By Sallie Gordon
One of the perks of my job at Sport Tours International is being able to travel the world. That said, it’s not the places I travel, but the teams that I travel with that make it special. I was reminded of this last month when I traveled with Head Coach Mary Beth Spirk and the Moravian College Women’s Basketball Team on a 10-day trip to Spain and Portugal. After this trip I found it hard to say goodbye, but excited to see what the 2014-15 season has in store for this great group of ladies.
Coach Mary Beth Spirk arrived in Madrid, Spain knowing that she was playing with a different Moravian team than she had during the 2013-2014 season. Moravian graduated five seniors and one of her best players was recovering from a season ending injury. As the trip to Spain and Portugal began, so too did Moravian’s rebuilding process for the upcoming year.
Let’s recap the 2013-2014 season. The Hounds began the season with a 7-1 record. During the 8th game of the season, one of Moravian’s starting forwards, leading scorer and rebounder, Alexis Wright, went down with a season ending knee injury. Coach Spirk was now faced with having to adjust the starting lineup, and she hoped that her players could work together to make up the lost points and rebounds. The Hounds answered the call. Moravian finished their season 20-8, made it to the conference tournament championship and received an at-large bid to the D3 NCAA tournament.
This past May, Coach Spirk found herself in a position similar to the one she faced after the 8th game last season. This time she was 3,500 miles from Moravian’s Pennsylvania Campus, still without Alexis and minus her five graduating seniors. “I was a bit nervous,” she told me, “wondering how the team was going to respond after losing such a huge part of our team.” Coach Spirk knew their trip would give the players a chance to show her what they were able to do on the court. It was also an opportunity for them to find their own identities, individually and as a team.
The exploration of Madrid, the capital of Spain, began with a bus tour of the city and a visit to the nearby ancient city of Toledo. As we drove through the streets, almost every corner held an advertisement that read, “Lo que pasa en Lisboa, se queda en Madrid” or in English “What happens in Lisbon, stays in Madrid.” This would be a sign of a great trip to come. You see, the UEFA Champions League Championship was about to be played in Lisbon and in-city rivals, Real Madrid & Atletico Madrid, were competing against each other for the title. We were already in the City of Champions!!! Most of the team made the choice to cheer on Real Madrid and sported their newly bought gear. The players guessed correctly and celebrated the 4-1 win in the streets of Madrid with 500,000 of Real Madrid’s most loyal fans.
The first basketball game in Madrid was a tough but great experience for Moravian. The team played against top players in Spain, as well as a top USA player, Allison Feaster. Coach Spirk remembered Allison from her playing days at Harvard when she led her 16th seeded team to one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history over #1 Stanford. Following the game, Allison spoke to the Moravian players about her basketball journey, playing in the WNBA and overseas. It was a special opportunity to for the players.
The time spent in Portugal was more quiet and subtle. Madrid is a bustling, big city, while Cascais and Lisbon are more relaxing. In Portugal the team enjoyed the beach and biked along the coast. The fun didn’t stop there; they also sailed along Tagus River, rode a Tuk Tuk (a small, three wheeled motorized vehicle) through the narrow streets of Lisbon, and ate some of the best Gelato in the country.
When I asked about her favorite part of the trip to Europe, Mary Beth Spirk replied, “I had a group of young, inexperienced, players, figure out how to play against some tough competition, while never backing down.” The gelatos and food was a close second. The tough competition continued into Portugal, this time playing the club team of Ticha Penicheiro, former Old Dominion and WNBA Star. Despite the level of competition, Moravian continued to give it their all. During each game it was noticeable how much they were improving and coming together as a team. “Natalie Vanderlaan-Mayering improved the most. She was forced to be physical against bigger and stronger competition. If she continues to work hard, she’ll be a big force for us,” Coach Spirk commented as she spoke about the improvement of the team.
Not only did the team improve throughout the trip, but leaders also emerged. When asked about her new captain, Alesha Marcks, Coach Spirk replied, “She really stepped up as a leader. If she performs like she did in Europe, we will be fine moving forward.”
Through the transformation into a new team, the team activities, and experiencing two new countries, the trip proved to be both productive and memorable for Moravian. “They proved to me, and each other, that they can step up their game on and off the court,” Coach Spirk continued, “We grew up in so many aspects on this trip. From a coach’s perspective, that is probably that hardest thing to teach players.”
As their Sport Tours International guide, I was very impressed with this team. Our Team of the Month is not always about wins and losses, but about character and determination. Moravian demonstrated leadership and the willingness to get better. I enjoyed their personalities and cheered for them at games…loudly. Where most teams would have given up, Moravian took advantage of every opportunity to get better. The Moravian rebuilding process is well underway and off to a great start!!!