International trips in the summer to explore the world and get some preseason action are not too uncommon for Division I basketball programs. After all, each program is allowed one every four years. But next week, two women's basketball teams will be making history with their expeditions.
Louisville is making its final preparations before leaving for Cuba. The team is scheduled to arrive in Havana on Saturday, with another squad, Bowling Green, stepping foot on the Cuban soil three days later. The two programs will be the first women's college basketball programs to ever play in Cuba.
"We will see cars from the 1950s and '60s," Bowling Green coach Jennifer Roos said. "Our cell phones won't work, and Internet is spotty at best. So, our team will be going back in time a little bit, but it will be a great opportunity to immerse ourselves and learn a new culture."
Jeff Walz, the ninth-year coach of Louisville, said he was planning the Cardinals' next trip for several years. While he was originally leaning toward Costa Rica, his eyes lit up at the thought of the rare opportunity when sanctions between the United States and Cuba were loosened.
Two years ago, when the border opened up to go into Cuba, we thought it would be a great idea to have our student-athletes have the opportunity to get in there and really immerse themselves in the culture of the Cuban history and get a chance to see it before it becomes westernized," Walz said.
Each team is slated to play three games in three days, including matchups against the Cuban national team. They also share several items on their itineraries including a walking tour of Old Havana, a trip to the Partagas Cigar Factory for a demonstration on one of Cuba's most famous products, and a salsa dancing lesson.
The coaches of both teams will also host a clinic for the Cuban national team, while Bowling Green's players and coaches are planning to host two clinics for local children after leaving for a resort in Varadero from Aug. 14 to 16 before heading home on the 17th.
Roos said these international trips are always beneficial, but there is a special aura surrounding this one.
"It will be Fidel Castro's 90th birthday while we are down there, on August 13," she said. "It will be fascinating to see what the country does to celebrate his birthday, how the locals and the community respond to that, and how our team responds to that, as well.
The sightseeing is not the only benefit of the trip, as NCAA rules allow for 10 extra on-campus summer practice sessions when a team is going on an international trip. Bowling Green senior Abby Siefker said those practices, plus the three exhibition contests and amount of time the team will spend together, could be a factor in giving her team a leg up when the regular season rolls around.
"My favorite part about going to Cuba is that we get a head start on our team chemistry," Siefker said. "We get to spend a lot of time together, doing fun things and getting to know each other. That's what I'm most looking forward to."