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September 1, 2010

A golden opportunity for the Golden Eagles in the Dominican

by: Kate Nicewicz, Sports Information Intern

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Humbling –  a term that is often defined by the phrase “to make modest in mind.”

It is also a term that most simply and directly describes the pre-season opportunity that the men’s basketball team at Tennessee Tech University was privileged enough to experience.

For one week beginning Aug. 19, the men’s team participated in a foreign goodwill tour sponsored by G.O. Ministries in the Dominican Republic. They competed against seven pro teams from around the country, gaining valuable experience on the floor as a team and knowledge of international basketball.

The team knew shortly after arriving that their trip to the DR was a far cry from a break from pre-season three-a-days, as they faced off against four opponents in 30 hours within the first two days of the trip. What they may not have known, however, was that the personal gains that they would return with would be far greater than the strides that they made on the courts of the Dominican Republic. They were presented with the most ideal situation imaginable – to use pre-season basketball as an avenue to reach out to and connect with members of a far less fortunate culture on the island of Hispaniola. What they quickly learned was that they were not only connecting with the people of the Dominican, but being treated to what can only be called a life-altering experience.

Senior guard Charles Newton grabs a quick picture at practice.

 “Basketball is just a sport,” said head coach Mike Sutton. “But the ‘people’ portion of the trip was what was most important.

“You could tell that our players were humbled,” he continued. “Anytime you go to a foreign country, you gather a new outlook on the reality of how blessed you are. Our guys truly came to realize how fortunate we all are.”

G.O. Ministries, a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to the ministry of short-term missions, sponsors brief trips to numerous countries around the world with the goal of preparing participants to support the efforts of Christian leaders abroad.

Brooke Brotzman, the founder of G.O. Ministries, coordinated the sports outreach trip for Tech with missionaries in residence Will Partin and his wife Audrey, who reside in the Dominican Republic. For the duration of their trip, the team worked together with the Partin’s to reach out to the native residents of Hispanola and to enlighten other basketball programs around the country of the opportunities available through the G.O. Ministries Sports Outreach Program.

On their first full day in the Dominican, the team played two games, visiting Pastor Nico’s mission in Los Perez Barrio

Zac Swansey helps out serving lunch at Pastor Nico's mission.

after their first game. The team was able to shower and rest between games, and also experienced the daily lunchtime ritual at the mission – serving the children of the island their only hot meal of the day.

Nestled in a noticeably more desolate and tired area of the Dominican, the mission dishes out lunch portions to hungry island children in a seemingly unconventional manner – in color coded bowls. Each color represents the amount of food given to the children, based on their ages.

And despite the seemingly obvious communication barriers – the country is almost entirely Spanish-speaking – “if you tried to give them the wrong bowl, they let you know it!” Sutton noted.

But in fact, communication off the court didn’t seem to be much of a problem at all, for one new Golden Eagle in particular.

Matt Marseille (left), a transfer student out of Centenary College whose parents were born in Haiti before moving to the U. S. over 30 years ago, spoke Creole to several children, enabling him to reach them on a more personal level. Due to the on-going, habitual immigration from Haiti, Haitian Creole is a prevalent dialect throughout the Dominican.

“I know that Matt doesn’t speak Spanish, so I asked him later how he talked to those kids,” Sutton relayed. “He told me that he spoke to them in Creole.

“Matt also speaks French and I was amazed and proud of how he and his teammates interacted with the children,” Sutton continued.

It was evident to all that the people of the Dominican are more than passionate about basketball and loved being around the team. On the same token, the team was forced to recognize what true passion for any sport really looks like – a broken goal at one end of a deserted lot, creating what is barely discernable as a playing field or court.

This trip marked the first time that a Division I program has gone to the Dominican for a foreign tour of this capacity. On the second day of their trip, the team was able to visit the office of the mayor of Santiago. Gilberto Serulle, the newly elected mayor of the city of approximately one million thanked and took pictures with the team, welcoming them to the city.

Mayor Serulle also attended one of TTU’s games, inherently shutting down play for 20 minutes when he and his entourage arrived on the scene unannounced at the nationally televised competition.

The magnitude to which the team will benefit off the court from their experiences in the Dominican is immeasurable.

“What we tried to do collectively as a team can’t help but build team camaraderie and make us better,” said Sutton.

“Sometimes the guys will surprise you,” he continued. “When we go on road trips, they’re usually only a few days. But when you spend that amount of time together, you develop closeness with each other. We got to see that interaction and camaraderie as the players developed a greater appreciation for one another.”

That’s not to say that the trip won’t benefit the team on the floor, as well. The tour was especially important for newcomers and members of the team who redshirted last year, in that it gave the coaching staff an opportunity to see the players in a game-like situation. The tour was particularly significant for freshman Dennis Ogbe and transfer student Liam McMorrow, who did not spend the summer with the team and have had less of an opportunity to showcase their talents in a competitive manner.

McMorrow (below), a seven-foot transfer from Marquette, was a former hockey player and has little more than a year’s worth of collegiate basketball experience under his belt. He reached something of a milestone while in the Dominican, competing in only the 25th game of his career.

“I liked the fact that we had a few close games, so we got to see how the team dealt with it,” admitted Sutton.

Matt Marseille, Javon McKay and Mitchell Hill got to see their first action as Golden Eagles along with redshirts Chase Dunn and Zac Swansey.  The importance of this was not lost on Sutton, who said that “having the chance to get seven new guys on the court is huge, because it gives coaches a better feel as to what those guys are capable of.”

The Golden Eagles returned to the states on Aug. 26 with a newfound respect for one another and for their own good fortune. The bonds between teammates have been fortified even in the pre-season, while the relationships that the players formed with the people of the Dominican will stay with them forever.

“Sometimes we worry about what we don’t have, and we get caught up in the material things,” Sutton noted. “But this trip gave us an opportunity to travel to a third world country, and our team knows how exactly how much they do have to be thankful for.

“The first words to the team from me at our first practice were about how blessed we all truly are. The wonderful experiences that we had on the G.O Ministries tour reinforced that and I think our young men will cherish all of those experiences for the rest of their lives.”

To see video footage of the Golden Eagle mission trip to the Dominican, click here: Mission Work in the Dominican Republic.