By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University women's basketball Head Coach Peg Swadener and players Britanny Kochenderfer (Sr., G, Klamath Falls, OR/Henley HS/Idaho State Univ.) and Drew Farmer (Jr., PG, Brookings, OR/Brookings-Harbor HS) had great all-around experiences on a trip to Italy this summer. Swadener coached a team of small college athletes from throughout the United States, including Kochenderfer and Farmer. The team played three games against Italian club teams, held a clinic for local youngsters, and toured several cities. The trip began on June 10 and continued through June 19.
Along the way, Swadener and the team spent time in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Lake Como. They were joined on their trip by two other women's basketball teams, a women's volleyball team, a men's volleyball team, and a softball team.
All of the traveling teams were from the United States and were participating in trips arranged by Beyond Sports Tours, owned and operated by former Willamette athletes Josh Erickson ('07, MBA '10) and Grant Leslie ('09, MBA '10). Erickson and Leslie both played basketball for the Bearcats. Leslie was the quarterback on Willamette's 2008 football team that ended the regular season undefeated at 10-0 and qualified for the NCAA Division III Playoffs.
"We had a game in Rome, a game in Florence, and then a game in Milan," Swadener said. In addition, the team held a practice in Rome, and conducted a clinic in Florence. The team explored Venice and Lake Como as tourists.
After the various teams from the U.S. flew across the Atlantic Ocean, they all met in Rome and traveled together from city to city. Swadener's team included 10 women's basketball players. In addition to Kochenderfer and Farmer, the team included Drew's sister, Abby, who will soon be a freshman at Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho). The team also featured three athletes from Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.), two from Northland College (Wis.), one from Voorhees College (S.C.), and one from Iowa Wesleyan University.
"The first motivating factor for me was getting to play basketball in the summer in a fairly stress-free environment where we get to have fun," Farmer said. "I was also excited to get to play with Britanny and have Peg as our coach in an entirely different situation than when we are in season. The final factor that convinced me to go was that my younger sister, Abby, was able to play as well. From there, making the decision to go to Italy was simple."
"Once I heard about an opportunity to not only experience Italy, but to do something for a community we visit and also play basketball, I knew it was a trip that was too good to pass up," Kochenderfer said.
The women's basketball team took on club teams in the various cities, with the opponents ranging in age from 18 years old to about 40. There are no high school or college teams in Italy, so all of the athletes were competing for their sports clubs. A sports club typically provides athletic opportunities in several sports and for many ages, ranging from children's teams to professional adult teams. The teams from the U.S. played other amateur teams.
"They were competitive games," Swadener said. "The European teams generally play a strong team style where they move without the ball well and do a great job passing. These teams were no different. It was fun seeing our team enjoy the competition against a high caliber team without the stresses of a traditional season." The team Swadener coached went 2-1 during the trip.
"Playing with other players from across the country was an awesome experience and gave me an opportunity to learn how to mesh our styles of play to make it work on the fly," Kochenderfer noted.
The winning was fun and the overall experience was exciting, too.
"It was a great experience learning about the culture in a country like Italy, while getting to meet other Division III athletes," Swadener said. "We were all so blessed to be able to use the sport we love to see the world."
A very special part of the trip for Swadener, Kochenderfer and Farmer was the youth camp in Florence. The players on Swadener's team conducted the clinic for about 30 children. Most were between eight and 10 years old.
"We tried to keep the clinic upbeat and fun, while also trying to make the kids better," Farmer recalled. "My favorite part was the competitions. Those little kids were so into it, the gym was loud with children screaming, and it was really a good time."
"It felt so good to be able to give back to the community that had given us such a warm welcome," Kochenderfer said. "Although there was a language barrier, it was a great example of the way that energy and body language works to bridge our two cultures and can bring us together as one."
Beyond Sports Tours was credited with doing a great job of setting up the details for the trip.
"It was very well organized. Many of the meals were in a group setting, but they did a good job of exposing us to the local cuisine," Swadener said. "Of course, I especially enjoyed the espresso."
While in Italy, Swadener's team visited the Vatican, saw the Colosseum, toured Florence including the various piazzas (public squares), spent an afternoon in Belaggio, went to downtown Milan and took a tour of Lake Como.
"My favorite stop was Venice," Kochenderfer said. "A few of my teammates and I were able to ride through the canals in a gondola. That was an experience that I will never forget. I was surprised how calm and peaceful the back canals of Venice were."
All of the locations the team visited had a big impact on everyone. For Farmer, there were so many places to remember.
"Italy was beautiful," Farmer said. "The cities have cobblestone streets and the roads are sometimes only big enough for one small car. The countryside was green and lush. What really surprised me were the churches. These churches were massive, intricately designed, beautiful, and they demanded your attention. Every city had its own churches and every church was different. My favorite place was Venice. The canals were gorgeous and the city itself was really pretty, especially at night when all the lights glistened off the water."
Even with many events scheduled in advance, the coaches and athletes still had some open time to relax and explore.
"If we had free time we were probably sleeping," Farmer said. "We were waking up early to tour all day so a lot of afternoon free time was spent in an air-conditioned room lying down. If we weren't sleeping, we were exploring the cities on our own. Many times we would walk around and try to find a hole-in-the-wall place to eat or somewhere to try new desserts."
Players and coaches from both teams in the final game were joined by local organizers and local families for a picnic after the final buzzer. "It just made it that much better of a trip. To see the locals in their day-to-day lives was really fun," Swadener said.
"My favorite part about Italy was meeting new people and getting to go explore with them," Farmer said. "We'd spend all day walking around some city together ... and then we'd go play a basketball game. Making new friends really made the experience better and I think it helped on the court because nobody was selfish."