RCW: Traveling tough and together
Kansas’ women’s basketball team took to France and Switzerland in an effort to build on an already unbreakable team bond.
The art of team chemistry is something that can be difficult to find, yet revolutionary if found. Over the summer, the University of Kansas women’s basketball team and staff were fortunate enough to fly across the pond in a group effort to both see the world and improve the bond between teammates both on and off the court. During a 10-day span in the middle of August, the team visited multiple destinations in France and Switzerland, seeing the world and playing some local teams along the way.
The morning of August 8 came with no real surprises to the Jayhawks. Hit the weights. Go to practice. Head home. Once evening came, however, it was a different story. The Jayhawks packed their bags and scurried off to Kansas City International Airport in order to catch their 6:30 p.m., connecting flight to Atlanta. Upon arrival, the team and staff received news that there would be a delay of three hours. To some, a three-hour delay could be a setback, but to college kids who were about to travel abroad with their best friends, they saw the delay as an opportunity to have fun before the trip even started.
In some of the most heart-racing competition you’ll ever see in an airport, the Jayhawks engaged in some gut-wrenching games of Uno, Connect Four, Ninja and Truth or Dare. Some victors emerged, while others had to return to their seat without ever uttering the word “Uno”. Once the delay concluded, the team was off from Atlanta and would soon be en route to France. For some members of the traveling party, this was bigger than any trip they had ever been on.
“I haven’t been on a plane longer than two hours, so it was quite different,” said sophomore guard Kylee Kopatich. “I honestly had no idea what to expect.”
Another Jayhawk who did not have a deep traveling history was Sydney Umeri, a senior transfer from the University of Virginia, now in her first year with KU.
“This was my first time in memory going abroad and it was really cool,” Umeri said. “I’m not a great traveler. Anything over four hours and I’m like, ‘Okay, are we there yet?’ But then again it was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to France, it will be fine.'”
Umeri, who was born in Kenya but grew up in Acworth, Georgia, was excited for this experience with her new team.
After a grueling nine-hour flight straight through the night, the plane finally touched down in Paris. Following a long day of practice, flight delays and time spent in the air, the team and staff were exhilarated to finally be abroad. Then, as if fate was playing a prank on them, the frightening four-word phrase that no airline passenger wants to hear came down: “Your luggage was lost.”
“Losing the luggage was just the cherry on top of it all,” said Kopatich of the travel day.
When the news came in, the Jayhawks were initially unhappy, yet, as they did in the airport, they were able to make light of the situation once more.
“We really wanted to explore the city and look nice while we’re doing it, so everyone was like, ‘This doesn’t make sense, why don’t we have our luggage?'” added Umeri. “So we weren’t too thrilled about it. It was funny because we made a mad dash to (the stores) just in case we didn’t have any clothes for the next day.”
The team hit the streets with one thing in mind: clothes. Although clothes-shopping in Paris was one thing that the team was planning on doing regardless, they wanted it to be a luxury activity as opposed to a necessary expense. Midway through their shopping adventures, they received news that they would have their luggage the next morning. Through all of the delays, loss of bags and heartbreaking Connect Four defeats, the Jayhawks were finally in Paris, finally had clothes and were finally able to relax.
Besides clothing, another aspect of the foreign tour that bonded the team was the international food. In France, some Jayhawks were more liberal in trying new foods than others.
“I was happy to see there was a Chipotle there, that gave me a sense of relief,” said Kopatich, with a chuckle.
“I would say I’m pretty picky,” stated Umeri. “When you’re reading the menus and you’re not really sure, you ask the waiter (for) anything simple. I think spaghetti bolognese is what I ate half of the time, or pizza. But some of my teammates wanted to try snails. Everyone had their own take on how it tasted. Some said it tasted like chicken, others said it was slimy. The food was pretty good, I just ate pizza a lot.”
Out of all of the numerous entreés the team had, duck and escargot topped off the list of extravagant foods.
A warm and welcoming sunrise greeted the Jayhawks on the morning of the third day. The daily agenda was booked from top to bottom with sightseeing and excursions. A bus tour around Paris kicked off the day as the team and staff were able to learn some of the rich history of the country’s capital. The tour even came to a halt to allow the tourists to get off and take pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. This was one of the few orchestrated team activities throughout the entire trip. When planning the trip, head coach Brandon Schneider wanted the team to be able to see foreign cities together as a team.
“We really gave them a lot of freedom because we wanted (to build team chemistry),” said Schneider. “We didn’t want it to feel forced. So there wasn’t a lot of structure to it.”
After a bus tour, the team wandered the storied streets of Paris. Traveling by Metro, the train system in Paris, proved to come as second nature to some, while close to impossible for others. City natives, such as Chicagoan Caelynn Manning-Allen and New Yorker Lisa Blair, were in their element. For some, the lack of personal space and not knowing where to get off the train was rather difficult.
“I was not very good on directions,” said Kopatich. “I’ve lived in Olathe for 20 years and I still don’t know street names, so trying to figure that out in a day was pretty difficult I thought.”
