We planned our last three foreign trips around the home countries of players on the roster. We went to Israel in 2011 for Naama Shafir, and England and Spain in 2015 for Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, Janice Monakana and Inma Zanoguera. This time we chose Italy for Mariella Santucci.
Quickly after we landed, we found ourselves navigating the waters of Venice, tasting our first pasta dish, and absorbing the Venetian culture. That evening we traveled to Bologna to find our bus greeted by the Santucci family. It was such a moving experience to see Mariella’s entire family there to see her play at our first game; many hadn’t seen her play in a very long time, if at all.
One of the highlights of our trip was spending an evening celebrating the occasion with Mariella’s parents and sister. We enjoyed a five-course, authentic Italian dinner, which left us all stuffed and energized for the days ahead. While in Bologna, we also attended a cooking class, where our players learned how to make tortellini and spaghetti. We may have a future Julia Child or two in this group.Next, we explored the sights in Florence and collected many souvenirs before making our way to Naples by way of a high-speed train. After a quick lunch of margherita pizza, we traveled the curvy, scenic drive to Sorrento by bus. The cliffs unveiled the beautiful coast, where we would play our second game and enjoy a few days by the water.
Another highlight of the trip was taking 10-passenger boats to the island of Capri. We stopped on the back, rugged side of the island to enjoy a refreshing swim in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Game t
wo took place in the high hills of Sorrento and ended in a second victory for our team.
Our final stop was Rome. Despite record-high temperatures that reached 105 degrees, we attended mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and toured the Colosseum, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Vatican Museum and Trevi Fountain. We also had unbelievable opportunities to hear the pope give his Sunday blessing to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and visit the Sistine Chapel to see the famous works of Michelangelo. In addition, our third and final exhibition game took place in Italy’s capital city against the Rome All-Stars.
In our three exhibition games, we had a chance to mix up the lineups, give our new players time to show what they can add to our team, and witness our returnees grow in their leadership roles. I was very pleased with how hard we played and how coachable they were. With only 10 practices to prepare, we threw a lot of new things at them, and they absorbed it at a very rapid pace.
In our final night, we went to an interactive opera dinner show with the entire travel party, which included 22 fans. We are so fortunate to have a tremendous fan base that supports Toledo women’s basketball. Seven out of the last eight years, we have been ranked top 30 in the country in attendance. It was fun to share this trip with some of our fans who have helped us enjoy our amazing atmosphere in Savage Arena through the years. That night, we had our final pasta dish from Italy and shared many laughs before returning back to the hotel to pack our bags for an early departure home.
To sum up the trip, we immersed ourselves in art, culture and history, as well as tasted amazing cuisine. This voyage gave our six newcomers a chance to learn our style of play, gain valuable playing experience, and bond as a team. I’ve always felt that team chemistry is the foundation of any great program. We won three games and grew closer as a team. Many of us traveled throughout Italy for the first time and gained memories that will be etched in our minds for a lifetime.
We will forever be grateful to our Rocket family for their generosity and making this trip a reality. We return home feeling very grateful, thankful and blessed.
Cullop is the head coach of the women’s basketball team — and the winningest coach in UToledo women’s basketball history with 241 victories.