community center in a disadvantaged neighborhood where they played with 80 children, put on a field hockey clinic and distributed small gifts. Each day, the team took the opportunity to experience Argentine culture, as well. For example, they went to a gaucho show at a horse ranch — “I’ve never seen them laugh so hard,” says coach Gia Cillizza.
CUA coaches planned and organized the soccer and field hockey trips, but individual athletes also take the initiative to travel overseas with the goal of using their athletic ability. Field hockey co-captain Ro Dixon, a senior, spent half of June in South Africa volunteering with PeacePlayers International, a nonprofit that runs basketball camps as a way to educate and unite children of different races and religions. The organization was founded in Northern Ireland by CUA alumnus Sean Tuohey, B.A. 1999, and his brother. Dixon taught life and basketball skills and mentored children from the rural areas around the city of Durban.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she says. “The division [between blacks and whites] is apparent even after apartheid. The little kids would touch my hair and skin because they couldn’t believe I was there just for them; it was really moving.”
While the team trips were a good time, they required a lot of fundraising for the athletes. Raising money involved soliciting donations, selling T-shirts and running sports camps for children.
After two successful trips within the university’s athletics department, other CUA teams are trying to put similar excursions together. Women’s lacrosse coach Meghan McDonogh dreams of taking her team to Australia during winter break for the warm weather and some of the best lacrosse in the world. The women’s basketball team plans to travel to Ireland in August 2009.
“We will be going overseas because of the great opportunity to compete internationally and immerse ourselves in another culture,” says women’s basketball coach Matt Donohue. “When we looked at the choices of where to go, our ultimate goal was to play against a strong opponent and then sit down and have a meal with them and learn about their culture. It’s a life-changing opportunity for our women.” — B.J.
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