After hopping off the train, the team endeavors led them to a local auto show, which featured redshirt junior Jessica Washington acting as DJ when she hooked her phone up to a car’s speakers and decided to pump some tunes. The first full day abroad concluded with a boat tour on the Siene River that left the Jayhawks in awe of the numerous sights and sounds of a vibrant Paris night.
Day four was one of the highlights of the trip for many of the Jayhawks. The day started with a team scavenger hunt around Paris. To complete the scavenger hunt, each team had to get a picture in front of various historic landmarks including the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre Pyramid and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. The first team to accomplish the task would be dubbed as champions. Though it was a friendly activity, it was anything but friendly. The teams were on a mission to finish first, but ultimately, the combination of Washington, Manning-Allen and Chelsea Lott were able to take home to coveted title of 2016 Amazing Race France champions, finishing in just under two hours.
On the court, the Jayhawks put up strong showings on the French hardwood. In their first meeting with the AMW All-Stars, the Jayhawks were able to close out a 77-71 victory. Four Jayhawks recorded double-digit scoring efforts, topped by Washington, who netted 13 points in the win.
The following night, the Jayhawks and AMW All-Stars faced off again. This time, the score differential was a little more comfortable, as the Jayhawks won 95-52. Four Jayhawks once again tallied double figures in points, as Washington led all scorers for the second game in a row with 17. Junior Chayla Cheadle notched 15 points behind a pair of three pointers, while sophomores McKenzie Calvert and Kopatich rounded out the double-digit scorers with 14 and 13 points, respectively. Schneider pointed out the differentiation from the night before was a result of preparation.
“The first game was competitive,” Schneider explained. “But you have no idea going into it. You don’t know matchups, their style of play, there’s no scouting. So the fact that we played them a day later, we talked about them a little bit and that kind of preparation really paid off.”
This was also the first time Schneider was able to see the Jayhawk newcomers play in games for him, and he was nothing short of impressed.
“Lisa Blair and Eboni Watts both played a little bit in every game,” added Schneider. “We got out of Jess and Kenzie what we thought we would. They’re going to be pretty key factors for us on both sides of the ball. The thing that was a little bit, I don’t necessarily want to say it’s a surprise, but I thought Jessica played with a lot more toughness than maybe what I was anticipating. She dove on the floor, took charges. That was an element that I didn’t see a lot in practice last year.”
Although Schneider was happy to have played international opponents, another aspect of the trip that he valued was the 10 extra days of practice beforehand that the NCAA grants to teams which travel abroad in the summer.
“I think going into it, as a coach, I was most looking forward to the 10 days of preparation before you leave,” said Schneider. “From an installation standpoint, we already had a lot of offensive things in, some out of bounds plays, so you just kind of pick up and review some of those things. You’re just ahead of the game. Now you’re able to do some things in November that you wouldn’t have done until December.”
After the second game, the Jayhawks dressed up and hit the town one last time. It was a night full of laughs, smiles, dances and songs. The Jayhawks went to bed with nothing but pleasant thoughts and experiences of France. Next stop: Switzerland.
Unbeknownst to the team, the bus that was taking them to Switzerland did not have Wi-Fi or a functioning DVD player. That did not prove to be a problem for the team as they sang, danced, laughed and photographed their way through the mountains and turned the six-hour bus ride into something that they will never forget.
“As a team we just made it fun,” said Umeri. “There was a lot of chatter in the back of the bus… We started listening to music, singing songs. It ended up being really fun.”
Amidst the songs and conversations, there were times when the team was left speechless by the natural Swiss beauty they would pass by. The scenery between France and Switzerland was a little more enjoyable to look at than a drive from Lawrence to Manhattan for a mid-January game.
As the hypnotizing sights of mountains and lakes continued to entrance the players, the bus came to a stop in Montreux, Switzerland, a city where Umeri was blown away by its natural beauty. Kopatich described it as “Colorado times 10.” The team took in the sights and sounds of Montreux for the remainder of the night, trying some Swiss food and gelato while wandering aimlessly around the town and sharing laughs. With big plans for the following day, the Jayhawks turned in early.
Another aspect of the trip that mesmerized the team was the tour of Chateau de Chillon, an 11th Century castle that serves as one of the most popular tourist attractions on Lake Geneva.
“I’m a history guy, so you talk about the castle we went to dating back to the 1100’s, and I think all of our players really got into that,” added Schneider. “I think it was really cool.”
Another activity that brought some of the Jayhawks together took place on Lake Geneva. Upon arrival at the team hotel in Switzerland, Kopatich immediately noticed a sign for paddle boarding on Lake Geneva and knew she couldn’t pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“What better way to look at the mountains than go on Lake Geneva and just paddle board?” Kopatich asked with a smile.
