The Language of Sport

CUBA – When the Falcon basketball and volleyball teams stepped onto courts in Italy, Croatia and Cuba in summer 2016, it wasn’t about winning or losing. For the players and coaches, it was about experiencing new cultures and sharing a passion for their sport.

That love of a game spanned two continents, overcame language barriers, and transcended more than a half-century of Cold War animosity. Competition on the court gave way to joint photos, conversations and gift exchanges with the opposing players after the games and matches.

The NCAA allows teams to take an international immersion trip once every four years. This year, the men’s basketball team traveled to Italy, the women’s basketball team journeyed to Cuba, and the volleyball team made stops in Italy, Croatia and Bosnia. The trips were paid for by a combination of private gifts and revenue generated from non-league games.

The journeys gave the Falcon student-athletes, many of whom had never traveled beyond the United States, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience that is a hallmark of the BGSU experience.

“This is exactly the kind of experiential learning that has contributed to BGSU’s recognition by the Wall Street Journal as a No. 1 public university for student engagement,” said Bob Moosbrugger ’94,n director of athletics.


The women’s basketball team became only the third NCAA college team to travel to Cuba. The Falcons visited Havana and the northern coastal town of Varadero.

The August visit came just a year after the United States restored diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation, severed in 1961 during the Cold War. The United States economic embargo, which makes it illegal for American companies to do business in Cuba, remains in place.

The two countries’ fractious history was on display throughout the visit – from anti-embargo billboards near the Havana airport to the omnipresent ‘50s-era American cars (the last decade when United States automobiles could be imported). Despite that history, the Falcons received a warm welcome from the Cuban people.

“When they heard we were from the United States, most people got excited and wanted to talk to us,” said freshman Clare Glowniak. “It was a great experience to dive into their culture and just walk around meeting people.”

The Falcons played two games against Cuban national teams and a third game against the University of Science, Physical Culture and Sport (UCCFD). BGSU coaches held a basketball clinic for UCCFD players and the Falcon players participated in a basketball clinic with area children.

“They learned from us and we learned from them. We were able to communicate through basketball.”

For many members of the team, including junior Haley Puk, the children’s clinic was one of the most meaningful experiences of the trip.

“Even though we couldn’t understand one another’s language, we were able to teach them how to dribble, shoot, pass and rebound,” Puk said. “They learned from us and we learned from them. We were able to communicate through basketball.”

The camaraderie between the Falcons and the Cuban national team players extended off the court. Following the final game, two members of the national team hopped aboard BGSU’s team bus for a ride home to downtown Havana. A translator helped facilitate conversations between the Americans and their guests during the ride back to the hotel.

The team’s time in Havana included an invitation to the newly re-opened American Embassy. BGSU head coach Jennifer Roos was moved by the visit.

“Everyone was speechless walking into that facility, knowing its history and coming so recently after last year’s flag-raising ceremony,” Roos said. “The embassy staff emphasized the importance of these types of sport and cultural exchanges in improving United States/Cuba relations. This was a tremendous opportunity for our students that I think they’ll remember for a really long time.”


The volleyball team benefited from the international experiences of their coach and two teammates. Head coach Danijela Tomic is from Bosnia, and players Isabel Kovacic and Jelena Sunjic have lived in Croatia. They played five games against various teams while getting a taste of the countries they visited.

Tomic credits the trip with bringing the team closer together.

“The players have much stronger relationships with their teammates because of the trip,” she said. “That’s the best validation I can get as a coach. Spending 10 days in foreign countries and outside of your comfort zone with different foods, customs, languages and sharing that experience with your teammates is just priceless.”

“The experiences and the memories that we created will stay with us forever,” said Madeline Brandewie, a sophomore from Columbus, Ohio. “The team chemistry this year is really strong because of our trip.”

The men’s basketball team visited Italy for 10 days in August, spending time in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Lake Como. They competed against three professional travel teams and the United Arab Emirates National team.


Coach Michael Huger, the Falcons’ second-year head coach, played professionally for 12 seasons in Europe. He was happy to share an international experience with the players.

“Going back as a coach was wonderful,” he said. “Many of our students have never traveled internationally and really benefited from this experience. They were able to see that there is literally a world of discovery awaiting them if they are open to new ideas and opportunities.”

Ethan Good, a freshman from Wapakoneta, Ohio, said the trip really allowed him to experience another culture. “Visiting so many cities in one trip was amazing,” he said. “I never
would have thought that going to BGSU would allow me to experience so much of the world so quickly. I can’t wait to see and learn more.”

Updated: 12/01/2017 11:58PM