Kopatich, Umeri and redshirt junior guard Sydney Benoit were the only three who chose to partake in paddle boarding. Although they were only able to experience it for 30 or so minutes, they savored each and every one. The trio brought out their phones and GoPros to help them capture some of the sights that had so often left them speechless. The mixture of the lake, mountains and sunset offered tantalizing views that none of them will never forget. Along with the memory of the sights, Umeri was quick to recall that Kopatich was rather talented at paddle boarding, to which Kopatich credited her skill to her white hat that she was determined to not drop in the water.
Off the water and back on the Swiss court, the Jayhawks held their ground once more. The first game was about 45 minutes away from the hotel in Montreaux, so the team journeyed through the Swiss mountains once more. The natural Swiss beauty left the team’s jaws on the floor, but luckily they had their minds on the game. The Jayhawks left the gym victorious and headed back to the hotel. Schneider could already tell that this week-long journey had brought his team closer.
“On the court we really saw (team chemistry) on the bench and how we supported each other” Schneider mentioned. “I liked kind of how we celebrated plays.” He added that the foreign team they played acted as a sort of “exhibition match” for the community, but nonetheless, he was pleased with how his team was able to enjoy the game and compete at the same time.
After the final day in Switzerland, the Kansas entourage was off to Nice, Paris. The team soaked in the mountainous drive one last time as they left Switzerland. Once again, void of movies and Wi-Fi, the only time that phones were in use was to record the breathtaking views. After the five-hour winding trip through the Swiss Alps, the team was granted the night to sightsee and venture around yet another new city. Some walked around downtown, some shopped and some went to the famous Nice beach. With the final game of their trip the following day, the Jayhawks cut their night short in order to get some rest for the big game.
The second day in Nice kicked off with a tour around both Old and New Nice. The team and staff soaked in the culture and history. At the end of the tour, the Jayhawks shared a more somber moment of the trip as they paid homage and respect to the terror and tragedy that had taken place in Nice just a month prior to the Jayhawks’ arrival. Some Jayhawks left sunflowers at the memorial as a tribute, and even a KU basketball hat was left at the base of the memorial.
The final game of the circuit took place in Nice. The Jayhawks wrapped up their 2016 foreign tour with a 113-27 victory over Nice Select. Kansas was led offensively by Kopatich, who ended the game with 17 points. She connected on five treys while also recording a pair of rebounds and three steals. Another notable performance included Watts with 15 points, good for second most on KU’s roster, in the final game of the foreign tour. Watts also grabbed six boards against the Locaux. Calvert recorded 12 points and four assists. Sophomore Aisia Robertson and seniors Manning-Allen and Timeka O’Neal completed the list of scorers in double figures with 10 each. After the four games had concluded, Schneider was pleased with the play of his players, but praised Manning-Allen for her new-and-improved game.
“As a veteran player, Caelynn (Manning-Allen) showed a lot of improvement,” stated Schneider. “But I think part of that dates back to some of the changes that we made late (last season). I think what we’re doing now just fits her so much better.”
One of the best parts of the trip was how much team chemistry improved, but it also gave the coaches and staff time to get to know each other better as well.
“I wish we could do it more often. The NCAA limits us on (traveling abroad) once every four years,” said Schneider. “I just thought it was a really cool experience. I got to spend some time with administrators, or fans, or our team physician and his wife that I hadn’t spent a lot of time around. It was neat getting to spend some meals with them and do some things. To be quite honest, I feel like I’ve made some new friends on the trip and I thought that was really neat.”
After Nice, the team and staff were able to experience Monaco together. The day started with a visit to the Capital el Roche, after briefly stopping at a local perfume factory. They arrived in Monaco and were once again pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed it. Despite being there for a short time, the trips to Nice and Monaco were some of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for Schneider.
“I went to Mass with my wife at Notre Dame which I thought was a really cool experience, kind of a ‘check the box’ thing,” said Schneider. “I really enjoyed Nice and our trip to Monaco.”
The afternoon of the last day consisted of visiting the Monaco Palace, where they were able to watch the famous “exchanging of the guard” ceremony. After the visit, the team had one last free night to sightsee and explore in the final hours of an unforgettable trip.
After the 10-day journey, the team headed back home, this time with no major flight troubles. During the time in the air, the Jayhawks were able to take some time to reflect on how incredible the trip was.
“It was awesome to see a sport pull so many people together, especially across the world,” explained Umeri. “It really was an awesome experience.”
Being in an unfamiliar place can be daunting for anyone, but the fact that the teammates were able to share the experience brought everyone together.
“I think it did (help us get closer),” added Kopatich, with a grin. “We obviously didn’t have any parents with us, which is weird for me because I’ve never been on a vacation without my parents. We had to rely on each other and trust each other through that. That gained a better trust system within the team. We learned things about each other that we didn’t know before.”
The team grew exponentially both on and off the court through this trip, and they look to take that momentum into the season. Throughout the trip, the players’ minds were focused on the breathtaking views and lifelong memories they were creating, but now, the focus is on Nov. 13; tipoff of the 2016-17 regular season.